It is no secret that 2013 will be the most important season of Christian Ponder's career. If he can show he can handle the responsibilities consistently, not only will his critics quiet down, but the Vikings could be legitimate contenders.
A lot was done this offseason to make Ponder's life on the field easier. Not only does he have MVPeterson running behind him, but the group of receivers has drastically improved from a year ago.
There will be no more excuses.
The Vikings even brought in a veteran to back him up in Matt Cassel. Cassel has starting experience, albeit with mixed results, so if Ponder struggles then the veteran can fill in.
This season's success is on Ponder's shoulders. The team is betting on his development and improvement. And while his success is greatly dependent on himself, there are some important outside factors.
*All stats from NFL.com
Musgrave must be creative with his play-calling to help Ponder utilize his weapons.
One of the most crucial factors for this next season is the play-calling of Bill Musgrave. He needs to find an effective way for Ponder to use all his new weapons, while still using his MVP.
At the start of last season, Ponder looked comfortable and effective. This was largely due to the quick pass scheme that was employed. However, as teams caught on to this, the play-calling was slow to adapt. In an ever-changing league, Musgrave needs to change his play-calling to fit the situation.
Now with a plethora of new weapons to infuse into the system, this year will likely be different. Whether it's new players like Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson, or returning players hoping to fill bigger roles like Jerome Simpson, John Carlson and Joe Webb, this offense will need to adjust. Musgrave must make his quarterback comfortable again. If he can do so, the passing game will be much more effective.
If everything works as the team hopes, teams will be forced to decide between putting eight men in the box to stop Adrian Peterson and give up the pass, or drop more in coverage and let AP run wild. A tremendous concept for any Vikings fan.
Greg Jennings sporting his new number with his new colors.
The addition of Greg Jennings will give Ponder a sure-handed route runner, something he has never had at the receiver position. The hope is that having a true No. 1 receiver will make Ponder more comfortable and ease the pressure off of Peterson.
Jennings' talents should be utilized early, as it will allow Ponder to grow more comfortable with the other receivers gradually and make the team a bigger threat later in the season.
Jennings' contract was a riskier move by general manager Rick Spielman and Company, as he has had trouble staying healthy recently. He has missed 11 games over the past two seasons, with eight of them being last year. If he goes down early, Ponder will have to go forward without a No. 1 guy.
That is exactly what the team doesn't want.
However, despite only playing in eight games, Jennings was able to record at least one catch in each of them. Only Percy Harvin and Michael Jenkins were able to have as many four-plus-reception games from the receiver position, and they are both gone for the 2013 season. That kind of consistency is of grave importance to young quarterbacks.
If all goes according to what I assume the plan is, Ponder and Jennings will find each other early and often. And as the season goes on, Jennings will mentor the young guys on the roster. And speaking of young guys...
When the Vikings traded back into the first round for a third selection, my first thought was receiver. It only made sense to give Ponder a young, talented wideout to aid his development. Rookie Cordarrelle Patterson will bring his unique talent set to the team this fall, and fans should be excited.
Now let's say this first: Patterson is not Percy Harvin. Both players are physically gifted and very talented, but they are different players. For instance, Patterson is less experienced, but also stands three inches taller, and weighs about 25 pounds more. His impact on the offense will be different than Harvin's was during his time here.
Patterson has the size to be an outside receiver, and the skills to make would-be tacklers miss. He can go over the top, stay underneath or play the sideline. That is something that Ponder has never had in a single player, and it is important that it gets utilized correctly.
However, his tremendous natural talent is offset by his incredible raw receiver skills. His route running needs refinement. He tends to catch with his body, so he needs to become a more natural hand catcher. He also needs to figure out a whole new system in Minnesota.
That will all take time.
Because of this, Ponder's season shouldn't depend on Patterson early on. He should use his other targets who are already developed in this system or are veterans capable of making an impact anyway. Once Patterson becomes more comfortable being a receiver at this level, then his impact can start to be felt. He can be a crucial factor down the stretch and hopefully be a constant threat come playoff time.
The connection between these two will need to develop if Ponder hopes to reach that next level. If the worst were to happen and Patterson can't reach any of his potential, it could represent a huge setback for Ponder. He may even receive some of the blame for the young receiver's lack of production.
