The Most Scrutinized Player in Every NFL Training Camp

Kristopher KnoxFeatured ColumnistJuly 31, 2013

The Most Scrutinized Player in Every NFL Training Camp

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    Every NFL player is heavily scrutinized during training camp season.

    Coaches, personnel men, fans and media members watch closely to see who will succeed, who will falter and who even belongs in the league.

    However, while football is first and foremost a team sport, some players simply seem to find themselves under the microscope more than others. Whether these players are loved, hated or just downright interesting, some guys just can't escape the spotlight of offseason examination.

    Here, we will look at one player from each team who is sure to be the focal point of many a watchful eye as training camps continue to roll across the NFL.

San Francisco 49ers: A.J. Jenkins

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    San Francisco 49ers receiver A.J. Jenkins made just three in-game appearances as a rookie last season and failed to register a single catch.

    This means that the former first-round pick was already under the microscope heading into the offseason.

    However, since the offseason began, the 49ers have lost top wideout Michael Crabtree to an Achilles injury and still have not seen Mario Manningham return from last season's knee injury.

    With both Crabtree and Manningham out for training camp, Jenkins has a prime opportunity to step up and secure a prominent role in San Francisco's offense, possibly as a complement to the recently acquired Anquan Boldin.

    Everyone will be watching Jenkins closely in camp, because if he cannot distinguish himself with Crabtree and Manningham out of the lineup, he will be hard-pressed to find a role when and if the two talented wideouts make their returns.

Chicago Bears: Kyle Long

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    This past April, the Chicago Bears used the 20th overall pick to draft Oregon offensive lineman Kyle Long in order to help solidify a line that had its fair share of issues in 2012. The 6'6", 313-pound rookie is raw, but he has the size and athleticism needed to help the Bears in both the running game and in pass protection.

    As the son of Hall of Famer Howie Long and brother of St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long, Kyle also has a bit of family history with the game of football.

    It will be interesting to see how quickly he can adjust to life in the NFL after just one season with the Oregon Ducks.

    So far, things are looking up.

    According to Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune, Long is currently splitting reps at the right guard position, but he should be in line for a significant role early this season.

     

Cincinnati Bengals: Dre Kirkpatrick

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    Entering his second season, Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick will be a carefully watched player for one simple reason: We barely got a glimpse of him as a rookie.

    The former first-round pick out of Alabama was limited by injuries in 2012, appearing in a mere five regular-season contests and logging just four tackles for the season.

    Now, he finds himself buried on the depth chart behind savvy veterans Leon Hall, Adam Jones and Terence Newman.

    Fans will be watching anxiously to see if Kirkpatrick can pull himself into a starting role by the end of camp and possibly become an every-down complement to Hall, which is was likely where the Bengals envisioned him on draft day.

Buffalo Bills: EJ Manuel

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    In today's NFL, when a team spends a first-round pick on a quarterback, it is usually with the expectation that he can become the leader of the franchise sooner rather than later.

    The Buffalo Bills were the only team this past April to draft a quarterback in the first round, selecting Florida State signal-caller EJ Manuel with the 16th overall pick.

    Only time will tell if Manuel has what it takes to continue the recent trend of successful rookie quarterbacks, but Bills fans will be watching his development throughout camp and hoping that he does. The alternative is veteran Kevin Kolb, who has performed at a subpar level (78.9 career passer rating) during his six years with the Eagles and Cardinals. 

    After suffering through years of inconsistent quarterback play, fans would likely prefer to turn things over to the unproven rookie.

Denver Broncos: Von Miller

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    Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller is likely to spend most of the 2013 season under examination, thanks to the fact that he currently faces a four-game suspension for violation of the league's drug policy.

    According to Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today, however, a source close to the situation has stated that the suspension is not the result of a failed drug test. Per Jones, Miller has filed an appeal, and many of his teammates are confident that the suspension will be overturned.

    It will be interesting to see how his situation plays out over the next few weeks and even more interesting to see how the third-year player responds.

    Miller is an intense and relentless defender (as evidenced by his 30 sacks in just two seasons), and fans will be watching to see what kind of intensity he is able to bring while dealing with his current issue. 

Cleveland Browns: Brandon Weeden

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    Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden wasn't exactly awful as a rookie in 2012 (he did pass for more than 3,300 yards). However, compared to some of the other first-year quarterbacks we saw last season, he wasn't anything special.

