Minnesota Vikings: Christian Ballard

MINNEAPOLIS -- We're continuing our review of the Minnesota Vikings' recent draft history today, with a look at how the team did in 2011:

First-round pick: No. 12 (Christian Ponder, QB, Florida State)

Number of picks: 10

Total Draft AV: 54 (16th; Seattle was the best with a 99 AV)

Highest player AV: Ponder, 21 (T-26th; Carolina's Cam Newton was the best with a 49 AV)

How they did: This draft was the Vikings' first after they came down from their "all-in" strategy of 2010, when they kept an aging roster together for one more shot at a ring. After that approach led to a chaotic 6-10 season, the Vikings pledged to go young and drafted 10 players to help with that effort. The results from that draft are mixed at best. Second-round pick Kyle Rudolph looks like he'll be with the Vikings for years at tight end, and guard Brandon Fusco has developed into at least a serviceable starter. But the Vikings had dealt their third-rounder to the New England Patriots in the ill-fated Randy Moss trade, and only two other players from the draft are still with the team. One of them -- quarterback Christian Ponder -- will forever define how this draft is viewed by Vikings fans.

Pivotal pick: The Vikings came into the draft knowing they needed to address the quarterback situation, and as former coach Leslie Frazier has said, they identified Ponder as their guy well before the draft. Many believed he would still be on the board in the second round, but the Vikings decided to use their first-round pick on him, passing on help for their defense and choosing Ponder over quarterbacks such as TCU's Andy Dalton and Nevada's Colin Kaepernick. And after three mediocre seasons from Ponder, the Vikings will likely take another young quarterback in the 2014 draft, with a new coaching staff and a pressing need for general manager Rick Spielman to get the quarterback situation solved.

Best pick: After selecting Ponder, the Vikings got him a safety blanket in Rudolph, and that pick looks like it could be the most enduring selection from the 2010 draft. Rudolph won Pro Bowl MVP honors in 2013, after catching 53 passes and scoring nine touchdowns in 2012. He looked on the way to posting better numbers last season before breaking his foot, and he could be in line for a bigger role in new offensive coordinator Norv Turner's scheme. Rudolph will be a free agent after this season, but it wouldn't be surprising to see the Vikings explore a contract extension sometime before next spring.

Worst pick: Ponder was certainly the costliest, and could contend for this title on that basis alone. The Vikings gambled on him turning into a franchise quarterback, despite concerns about his arm and his response to pressure coming out of college, and while he's only 25, the team appears set to move on from him as its starter. Fifth-rounder Brandon Burton was cut before last season after starting just one game at cornerback, and fourth-rounder Christian Ballard, who looked like he had some promise at defensive tackle, abruptly retired after leaving the team during training camp last summer.

Around the Horns: Ballard breaks silence

September, 18, 2013
Welcome to Around the Horns, our daily look at what's happening on the Vikings beat:

When defensive tackle Christian Ballard left the team in August, dealing with what coach Leslie Frazier called a "personal issue," there was plenty of speculation about what was going on with the third-year player. Ballard wasn't going to be a fixture on the Vikings' defensive line, but he was expected to add some depth to the group, and his abrupt departure made him a source of curiosity for a couple weeks before the start of the season.

Now, Ballard has decided to explain why he left, telling USA Today that the NFL "wasn't fun for me."

"I can always treat my wife better, treat my son better, be a better brother, be a better son," Ballard told USA Today. "But I know right now from being out of the NFL that it's a lot easier to focus on those things because I have time. I'm not wrapped up in this whole other lifestyle. I'm not saying that I left the NFL (and) now everything is just fine. It's not. There's still a lot of lot of things I've got to work on – obviously – as being a husband and a father."

According to the story, Ballard and his wife were arrested last Thursday following a domestic dispute, but the defensive tackle says he's trying to turn his life around, finishing his undergraduate degree with hopes of pursuing a graduate art and music program.

If Ballard decides to return to the NFL -- which he tells USA Today he hasn't ruled out -- the Vikings would control his rights for another two years. They could use another rotational player on their defensive line. But from the story, Ballard sounds at peace with his decision to leave football, at least for now.

Here are today's other Vikings stories of note:
By the time the Minnesota Vikings line up in Detroit on Sunday, defensive tackle Christian Ballard will have been absent from the team for three weeks. In that time, the Vikings went from 90 players to 53, and while it stands to reason that Ballard would have made the team and helped in the Vikings' defensive line rotation, the chances of him getting back on that path seem remote now.

