Camp Preview: The Passers

The Vikings entered the 2012 regular season with three quarterbacks who had less than a season’s worth of combined starting experience.  While that lack of experience showed up throughout the season, particularly when Christian Ponder needed to be replaced during their playoff game in Green Bay, their playoff appearance indicated that the struggles on offense were not nearly as many and devastating as most of us thought they would be.

Christian Ponder played all 16 games of his second season in the NFL and boasted a 10-6 record when all was said and done, which was good enough for second place in the NFC North, and a playoff berth.  Vikings fans eagerly awaited Ponder’s first full season as the team’s starter and couldn’t wait to see him take a huge leap forward in his progression.  While Ponder did improve from 2011 to 2012 in almost every possible statistic, the leap seemed more accurately described as a baby step, and even the most optimistic of Vikings struggled to identify a game in which he took over and dominated in a way that provided much hope that he is a true franchise quarterback.

His best game was his last, the season finale against Green Bay, where he came out of the contest with a career best quarterback rating of 120.2, after throwing for 234 yards and three touchdowns.  Even while posting those numbers, however, Ponder still managed to be overshadowed by the record-chasing Adrian Peterson and led some to wonder why he wasn’t able to take advantage of that elite ground game earlier and more often.

Ponder attempted 483 passes in 2012, completing 62.1% of them.  He converted for 2,935 yards and 18 touchdowns while suffering 12 interceptions and taking 32 sacks.  The season ended with him having an 81.2 quarterback rating.

Following a brutal injury in the final regular season game it was Joe Webb, not Ponder, that suited up to start at Lambeau during the Wild Card round of the playoffs.  Despite some mild success running the read-option on the opening drive of the game, Webb’s performance will unfortunately go down as one of the worst out of a quarterback in postseason history, as he completed only 11 of 30 passes and the Vikings were one-and-done.

Third string quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson did not see the field at all in 2012.

All three of these guys will be heading into Mankato on the roster this offseason, but there is little doubt that the quarterback depth chart will be changed significantly in 2013.

The Vikings front office is perhaps as much to blame for the postseason defeat as Webb, as he probably shouldn’t have been the primary backup to Ponder in the first place, and they took steps to rectify the situation as the 2013 season approached.

Matt Cassel was released by Kansas City and the Vikings immediately swooped in and signed him to a two year deal worth $7.4 million, which is high-end money for a veteran backup, but he can void the second year of the deal within five days following the Super Bowl.  The Vikings are also reported to have an option on the second year of the contract, effectively making his contract of the one year variety.

Cassel has confirmed publicly that he has no illusions of being anything more than the backup and mentor to Ponder when opening day rolls around, but his pay day indicates that he is viewed as a legitimate “Plan B” if Ponder’s durability issues resurface or if he is unable to make significant strides.  He brings with him eight years of NFL experience and a career quarterback rating of 80.4.

The Vikings have been open about moving Webb, once again, to the receiver position so he is essentially out of the quarterback picture all together.  I still think he has some value running the scout team, considering the number of mobile quarterbacks the Vikings defense has to face in 2013, and he may also be a part of the “Blazer” package should Bill Musgrave choose to resurrect it.  Other than that, however, Webb will have to prove his worth on the outside of the offense as well as on special teams.

There is no doubt that Ponder and Cassel, possessing the top two spots on the depth chart, will be guys to keep a close eye on during training camp.  Ponder’s ability to enhance the passing game is key to the Viking success in 2013 and is possibly the most important storyline of this offseason, despite other items getting far more coverage.

Where the true camp battle lies at this position, though, is at the bottom of the depth chart.  McLeod John Baltazar Bethel-Thompson (seriously) has been with the team since January of 2012 and managed to beat out Sage Rosenfels for the final spot last preseason, although differences in pay scale may have given him a large boost.  He is known for having a very strong arm, and is often described as “raw,” but he still remains somewhat of a mystery to us as he has seen so little action outside of practice sessions.

His main competition for the third-string gig is undrafted rookie James Vandenberg who hails from Iowa.  James Elliott Bartholomeu Edward Von Vandenberg (ok, I’m kidding with that one) is listed at 6′ 3″ and 212 pounds and, at age 23, is only one year younger than Bethel-Thompson.  At Iowa, he was a force in the Big 10 during a great 2011 season, but 2012 was a disaster and Vandenberg’s stock suffered greatly as a result.  The big question is whether or not Vandenberg shared enough of the responsibility for his team’s woes in 2012 to disregard as a viable option in the NFL, and how he performs in competition with Bethel-Thompson could very well end up being his one and only shot at a professional career.

These guys get limited repetitions throughout the offseason, and very limited snaps in front of a television audience, but as long as Ponder and Cassel remain healthy then they are the two guys locking antlers and fighting for their jobs.