    At nearly 30 years of age, Weeden doesn't have a lot of time left to prove he can be a franchise quarterback for the Browns, especially with a new front office in place that had nothing to do with acquiring him.

    The Browns have a promising new coaching staff in head coach Rob Chudzinski and coordinators Norv Turner and Ray Horton. On paper, they also have a revamped defense and an upgraded receiving corps. Therefore, the Browns have the look of a team that could surprise in 2013, but they will only go as far as their starting quarterback can take them.

    To earn the starting job, Weeden will have to beat out journeymen Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer. While this may not seem like the most daunting of tasks, he will have to perform better than he did last preseason and show that he is the right fit for Turner's offense. Otherwise, his short time in the NFL may be at an end.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Darrelle Revis

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    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made one of the biggest moves of the entire offseason when the team sent a first-round pick to New York for Jets star cornerback Darrelle Revis.

    Revis, who missed almost all of the 2012 season with a torn ACL, looks to be the centerpiece of the Buccaneers' new-look secondary, but a lot could depend on his health.

    Not every player can come back from a devastating knee injury the way the Vikings' Adrian Peterson did last season, but the Buccaneers are hoping that enough time has passed that Revis can return and be an effective player out of the gate.

    Everyone will be watching to see exactly how well he can respond and if he can become the same player that snagged 19 interceptions and made four Pro Bowl appearances during his six seasons with the Jets.

Arizona Cardinals: Michael Floyd

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    Many will undoubtedly spend training camp examining new Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer. However, there is little doubt that Palmer will provide a significant upgrade over the mess that was the Cardinals' quarterback situation in 2012.

    The real question in Arizona is who will emerge as Palmer's second-best target behind perennial Pro Bowler Larry Fitzgerald.

    Former Notre Dame star Michael Floyd was expected to complement Fitzgerald when the Cardinals used the 13th overall pick in the 2012 draft to select him. However, inconsistent (to say the least) quarterback play may have kept him from reaching his true potential as a rookie, though he did show some flashes of greatness (he did manage to amass 562 yards and two touchdowns).

    With a competent quarterback now under center, it will be interesting to see what kind of jump Floyd can make in his second season. You can bet that fans will be paying attention to him in training camp to see if they can get a glimpse of the future.

San Diego Chargers: Ryan Mathews

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    The San Diego Chargers drafted running back Ryan Mathews 12th overall back in 2010 with the hopes he could take the torch from the legendary LaDainian Tomlinson.

    Through three seasons, Mathews has yet to yield a shining example of running back greatness.

    Injuries have caused him to miss 10 out of a possible 36 games, and a penchant for turning the ball over at inopportune times has frequently tested the patience of an increasingly disappointed fanbase.

    Mathews could have an opportunity to turn things around this season under the guidance of new head coach Mike McCoy. To earn that opportunity, however, he will have to gain the new staff's confidence during training camp and preseason. 

     

Kansas City Chiefs: Alex Smith

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    In case you hadn't heard, the Kansas City Chiefs have a new quarterback.

    The team acquired veteran Alex Smith from the San Francisco 49ers early in the offseason, hoping to make him the centerpiece of the Chiefs offense under new head coach Andy Reid.

    Smith was quite productive in 2012, passing for 1,737 yards and 13 touchdowns before being benched in favor of the more dynamic Colin Kaepernick down the stretch.

    In Kansas City, Smith should be the unquestioned starter. It will be interesting to see just how quickly he can mesh with both his new team and with Reid's pass-heavy offense.

Indianapolis Colts: Ahmad Bradshaw

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    With then-rookie quarterback Andrew Luck leading the way, the Indianapolis Colts fielded one of the league's best passing offenses (ranked seventh with 258 yards per game) in 2012. The rushing attack, on the other hand, had its fair share on inconsistencies, which prompted the Colts to bring in former Giant Ahmad Bradshaw during the offseason.

    However, Bradshaw is still recovering from a January foot surgery and has started camp on the physically unable to perform list. According to NFL.com's Marc Sessler, he should be ready to return to practice sometime in August.

    Once he does return, Bradshaw will have to prove that he can still be an efficient runner and can fit into new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton's system.

Dallas Cowboys: Tony Romo

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    There is no single player on the Dallas Cowboys' roster more polarizing than quarterback Tony Romo.

