Minnesota Vikings: Position Breakdown and Depth Chart Analysis at Quarterback
The 2013 version of the Minnesota Vikings deployed a quarterback carousel that was puzzling to say the least. Who started at the most important position in sports each week seemed to be arbitrary and hinted at a tug of war between former head coach Leslie Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman.
The "who's on first?" nature reached a peak in October, when the team started the just-signed Tampa Bay Buccaneers castoff Josh Freeman on Monday Night Football against the New York Giants. The results of that game were predictably horrific, Freeman throwing an astonishing 53 passes, with at least five of them looking like he wasn't blindfolded.
In hindsight it's pretty clear that Minnesota wanted to find out exactly what they had in third-year quarterback Christian Ponder. He was given every opportunity to make the job his, but never played well enough to stay on the field.
Veteran Matt Cassel took the reins down the stretch, and while he wasn't spectacular, the offense was clearly better with Cassel at the helm than with Ponder. While Cassel at least played with a veteran's calm, Ponder was skittish and seemed to regress from his play in 2012.
What became clear in evaluating the 2013 season was that the Vikings needed a quarterback for the future. Cassel is clearly better than Ponder, but he's not a star and you'd be remiss in building the future hopes of a franchise around him.
The Vikings needed to find a quarterback to build around in the 2014 draft. The problem was that there were at least six or seven other teams with the same need and exactly zero quarterbacks in the 2014 draft class who could be categorized as a sure thing.
When all was said and done at the 2014 draft, Minnesota ended up selecting Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater with the last pick in the first round. The Vikings swapped their second-round pick and an extra fourth-round pick, ostensibly to jump past Oakland and Houston, who they probably feared had their eyes on Bridgewater.
So the Vikings will head toward the 2014 season with three quarterbacks on their roster, all of who are at distinctly different points in their career.
While the Vikings might publicly say that they have an open competition at quarterback, the smart guess is that they'll enter the summer with Cassel the presumed starter, Bridgewater the backup who will be given every opportunity to prove he can start and Ponder as the third-stringer who hopes to prove he deserves a shot as a starteror at least a second-stringer somewhere in the league.
Here we'll break down the probable spots on the depth chart and analyze what each quarterback must do to improve his standing.
The Starter (For Now): Matt Cassel
It's been quite the NFL journey for 32-year-old Matt Cassel. He's the only quarterback in the modern era to start an NFL game without ever starting one in college. He'll enter training camp No. 1 on the Vikings depth chart, but how long he stays there is anybody's guess.
Cassel spent his first three years in the league learning behind Tom Brady in New England. He was pressed into duty in the first game in 2008, when Brady was injured for the season in Week 1. Cassel performed brilliantly and earned himself a big free-agent deal with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Cassel won just four games in his first year with the Chiefs, but had a very nice bounce-back season in 2010, leading the Chiefs to 10 wins and earning himself a spot in the Pro Bowl.
Cassel would go just 5-12 over the next two seasons with the undermanned Chiefs and signed a two-year free-agent deal with the Vikings under the presumption that he would be the backup to Christian Ponder.
Minnesota was the perfect place for Cassel to move to: He probably saw the Vikings as having a shaky starting quarterback in Ponder, and his two-year deal had an opt-out clause after one season.
Indeed, Cassel was starting by Week 4 in 2013, where he led Minnesota to its first win of the season, throwing for 248 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the Pittsburgh Steelers in London.
Cassel didn't play well in his next start against the Carolina Panthers, and wouldn't start another game for seven weeks. Cassel started the last five weeks of the season and led the Vikings to a 3-2 record down the stretch.
His play was a bit erratic in his seven starts, ranging from very good to not acceptable at points. He was better than Ponder, but not good enough to take his team to another level.
In a wise move, Cassel opted out of his deal with the Vikings, knowing Minnesota would be more than willing to bring him back at a higher price. He was correct, and the Vikings gave him a new two-year, $10 million deal that would position him as the bridge to Minnesota's quarterback of the future.
Cassel begins the summer of 2014 as the Vikings starter, but it's certainly not a status that's written in ink. Rookie Teddy Bridgewater is not only a first-round pick, but a player who was ranked in the top three of most 2014 draft boards for the better part of a year.
So Cassel will be the starter much the way free-agent Matt Flynn entered the summer of 2012 as the starter in Seattle. The Seahawks paid starter money to sign Flynn away from the Green Bay Packers but were also smart enough to see that rookie Russell Wilson was the better player, and he earned the starting job in training camp.
The situations, though similar, aren't identical. Cassel has a much more proven track record than Flynn ever had, and the Seahawks were much further along in their full-roster development than Minnesota is heading toward 2014.
The guess here is that unless Bridgewater is decisively the best quarterback in camp, Cassel will start the season at quarterback and keep the job unless things go drastically wrong.