But to leave the slide on a happier note, if Patterson does stand out, Ponder will have a lot to do with it. This draft pick could be the most crucial of a deep playoff run.
Jerome Simpson hopes to return to his 2011 form.
So much has been made this offseason about the new additions to the offense. While those players are certainly important and nothing to scoff at, it may be the returning talent that plays a much bigger role for Ponder.
Pro Bowl MVP Kyle Rudolph is perhaps Ponder's favorite target. Having another year to develop his talent and cultivate a relationship with his quarterback could help him make the jump to an elite tight end. His talent is there. All he is lacking is the production.
If that connection can improve from a year ago, Rudolph's natural talent will help him improve upon his numbers last season when he caught 53 passes for 493 yards and nine touchdowns. If Rudolph regresses, Ponder will lose his main target in the red zone, which could prove detrimental.
Last season's big free-agent signing was another tight end, former Seahawk John Carlson. His first season in purple was forgettable, and that is being kind. In Carlson's first three seasons, he averaged 46 catches, 506 yards, and four touchdowns. If he can find that part of him again, the Vikings could be the next two tight end threat in the NFL. And great tight ends are a quarterback's best friend.
Another signing last season was the speedster Jerome Simpson, who came over from the Cincinnati Bengals. He was a tremendous performer during training camp last year, but he failed to transfer that to game day once he hit the field. Part of that can be blamed on his suspension to start the year, and part can be blamed on the injury he dealt with most of last year. However, he needs to step it up this season.
He will open the season as the favorite to be the No. 2 receiver opposite Jennings, and if he can find a glimmer of his 2011 self, he will be worth the contract. In 2011, Simpson had 725 yards and four touchdowns. His follow up performance was for 274 yards and zero touchdowns. If he can find some middle ground between those two years, Ponder's life will be that much easier.
Probably the best receiver down the ending stretch for the Vikings was Jarius Wright. He only played in seven games (the same seven that Harvin did not play), but he was able to post solid numbers. He had 22 catches for 310 yards and two touchdowns. His improvement on those numbers is crucial for Ponder, as they seemed to be developing a good connection down the stretch.
Outside of those three targets, there are some minor players who are hoping to fill big roles. Greg Childs could start the season on the PUP, and possibly miss the whole season again, but he was looking phenomenal in camp last year before his injury. His receiver mentality would only help the young signal caller.
Rhett Ellison is a third tight end and a backup fullback. However, his knack for having the offense flow through him in college could get him on the field much more this season. He has soft hands and is a reliable target from both positions. An extra safety blanket never hurt anybody.
Joe Webb brings the most knowledge of the playbook of any receiver on the team. He also has a unique relationship with Ponder, being his backup would make them spend a lot of time together over the previous two seasons. Those factors combined with his athleticism could make him an appealing target for Ponder, provided Webb can make the adjustment to receiver.
Not all of these players are going to excel, but if the majority of them do, Ponder will have everything he needs from his receiving game.
If Peterson gets injured, Ponder will find himself as the focal point of the offense.
Despite everything else I have been saying in the previous slides, nothing really matters if Adrian Peterson gets hurt. The entire offense flows through him. Imagine the Saints without Drew Brees or the Lions without Calvin Johnson, and that would be the Vikings without "All Day."
Perhaps the best example I can use is the 2011 Colts. In 2010, with Peyton Manning under center, Indianapolis went 10-6 and won the AFC South. The following year, with virtually the same team sans Manning, the Colts went 2-14. That is what happens when your best player goes down.
So no matter how much Ponder improves, if Peterson gets hurt, the team will struggle. Ponder will become the focus of every defense he faces. Only the best quarterbacks succeed when that is the case, and Ponder is not among them. He could be eventually, but he's still a ways off. This year will be telling for him.
A healthy AP means the world to Ponder. Having the MVP in the backfield brings an extra man or two into the box, which leaves single coverage for every receiver. Sometimes guys are even left uncovered. That is the impact that Peterson has.
Utilizing a healthy Peterson is crucial for Ponder. His job becomes much easier, as he only needs to find the guy who gets open. He had some success doing this last season, specifically against Houston and Green Bay.
If he can continue that trend, the sky might be the limit for the 2013 Vikings. It all just hinges on Ponder and a few outside factors, of course.