Organized team activities (OTAs) mark the inception of the Minnesota Vikings' quarterback competition, which will feature veteran Matt Cassel, former first-round pick Christian Ponder and the future of the franchise, Teddy Bridgewater.
Three quarterbacks. Three different backgrounds. Three varying cases to play. But only one can start when the Vikings kick off the 2014 season against the St. Louis Rams.
According to Albert Breer of NFL.com, head coach Mike Zimmer and the Vikings are willing to give all three a legitimate chance at winning the job. Cassel, Ponder and Bridgewater will all take first-team reps during OTAs and minicamps in an effort to get a "pecking order" established before the start of training camp.
The decision jives with Zimmer's desire to increase the competition level at all positions.
The Vikings now have three months to determine the team's quarterback hierarchy. Along with remaking last season's worst scoring defense, the necessary sorting out at the game's most important position ranks as Minnesota's most pressing objective this offseason.
The Vikings have cast an interesting trio of leads.
Cassel, the veteran who re-signed for two years back in March, is entering his 10th NFL season. He played well for stretches last season, but his age and past production do not paint him as a long-term option.
Ponder was picked at No. 12 overall back in 2011, and he helped the Vikings get to the postseason in his second season. Yet the length of his leash finally expired in 2013, and the coach that routinely went to bat for him (Leslie Frazier) is no longer in the Twin Cities.
Bridgewater is the untested rookie, taken by the Vikings with the 32nd pick in the 2014 NFL draft to be the newly appointed franchise savior. He's green but oozing with hope and upside.
Below, we will break down Minnesota's three-deep quarterback competition as OTAs begin this week, providing a case for why each player will or won't win the job.
QB1: Matt Cassel
Why He Could Start
The Vikings are paying him like a backup ($10 million over two years), but Cassel has several years of starting experience (one in New England, four in Kansas City and one in Minnesota) and a decent track record (93-66 TD/INT ratio). He also outplayed Ponder for most of last season, when the Vikings started 1-7 but eventually finished 5-10-1, with three of the wins coming in Cassel starts.
Over nine games and six total starts, Cassel completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 1,807 yards, 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He started wins over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions, and also came in relief of Ponder during victories over the Washington Redskins and Chicago Bears.
The Vikings averaged 227.2 passing yards per game with Cassel under center, or over 20 yards more than Minnesota's other 10 games in 2013 (206.4). He also got the most out of Greg Jennings, who had over 400 receiving yards during Cassel's six starts. All four of Jennings' touchdowns came from Cassel last season.
If Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner want to let Bridgewater initially marinate on the sideline, Cassel is probably the best bet to start. He has the experience, and he also won a handful of games with this group of offensive skill players last season.
Why He Won't
Cassel is an obvious "bridge" quarterback—far from the long-term answer, but just good enough to connect Point A and B on the positional timeline. His best role as a 32-year-old quarterback with a 80.5 career passer rating would still be in a backup situation.
Keep in mind, Cassel has thrown 30 interceptions, completed less than 60 percent of his passes and averaged roughly 197 yards per game over the last three seasons. He's an above-average backup option but a well-below-average NFL starter. Teams typically don't win many games with such marginal talent at quarterback.
Maybe most importantly, giving Cassel starts over Bridgewater would feel like wasted opportunities for the rookie to learn and grow on the field. Playing the veteran over the first-round pick only makes sense if Bridgewater is atrocious in August and unprepared to play early. In any other scenario, the Vikings are just throwing away development opportunities.
QB2: Christian Ponder
Why He Could Start
Ponder has the longest odds of the three to start. But it's easy to forget that just two years ago, he was the quarterback for a 10-win team that beat the San Francisco 49ers, Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers and eventually made the postseason. Maybe, just maybe, a new coaching staff and the tutelage of Norv Turner can finally bring out the best in the former first-round pick.
There's also still upside in Ponder. He's only 26 years old, and it's not unheard for a former top pick to put it together in the right situation late in his career. Alex Smith, who worked under Turner for a year, is one recent example.
