Ponder's, Freeman's fates blown by drafts

October, 8, 2013
10/08/13
7:00
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Josh Freeman, Christian PonderGetty ImagesRick Spielman may be moving on from Christian Ponder as the Vikings see if Josh Freeman can resurrect his career in Minnesota.
MINNEAPOLIS -- When Josh Freeman was coming out of Kansas State before the 2009 draft, he had caught Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman's eye. The team did not have Brett Favre in the fold yet, and Spielman was intrigued by much of what Freeman had to offer -- a 6-foot-6 frame, a strong arm and a demeanor that Spielman liked. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded up to select Freeman with the 17th overall pick, five spots before the Vikings took wide receiver Percy Harvin, but there was pre-draft chatter that the Vikings might have been interested in moving up to select Freeman in the first round.

Two years later, after one thrilling and one agonizing season with Favre, the Vikings had the 12th overall pick and were finally set to draft a young quarterback. They selected Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder higher than most analysts expected he would go, and they have now seen Ponder make 29 NFL starts in a career that appears to have reached a crossroads.

Would Ponder have been with the Vikings at all had Freeman been available to them in the 2009 draft? Would Favre still have come to town, giving Freeman a chance to watch and learn for a couple of seasons? It is tantalizing to think about and impossible to know at this point, but with the two 25-year-old quarterbacks about to convene in the Vikings' meeting room on Wednesday, their careers are intertwined at the moment.

The Vikings' decision to sign Freeman to a one-year contract on Monday gave Spielman a quarterback he liked coming out of college in 2009 and a quarterback on whom he staked a sizable chunk of his reputation in 2011. He spent a significant amount of time evaluating both players, with quarterback a position of need for the Vikings as each one prepared for his respective draft. But it is Ponder who got the initial investment from the Vikings, the status as the presumptive franchise quarterback, the security to develop on the clock without threat of another player taking his job.

If there is a chance for Ponder to hang onto his job at this point, it might be those factors that help keep him as the starter. Removing Ponder from the lineup would be tantamount to admitting the Vikings made a mistake by drafting him in 2011, and when first-round quarterbacks are out of a job before they have made 30 NFL starts, there are usually organizational consequences. Freeman said on Monday he was given no assurances about playing time, and it would be imprudent for the Vikings to commit any to him before he had even opened their playbook. Coach Leslie Frazier said either Ponder or Matt Cassel will start on Sunday, with Freeman getting time to learn the Vikings' scheme.

But the Vikings -- who went into Monday with $2.692 million left under the cap -- committed most of their available money to Freeman, presumably voiding most of their financial flexibility to shore up other positions like a leaky secondary. They gave him a one-year deal and beat out other teams vying for his services; Frazier said a chance to start is "part of the equation" for Freeman, and Spielman echoed what his coach said on Monday night.

"Coach Frazier talked about it today, that we are going to get Josh Freeman ready to play," Spielman said. "But again, all that stuff will take care of itself in due time. He'll start tonight with the playbook."

As Freeman starts there, the Vikings will have to determine where the quarterback they liked fits in with the one they took. Spielman's stamp is on Ponder, but if he is able to change course and help Freeman resurrect his career after a bitter breakup with the Buccaneers, he might get the same kind of credit as an evaluator as if he had drafted Freeman in the first place. It might be an escape hatch from a decision that appears to be combusting on the Vikings, and if Freeman does wind up starting for the Vikings this season -- as it appears is likely -- Spielman's initial assessment of him will have helped get the quarterback there.

That decision, though, would also have major consequences for the quarterback the Vikings did draft in 2011.

"We felt very strongly when we did draft Christian, and he has shown signs of that," Spielman said. "We'll see how all of this unfolds as we go forward."

Ben Goessling

ESPN Minnesota Vikings reporter

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