Having said that, it's always smart to remember how tenuous things can be for most teams at quarterback. Imagine if the Vikings are down big in the fourth at New Orleans in Week 3 and Bridgewater comes in and goes 10-for-13 for two touchdowns?
The truth is the Vikings are looking at a quarterback competition. It's one that Bridgewater will eventually win, but how long that takes remains to be seen.
The Backup (For Now): Teddy Bridgewater
After starting for three seasons at powerhouse Northwestern High School in Miami, Bridgewater entered the University of Louisville as a much-hyped prospect. He certainly didn't disappoint during his college career, taking over as the starting quarterback four games into his freshman season and leaving three years later as the most decorated quarterback in school history.
Bridgewater was named the Big East Player of the Year after his sophomore season, where he led the Cardinals to a 33-23 win over highly favored Florida in the Sugar Bowl.
It was more of the same for Bridgewater during his junior season, where he threw for 3,970 yards and 31 touchdowns with just four interceptions. He capped off his sterling college career with a 35-of-45, 447-yard, three-touchdown performance in a win over Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Bridgewater spent most of the 2013 season at or near the top of most NFL draft boards. There was absolutely nothing to dislike in a career that saw Bridgewater throw for 72 touchdowns with just 24 interceptions while compiling a lofty 157.2 quarterback rating.
His college tape screams that he is a smart, accurate passer capable of almost any throw on the field. He was touted as a poised, charismatic leader who was almost a can't miss at the next level.
Then came Bridgewater's infamous pro day on March 17.
In a column by SI.com's Doug Farrar, respected talent evaluator Mike Mayock was quoted as saying of Bridgewater, "He had no accuracy. The ball came out funny, the arm strength wasn't there. It made me question everything I'd seen on tape."
Teams scrambled back to look at more Bridgewater tape, and as everyone knows, if you're looking for flaws, they can be pretty easy to find.
Bridgewater's stock began to slide precipitously, and he ended up being the third quarterback taken. He was a first-round pick, but only because the Vikings moved up to take him.
Only time will tell how good of a pro quarterback Bridgewater will be. The Vikings are obviously hoping that his pro day was a fluke and that his NFL success will teach NFL teams a lesson about putting too much stock in one day's performance.
The Vikings will head into the summer with completely open eyes when it comes to Bridgewater. The Vikings have two veteran quarterbacks on their roster, but neither one has proved to be anything close to great.
If Bridgewater can perform over the summer like the dominant player he was in college, the Vikings will have to think long and hard about giving him the nod come opening day. Bridgewater will have to be close to perfect though, as Minnesota doesn't want to throw him into the fire before he's ready for it.
There's certainly nothing wrong with letting Bridgewater learn behind Cassel as long as he is getting the job done. You'd have to think that Bridgewater's career arc will be handled with extreme care by the Vikings brass, as his success will go a long way toward defining the careers of general manager Rick Spielman and new head coach Mike Zimmer.
Third String: Christian Ponder
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman is obviously hoping that his second stab at finding a franchise quarterback goes much better than his first attempt.
Spielman raised plenty of eyebrows in the 2011 draft when he selected quarterback Christian Ponder with the 12th overall selection. It was deemed a reach by most experts, who had Ponder slotted as a second or third-round choice.
After Ponder's first three years in the league, you'd have to give a huge lead to the eyebrow raisers.
Ponder is an odd case in that he certainly looks and sounds the part of starting NFL quarterback. The Vikings reached for Ponder in the 2011 draft because he blew them away in the interview process. It just hasn't worked out on the field.
Ponder lacks a high football IQ. He can make most throws, but he isn't accurate and is prone to making terrible decisions when under pressure. He's a good athlete and can make plays running, but he's way too quick to bail out on plays and seems unable to survey the field beyond his initial reads. He's never looked comfortable in the pocket and he makes too many terrible throws on the run.
To Ponder's credit, he considers himself part of a three-way competition for the starting quarterback spot, but he'll have to be nearly flawless in training camp to earn the starting job.
ESPN.com's Ben Goessling reported last week that Ponder struggled during the team's first OTAs of the summer.
Christian Ponder's first three years in the NFL haven't tossed him out into the working world, but they have probably hurt his chances of ever becoming a reliable starter. As the probable third-stringer, he's not going to get the same amount of reps in practice that Cassel and Bridgewater will.
What Ponder will have to do is keep the same upbeat attitude that he's always had and to play effectively when he gets his opportunities. He'll be a member of the Vikings in 2014 as they pay him the last year of his guaranteed rookie deal, but it's a long shot that'll he'll be in purple beyond this season.
In a league that's quarterback starved, it would be a surprise if Ponder wasn't given a look by other teams in the league. He'll come cheap after this year, especially if he doesn't play much, and he's at least proved that he can make some plays in the NFL.