Ponder has very little chance of remaking himself back into the franchise's future at the position. But he still has an opportunity to prove he belongs, either as a gap-bridging option over Cassel or as a long-term answer at backup quarterback. Or, if he's good enough in camp and the preseason, it's possible the Vikings could get some compensation back for Ponder in a trade.
Why He Won't
The Bridgewater era is beginning because the Ponder era was a failure. He started a bulk of games in three different seasons, but the Vikings received just 14 wins over 35 career starts, and in no season did Ponder ever look like he was franchise-quality material.
The closest he came was in 2012, but the Vikings still won more games in spite of him than because of him. Six different times that season, Ponder finished a game with less than 150 passing yards.
His career line reads nothing like what you want in a former first-round pick: 38 touchdowns, 34 interceptions, 6.4 yards per attempt, 178.8 yards per game and a 77.3 passer rating. Much more is expected of the 12th overall pick in a draft.
Ponder is now entering the fourth and final year of his rookie deal. The Vikings avoided exercising his fifth-year option and then selected a first-round quarterback. If that isn't the clearest sign yet that Ponder's time in Minnesota is coming to an end, I'm not sure what could be.
QB3: Teddy Bridgewater
Why He Could Start
The 2014 class of quarterbacks wasn't a loaded one, but Bridgewater enters the league as the rookie signal-caller most ready to play right away. He played in a pro-style offense, made calls at the line of scrimmage and displayed the ability to both read defenses and sift through his progressions. These are qualities that should translate well to the next level.
The Vikings are also uniquely constructed to support a rookie quarterback. With a strong offensive line, a once-in-a-generation talent at running back, strong run-after-the-catch receivers and a big, imposing tight end, Bridgewater has all the pieces around him to play and play well right away.
Also, the idea that Bridgewater won't be able to pick up the Turner offense in time is mostly lacking merit. The rookie isn't far behind Cassel or Ponder in terms of digesting the playbook. He has plenty of time to play catchup in an offense that is new for everyone.
The Vikings may want to bring him along slowly, but there's nothing wrong with easing him into the league while also starting him under center. The Seattle Seahawks proved with Russell Wilson that an offense can limit the quarterback position early and still successfully develop a rookie. Seattle eventually unleashed Wilson in the second half of 2012, and a year and a half later, the Seahawks were hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
Bridgewater won't be rushed, and maybe that's for the best. But giving Cassel or Ponder meaningless starts for two months and then eventually playing Bridgewater sounds like a wasteful plan. Let the rookie learn and grow with a group tailor-made for a young quarterback.
Why He Won't
The Vikings appear overly committed to harnessing expectations for Bridgewater as a rookie. Zimmer told Breer that the organization's plan is to bring Bridgewater "along at the right speed," regardless of fan anticipation or pressure. And with Cassel and Ponder on the roster, the Vikings can do just that.
If Zimmer is to be believed—and he's provided no reason to think he's ever sugarcoating his opinion—Bridgewater will likely need to take the Russell Wilson path to the starting job.
Two offseasons ago, the Seahawks drafted Wilson into a quarterback group consisting of Matt Flynn (a prized free-agent pickup) and Tarvaris Jackson (a veteran backup with starting experience). He wasn't expected to play, but when he blew the doors off the open competition provided by coach Pete Carroll, the Seahawks handed him the job.
Bridgewater needs to do the same from now through August.
It's certainly not an impossible task. Cassel and Ponder aren't world-beaters. But you get the feeling that it will take a big effort from Bridgewater and both Cassel and Ponder struggling in the preseason for the rookie to get the nod right away.
Also, there's this little stat from Ben Goessling of ESPN: Over 23 years of Norv turner being a head coach or offensive coordinator, rookie quarterbacks have started just 12 games. And all 12 came in 1994, two decades ago.
|Minnesota Vikings QB Options|
|Depth chart to be determined|
The Vikings have three months, consisting of OTAs, minicamps, training camp and the preseason, to determine their quarterback depth chart. Every day counts when three players are battling for the same job. Expect this storyline to dominate the rest of Minnesota's offseason.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.