    Despite passing for 4,903 yards and 28 touchdowns, Romo took plenty of heat for the Cowboys' inability to reach the postseason in 2012. He was responsible for 21 total turnovers, which often came at the worst possible time, but Romo was statistically one of the top quarterbacks (he ranked third in passing yards and sixth in touchdowns) in the league last year.

    So, why will he be so closely watched during camp?

    Romo was handed a massive $108 million contract during the offseason and is set to have a large role in offensive preparation and game-planning.

    It will be interesting to see how he handles both his new-found wealth and his increased responsibility. His performance leading up to the regular season could tell us a lot about what to expect from the controversial quarterback in 2013.

Miami Dolphins: Mike Wallace

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    The Miami Dolphins made a huge splash in free agency when the team signed former Steelers wideout Mike Wallace to a five-year, $60 million contract.

    Now, Wallace will have to prove he is worth the hefty contract.

    If he is to become the deep threat the Dolphins have been missing in recent years, Wallace will have to quickly develop a rapport with second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

    Tannehill, who passed for 3,294 yards and 12 touchdowns as a rookie last season, looks to have all the physical tools to lead the Dolphins into the future, and having a player like Wallace who can stretch the field should only aid in his development.

    It should be exciting to see what kind of chemistry Wallace can develop with his new quarterback over the next few weeks and how quickly he can help the Dolphins compete in the AFC East.

     

Philadelphia Eagles: Riley Cooper

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    Now that the Philadelphia Eagles have placed wide receiver Jeremy Maclin on injured reserve with a torn ACL, the team will be searching for a reliable No. 2 option to pair with starter DeSean Jackson.

    Considering new head coach Chip Kelly has ties to very few NFL veterans, Maclin's replacement will likely come from within the organization.

    One player to keep an eye on is fourth-year wideout Riley Cooper, who logged 23 receptions for 248 yards and three touchdowns last season. The 6'3", 222-pound Florida product has the size to play on the outside and to be a real difference-maker in the red zone.

    If Cooper can quickly grasp Kelly's up-tempo offense during training camp, he should have a solid chance of nabbing a starting job and helping to lead the Eagles into a new era of football.

Atlanta Falcons: Steven Jackson

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    Though the Atlanta Falcons managed to produce a 13-3 record and reach the NFC Championship Game last season, their running game (29th in the league with 87.3 yards per game) left a lot to be desired.

    Enter Steven Jackson.

    The Falcons brought in the longtime St. Louis Rams star in order to strengthen the rushing attack and bring a bit of balance to the offense.

    If they are looking for consistency in the backfield, they picked the perfect player. Jackson has topped the 1,000-yard mark every year since becoming a full-time starter during his second season in 2005. No one really seems to expect him to fall off in 2013, but everyone will be watching to see how quickly and efficiently he can fit into coordinator Dirk Koetter's offense and what kind of role he will have.

New York Giants: Prince Amukamara

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    Like many players on this list, New York Giants third-year cornerback Prince Amukamara will be under the microscope largely because he hasn't live up to expectations during his time in the league. The 2011 first-round pick did manage to start 11 games last season, but he only produced 53 total tackles and one interception (which brings his career total to two).

    The Giants need Amukamara to emerge as the playmaker the team thought it was drafting two years ago, and his performance in camp should be a good indicator of which direction he is headed.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Blaine Gabbert

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    Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert has not quite lived up to the expectations of being the 10th overall pick in the 2011 draft. In two seasons (24 starts), he has passed for just 3,876 yards and 21 touchdowns, committing 25 total turnovers.

    Gabbert may not have an extremely tough camp battle on his hands for the starting job (his main competition is journeyman quarterback Chad Henne), but if he hopes to win over new head coach Gus Bradley, he will have to show marked improvement from last season.

    Bradley and new general manager David Caldwell had no hand in drafting Gabbert and will likely have no issues with benching him if he cannot perform at an acceptable level.

New York Jets: Mark Sanchez

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    New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez has had four years to entrench himself as the team's franchise signal-caller, but he has slipped rather than shined over the past couple of seasons.

    In 2012, the former Southern California star passed for just 2,883 yards in 15 games (192.2 yards per game) with 13 touchdowns and 26 total turnovers.

    The Jets drafted West Virginia product Geno Smith in the second round of April's draft to push Sanchez for the starting job, and it will be up to the veteran to hold off the rookie over the next few weeks.

    Sanchez's performance in training camp will go a long way in determining who plays quarterback, and how the offense looks, for the Jets in 2013.

