How Greg Jennings Will Make Christian Ponder a Better QB
One reason often blamed for the second-year quarterback's abysmal performance through the air was the run-first approach of Bill Musgrave's offense, which significantly limited the opportunities for Ponder. Adrian Peterson was second in the NFL last year with 348 rushing attempts, trailing only Arian Foster with 351.
But the Houston Texans finished 11th in passing with 239.4 yards per game, so it's hard to completely blame Ponder's modest numbers on the team's coaching staff and dedication to the run.
Aside from Ponder's own development as a starting quarterback, the spotlight shifts squarely to the Vikings' receiving corps. Once Percy Harvin was shut down for the remaining seven games of the regular season, Ponder had few places to deliver the football.
After Harvin's 62 catches, the next leading receiver was tight end Kyle Rudolph with 53 receptions. The now ex-Viking Michael Jenkins was tied with Adrian Peterson at 40, with Jerome Simpson far behind at 26.
The Vikings were left with even fewer options in the receiving game once Rick Spielman decided to trade Harvin to the Seattle Seahawks. The team was in desperate need of a target to help Ponder in his third year in the NFL.
Jennings, who has successfully navigated defenses from the NFC North and around the league, brings a wealth of knowledge to the Vikings. The 29-year-old enters his eighth year in the NFL after being drafted by the Packers in 2006 with the 52nd overall pick.
Let's take a look at how Greg Jennings will make Christian Ponder a better quarterback in 2013.
Over the years, Greg Jennings has demonstrated an exceptional ability to run crisp routes and make difficult catches in traffic. He maneuvers past press coverage and has great agility in the open field.
Ponder recognizes the strengths Jennings brings to the Vikings. According to Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com, he had this to say about the arrival of Jennings:
Route running -- a lot of people don't talk about it. A lot of people talk about speed, but if you run great routes, it's just as important as speed. So, it's something that he'll be able to rub off on the other guys. It'll be good for us.
With the prevalence of back-shoulder throws and delivering the football even before a receiver has made his break, it's vital that Ponder has trust and confidence in his new playmaker.
Former offensive coordinator for the Packers and current Miami head coach Joe Philbin had this to say about Jennings:
I thought he was an excellent route-runner, said Joe Philbin. I thought he caught the football. He was fun to watch on film. Very smooth. He did things like a receiver should. Ran good routes. Got open. Caught the ball. Had a little slipperiness to him. He's just a good overall football player.
Jennings is an intelligent receiver who knows how to get open in difficult situations. He serves as a blueprint for other receivers on the team and will quickly develop trust with his new quarterback.
Greg Jennings will provide an incredibly productive target for Ponder every time he drops back in the pocket. This consistency will be paramount for the developing quarterback, as well as helping the offense move the chains.
From 2008 to 2011, Jennings had four straight years of at least 100 targets at receiver. Although limited last year due to injuries and eventually hernia surgery, he hauled in 36 receptions, with 22 resulting in a first down (61.1 percent).
During his career, Jennings has never had a season with less than a 60 percent ratio of first downs to receptions, with his best year coming in 2009 with 48 first downs on 68 receptions (70.6 percent).
Jennings knows how to find the sticks and keep the offense on the field, which will help the Vikings avoid the recipe for disaster of run, run, pass, punt. Christian Ponder can hand the ball off to Adrian Peterson knowing he still has a legitimate weapon in the passing game on any down of a drive.
In addition to his success as a first-down target, Jennings rarely drops the ball. In 2012, he only recorded one drop among his 36 receptions. Contrast that with Jerome Simpson, who dropped four passes on 26 receptions and eight passes on 50 receptions in 2011.
During his career, Jennings has a drop rate of 3.68 percent, calculated by the number of drops against total targets. To put that into perspective, here's a comparison among the three top receivers from last year over their career:
And if you're wondering how that compares to Mike Wallace, the receiver the Vikings reportedly offered more money to than the Miami Dolphins in free agency, he also comes up short (19/403, 4.71 percent).
With a relatively young receiving corps, Jennings offers veteran leadership and consistent production—qualities that can only help Christian Ponder behind center in 2013.
If the Vikings are able to march down the field with solid route-running, steady first downs and few lost opportunities from dropped passes, scoring chances in the red zone will develop. Looking back at last season, there were far too many field goals in the red zone that should have resulted in touchdowns—15 field goals that Blair Walsh kicked at 37 or fewer yards.
As the weeks went on, it seemed the best option was to have the Vikings give the ball to Adrian Peterson three straight times and cross your fingers.
Jennings brings a completely new dynamic to the team. Among his 53 career touchdowns, 28 have been in the red zone. And though the scoring zone seemed to shrink when Minnesota got within the 10-yard line, Jennings has 19 scores at that distance or shorter in his career.
While Jennings offers an excellent target in the red zone, he can stretch the field and turn a game around with one play. Considering how defenses stacked the box against Peterson last year, Ponder finally has a viable option on play action and in deep-step drops.
During his career, Jennings has an average of 15.38 yards per reception. Only Calvin Johnson has a higher average, with 16.06 over the last 10 years among wide receivers with at least 400 receptions. Jennings ranks higher than both Randy Moss and Terrell Owens in that category.
When reviewing Jennings' 53 career touchdowns again, 18 of them went for 40 yards or more, including four at 80 yards or more. His career long came in 2010 for 86 yards.
How does this help Christian Ponder?
Ponder had zero touchdowns in 2012 for 40 yards or more. He didn't even have a touchdown for 30 yards or more. His longest touchdown went to Kyle Rudolph in Week 12 against the Detroit Lions for 20 yards.
To his credit, Ponder completed a 65-yard pass to Jarius Wright in the final game of the regular season—so the potential exists for him to air it out.
Where will the Minnesota Vikings rank in passing in 2013?
Christian Ponder enters a critical season as a starting quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings. He must produce in this season to gain the confidence of his teammates and fans.
Greg Jennings joins the team hoping to elevate Ponder's play at quarterback and help the team make a deeper run in the playoffs.
Considering Jennings helped lead the Packers to five playoff appearances during his seven years with the team—including a Super Bowl win in 2010—he should be able to offer some helpful advice to the third-year quarterback.
Few players bring the level of experience or tools that Jennings possesses. Ponder will now need to utilize them in the passing game.
I think I join Ponder and other Vikings fans alike with a simple message to Jennings: Welcome to Minnesota.
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