Few young quarterbacks will enter the 2013 NFL season with more individual pressure resting on their shoulders than Andy Dalton of the Cincinnati Bengals and Christian Ponder of the Minnesota Vikings.
A combination of free agency and the NFL draft have set up both the Bengals and Vikings with rosters flushed with new talent. Now it's on the young quarterbacks to take a big step forward and make good on the investments each club has made to win, and win big.
While Dalton enters 2013 on the heels of back-to-back playoff flameouts, Ponder is clearly under more pressure to turn the corner next season.
The Vikings made it priority No. 1 this offseason to get the former 2011 first-rounder more weapons in the passing game.
In free agency, Minnesota outbid the divisional-rival Green Bay Packers for receiver Greg Jennings, who brings over 6,500 career receiving yards and 53 touchdowns across the Mississippi River. The Vikings paid $45 million over five years with $17 million guaranteed to get Jennings out of Green Bay.
Still not satisfied with the position, especially after dealing away a versatile weapon like Percy Harvin, the Vikings then got ultra-aggressive in the 2013 NFL draft.
After already making smart picks at No. 23 (Sharrif Floyd) and 25 (Xavier Rhodes), Minnesota moved back into the first round—giving up four picks to the New England Patriots in the process—and picked Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.
While somewhat raw (just one year of Division I experience), Patterson measures 6'2" and 216 pounds and can run a 4.42-second 40-yard dash and jump 37 inches. He's also one of the most dynamic after-the-catch receivers in the 2013 class, an asset that should help ease the loss of Harvin.
Patterson will wear No. 84 for the Vikings, which means a little more to rookie receivers in Minnesota.
There's simply no more excuses for Ponder in 2013.
He has a franchise left tackle in Matt Kalil and a solid all-around offensive line. Behind him on every snap is Adrian Peterson, the game's best running back. Jennings is a crafty route runner and a veteran of successful passing attacks. Patterson combines with young tight end Kyle Rudolph to give Minnesota mismatches all over the field. Even Jarius Wright, a 2012 rookie, showed flashes of explosive ability from the slot last season.
If Ponder can't produce with such a supporting cast in 2013, there's no reason the Vikings shouldn't take a long and hard look at replacing him next April.
And unlike Dalton, Ponder doesn't have a track record of production.
Over 27 NFL games, Ponder has thrown 31 touchdowns against 25 interceptions, with a career passer rating of just 77.1. He failed to crack 200 yards in nine of 16 starts last season despite his running back posting one of the greatest seasons ever from the position.
Ponder was turning it around late last season when he finished with three straight games with a passer rating over 80.0 as the Vikings snuck into the playoffs. But a right arm injury—which was recently found to have put Ponder in the emergency room following the season, per the Minneapolis Star-Tribune—robbed him of a chance to start his first playoff game. The Vikings lost in Green Bay with Joe Webb at the helm.
Dalton, a 2011 second-round pick, knows all about postseason struggles.
Despite a 19-13 record and a passer of 83.9 in the regular season, Dalton has been overmatched in each of his two playoff starts, throwing four interceptions and zero touchdowns in disappointing losses to the Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens.
The Bengals' front office is now giving him little excuse for another poor performance in January.
In addition to bringing back a top-10 defense, Cincinnati re-signed right tackle Andre Smith and drafted Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert in the first round and UNC running back Gio Bernard in the second. The offense now has a solid offensive line, two diverse tandems at running back and tight end and one of the game's elite receivers in A.J. Green.
As was the case for Ponder, Dalton now has no reason why more wins and better production—even in the postseason—shouldn't follow.
But would a third-straight playoff flameout cost Dalton his job? That scenario seems unlikely. He's been downright awful in the postseason, but the Bengals have enjoyed back-to-back winning seasons since drafting Dalton in 2011.
Ponder likely doesn't have the same length on his leash.
If the Vikings aren't a good passing team in 2013, it will be on Ponder. If handed that situation, no one will blame the Vikings if they re-invest in the quarterback position.
Dalton is under his share of pressure, but his job security should be secure.
Regardless, both quarterbacks enter a vital chapter in their respective careers in 2013.