Detroit Lions: Reggie Bush

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    During the past two seasons with the Miami Dolphins, running back Reggie Bush has proved he can be an every-down player, totaling 443 carries for 2,072 yards during that span. Now, he must prove he can carry the load for a Detroit Lions team that has become increasingly pass-oriented since the arrival of quarterback Matthew Stafford in 2009.

    Bush is a dynamic runner who can impact a game in a variety of ways, and his presence should help take some of the pressure off of Stafford and the passing game.

    Over the next few weeks, we should get a glimpse of exactly what he will bring to the table and how he fits into Scott Linehan's offense.

Green Bay Packers: Eddie Lacy

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    The Green Bay Packers spent a second-round pick (61st overall) on Alabama running back Eddie Lacy back in April with the idea that he can add a dominant rushing presence to the team's already explosive passing attack.

    Lacy, who rushed for 1,322 yards and 17 touchdowns with the Crimson Tide in 2012, certainly has the look of an NFL workhorse, but he will have to prove himself in camp in order to earn the role. To become the Packers' starter, he will have to beat out the likes of James Starks, Alex Green, DuJaun Harris and fellow rookie Johnathan Franklin.

    Barring unforeseen circumstances, Lacy should be the go-to guy in Green Bay this season, but unforeseen circumstances often crop up during training camp. 

Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton

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    Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has accomplished a lot during his two years in the league. He earned the starting job out of the gate as a rookie and has not looked back, amassing a whopping 9,367 combined yards passing and rushing and 62 total touchdowns since.

    The one thing Newton has failed to do is become the leader that can turn the Panthers into a playoff contender.

    Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has already stated that it is time to win, per Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer, and Newton will have to prove that he is up to the challenge.

    To turn the Panthers into a winner, he will have to adapt to new offensive coordinator Dave Shula's system, which make training camp an extremely important event for the third-year signal-caller.

New England Patriots: Danny Amendola

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    New England Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola faces the unfortunate task of replacing quarterback Tom Brady's longtime favorite target.

    With Wes Welker now in Denver, it will be up to former Amendola to become the Patriots' new go-to receiver, which is a daunting task, to say the least.

    Just last season, Welker was responsible for 118 receptions and 1,354 yards receiving. Amendola, by comparison, has amassed just 372 more yards during his four seasons with the St. Louis Rams.

Oakland Raiders: Darren McFadden

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    The Oakland Raiders have a new set of quarterbacks set to compete this training camp, but running back Darren McFadden is still likely to be the most scrutinized player on the roster leading up to the regular season.

    The 2008 first-round pick (fourth overall) has proved to be one of the league's most dominant and versatile backs when healthy, rushing for a 4.3 yards per carry career average and logging more than 1,400 receiving yards during his five seasons.

    However, staying healthy has been a bit of an issue for McFadden, who has missed 23 games in his career due to injury.

    He averaged a disappointing 3.3 yards per carry last season. However, he will have an opportunity to rebound under new offensive coordinator Greg Olson this year if he can adequately adjust to the new system in camp.

St. Louis Rams: Daryl Richardson

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    St. Louis Rams second-year running back Daryl Richardson was surprisingly impressive as a rookie last season, rushing for 475 yards on just 98 carries. He was good enough that the Rams decided it was time to part ways with longtime starter Steven Jackson and give Richardson an opportunity to carry the load.

    Replacing Jackson will not be easy, but at least Richardson should have some help. Fellow second-year man Isaiah Pead and rookie Zac Stacy are expected to contribute as well this season.

    However, it will likely be Richardson who is asked to help make fans forget about Jackson.

Baltimore Ravens: Matt Elam

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    The Baltimore Ravens find themselves in the very difficult position of having to replace two future Hall of Famers in a single offseason. While it appears that no single player will be able to replace retired linebacker Ray Lewis, the Ravens do seem to have someone in mind to take over for departed free agent safety Ed Reed.

    Matt Elam, drafted in the first round (32nd overall) out of Florida, appears set to start at the free safety position as a rookie and will likely be called upon early and often as Baltimore looks to defend its Super Bowl title.

    Not only will Elam have to get up to speed with Baltimore's championship-caliber defense in a short amount of time, but he will have to raise his level of play enough to at least partially compensate for the loss of one of the greatest safeties in league history.

