We conducted our first Vikings-specific chat on this blog as part of ESPN's big NFL Nation launch today -- there's tremendous stuff happening in too many places to name with this project, and I'd highly encourage you to check it out. But as far as the Vikings are concerned, it's clear are keenly interested in (or worried about?) third-year quarterback Christian Ponder.
I started and ended the chat today talking about Ponder, and I could have answered questions about the quarterback for most of our two hours together, were it not for an interest in getting to other subjects. But the quarterback is unquestionably the 'A' topic for the Vikings as they head into 2013, and I wanted to highlight a few of the questions and answers about Ponder from our chat today.
You can read the whole thing here. For now, I'd like to expand on the question I took to close the chat:
Judd Zulgad's Hoodie (Minneapolis):
If Ponder does indeed take the next step are they a top 3 team in the NFC?
I'd define "the next step" to be something around 3,250-3,500 yards passing, 24 TDs, a completion percentage over 60 percent and 10-12 picks. If he does that, are the Vikings a top-3 team in the conference? They'd certainly have the talent to be. Their offense would be pretty darn tough to stop, and while their defense doesn't create enough turnovers, that pass rush can solve a lot of problems. The conference will be tough at the top, with San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta and Green Bay (the top four teams from a year ago) all with high hopes, but if Ponder takes the mythical "next step," there's no reason the Vikings can't tangle with those teams. Much of this year really does hinge on Ponder, and we'll talk plenty about his progress.
Now, if Ponder had the kind of season I mentioned in the chat, I doubt many Vikings fans would complain about it. But is Ponder capable of that kind of a jump in Year 3?
Last year, he completed 62.1 percent of his passes for 2,935 yards, 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Ponder threw 483 times and averaged 6.1 yards per attempt, so to get to 3,250 would require Ponder to average 6.7 yards on the same number of attempts. That figure would have still tied him for 25th in the league last year, and a 7.25 yards-per-attempt average -- the figure necessary to get him to 3,500 yards -- would have put Ponder right around 14th in the league last year. He figures to get more help after the catch from Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson than he had a year ago, when his best open-field threat (Percy Harvin) was only available for half the season, but Ponder would have to be confident enough to drive the ball downfield a little more often than he was a year ago.
Now for the touchdowns. Ponder actually was one of the league's best red-zone passers a year ago -- he threw 17 of his 18 touchdowns inside the 20, and was intercepted only twice there. He has another year with Kyle Rudolph, and Jennings should help him there. But red zone excellence is all about fitting the ball into tight windows, and in light of the fact that Blair Walsh hit 19 field goals from inside of 40 yards a year ago, it's obvious that the Vikings left some opportunities out there. If Ponder can turn a few of those field goals into touchdowns, and can become more confident in his ability to hit a receiver in tight coverage, a jump like the one we're talking about seems reasonable.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman likes to compare Ponder's numbers with Drew Brees and Eli Manning through two seasons, and we'll get into that issue more in the next couple weeks. But each quarterback's third year looks drastically different -- Brees threw for 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions with the Chargers, while Manning threw 24 touchdowns against 18 picks while completing only 57 percent of his passes for the Giants.
If Ponder can hit some kind of midpoint between the two, the Vikings would have every reason to believe they can contend in the NFC. Already, Ponder's 18 touchdown passes last year were the second-highest number by a quarterback in Adrian Peterson's career, trailing Brett Favre's 33 in 2009. With something approaching above-average quarterbacking, the Vikings' offense should be formidable, and they have the makings of a solid defense. That's why so much attention is being paid to Ponder this season, and why we'll continue to talk about him so often in our conversations to come.