Washington Redskins: Robert Griffin III

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    After producing 4,015 total yards, 27 touchdowns and reaching the postseason as a rookie, it seems that Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III has little left to prove in terms of his ability to succeed at the NFL level.

    After suffering a devastating knee injury during last season's playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks, however, he will have to prove that he can return 100 percent healthy and pick up where he left off in 2012.

    While Griffin may not be in line for extensive work during camp and in the preseason, fans and media members will be watching closely to see just how far he can progress before the start of the regular season.

New Orleans Saints: Mark Ingram

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    New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram should be a player to keep an eye on during training camp because the former Alabama star may be on his last chance to earn a starting role with the team that drafted him.

    Ingram, who was selected in the first round of the 2011 draft, has struggled with consistency during his two years in the league and has produced a mediocre 3.9 career yards-per-carry average over that span.

    He currently finds himself third on the depth chart behind Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, and he may have a difficult time moving up over the next few weeks.

    The return of suspended head coach Sean Payton may open the door for Ingram to find a significant role in the Saints offense, but it will be very interesting to see exactly how things play out for the former Heisman Trophy winner.

Seattle Seahawks: Cliff Avril

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    The Seattle Seahawks' offseason acquisition of former Lions pass-rusher Cliff Avril was lost to many among the flurry of free agent signing around the league.

    However, with the impending suspension of second-year man Bruce Irvin for violation of the league's policy on performance enhancing substances, Avril's presence suddenly becomes extremely important.

    Irvin, who notched eight sacks as a rookie in 2012, will be unavailable for the Seahawks' first four games of 2013. It may be up to Avril, who logged 20.5 sacks over the past two seasons, to pick up the slack.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Jarvis Jones

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    Pittsburgh Steelers rookie outside linebacker Jarvis Jones finds himself in an extremely rare position.

    He may have a chance to start for the Steelers as a rookie.

    Jones, selected with the 17th overall pick in April's draft, was brought to Pittsburgh with the hope that he can become the next great pass-rushing linebacker in coordinator Dick LeBeau's defense.

    His main competition for the starting job will be fourth-year player Jason Worilds, who hasn't exactly set the world on fire during his first three years in the league.

    Due to health concerns (he had previously been diagnosed with spinal stenosis), Jones slipped a bit in the draft. Fans will be watching to see if he can take hold of a starting job and make those teams that passed on him look foolish.

Houston Texans: Ed Reed

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    New Houston Texans safety Ed Reed will be closely watched during training camp, in large part because his availability to start the season is in serious doubt.

    The fomer Ravens star underwent hip surgery in April and began camp on the physically unable to perform list. The Texans are hoping that Reed will be capable of playing in the season opener against the San Diego Chargers, but no one is quite sure of when he will return, according to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. Even Reed himself is unsure, per the Associated Press (via NFL.com).

    When healthy, Reed is one of the best playmaking safeties in the game and could be enough of a factor to turn an already successful defense (ranked seventh with 323 yards per game allowed in 2012) into a championship one.

    Reed is likely to be one of the most heavily covered players on the Texans' roster through camp, as his progress will be carefully monitored leading up to the regular season.

Tennessee Titans: Jake Locker

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    Since being drafted eighth overall in 2011, Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker has managed to wrestle the starting job away from veteran Matt Hasselbeck and establish himself as the team's potential quarterback of the future.

    However, the Titans only mustered a 6-10 record under Locker's guidance in 2012, and everyone will be watching to see if he can help the team take the next step this season.

    It will be a daunting task to lead the Titans to the postseason in 2013, especially considering the AFC South sent two teams (the Colts and Texans) to the playoffs a season ago. However, Locker seems to possess all of the physical tools to succeed.

    His development in training camp will go long way toward determining what the Titans are able to accomplish during the regular season.

     

Minnesota Vikings: Christian Ponder

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    Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder was anything but consistent in 2012 (he had four games with 250 or more yards passing and three with fewer than 100), yet he still managed to lead his team to a 10-6 record and a postseason appearance.

    Of course, some of the Vikings' success may have been due to some guy named Adrian Peterson.

    While Peterson may be able to carry the team again this season, Ponder is going to have to play better for the Minnesota to become a true contender. Fortunately, the Vikings got him some help during the offseason in the form of free agent wideout Greg Jennings and first-round selection Cordarrelle Patterson.

    Still, it will be up to Ponder to put everything together and bring a bit of balance to the Vikings offense, and the journey starts in training camp.