That became clearer on Wednesday, when coach Leslie Frazier said he hadn't talked to Ballard in about a week and admitted the Vikings are planning to move forward assuming the third-year defensive tackle, who was placed on the Reserve/Left Squad list on Aug. 18, won't be coming back.

"If he decides he wants to come back, he would have to go through us before he could go to another team," Frazier said. "I think you have to approach it that way (like he won't return). We've got to get these guys ready to play that are here and practicing every day. We've got to move forward."

Frazier still hasn't said what caused Ballard to leave the team, other than to classify it as "personal issues," but it's probably safe to assume at this point that the tackle doesn't factor prominently in the Vikings' plans. They could use him this week, with Kevin Williams and Sharrif Floyd coming back from injuries, but there appears to be no plan to put Ballard back on the roster anytime soon.
It has appeared for most of the offseason, ever since the Vikings drafted Sharrif Floyd, that they would be dealing from a position of strength in the middle of their defensive line. The Vikings planned to rotate Floyd and Kevin Williams at their three-technique tackle spot, and pair Letroy Guion with Fred Evans at the nose. They would be able to rotate four players, possibly mixing in Christian Ballard, and hand one of the inside spots to Everson Griffen on third downs to rush the passer from the inside.

That plan sounded nice in theory, but the details have been muddied by reality. Williams didn't practice on Monday, as the Vikings began their preparations for their season opener with the Detroit Lions. Floyd, who was back on the practice field, hasn't played since the Vikings' second preseason game, and could be thrust into a starting role in his first NFL game. Ballard is on the team's reserve/left squad list. Guion could wind up going back to the three-technique position, rotating with Floyd there and Evans at the nose if Williams can't play. Chase Baker, who hasn't played a NFL game, is the only other defensive tackle on the roster.

It's another reminder of how quickly the best-laid plans can get altered in the NFL, and as the Vikings head into Week 1 against Detroit, they suddenly have a reason to be concerned about what looked like a position of strength.

Frazier didn't offer much detail about injuries on Monday, probably because the Vikings aren't required to file an injury report until Wednesday, but the fact that Williams didn't practice probably means things aren't looking good for the Lions game. Williams is trying to come back from a hyperextended knee in two weeks' time, and rushing him back isn't in the Vikings' best interests.

But can Floyd handle a bigger role in his first game, after not having practiced in two weeks? That remains to be seen.

"I think we’ll have to go through this week and determine that, but he’s missed quite a bit of time and then (he's) coming off an injury," head coach Leslie Frazier said. "We’ll have to gauge that as the week goes on.”

Guion played the three-technique spot before shifting to nose tackle full-time last season, and the fact that he's not a typical wide-bodied nose tackle -- which might hurt him at his normal position -- could actually work in his favor here. But the Vikings are probably at their best at the nose when they have both Guion and Evans fresh, and they could be stretching their depth on Sunday if Floyd needs help on his side.

There might not be any perfect options for the Vikings in Week 1. There rarely are in the NFL. But it's striking to look at how quickly the defensive tackle position has become a worrisome spot for them.
The rancor over Joe Looney's low block on Kevin Williams was still strong on Tuesday morning, as the Vikings got back to work in preparation for their final preseason game. Coach Leslie Frazier said the Vikings have been in contact with the league about the hit, and linebackers Chad Greenway and Desmond Bishop didn't mince words when they were asked about it.

"It's really quite ridiculous," Greenway said. "It's something we talked about in our meetings with the refs before the preseason started. It's just unnecessary. He wasn't going to make the play. He wasn't going to be part of the play. I understand that guy [Looney]'s trying to earn a job, as well, but he could have easily just hit him high. You can say what you want about, you didn't mean to hurt him, but the reality is, you did that. And now we have a guy who's been one of the best at his position for a long time dealing with an injury he shouldn't have to deal with."

That will be the lasting effect of Looney's hit on Williams, once the Vikings' anger has cooled down. Williams, who sustained a hyperextended right knee, a posterior capsular strain and a bone contusion, could be back for the season opener on Sept. 8 in Detroit, but the concern over his injury is significant enough that Sharrif Floyd -- himself returning from a minor knee surgery after a low block in the Vikings' first preseason game -- probably won't play in the final preseason game on Thursday night. Floyd, who was expected to miss the rest of the preseason, might have been able to play a few snaps, Frazier said, but the Vikings determined it wasn't worth the risk.

"When you have a question mark regarding a potential Hall of Famer like Kevin Williams, that creates some concern," Frazier said. "He’s one of the best to ever play the game at his position. We’re all hoping he’ll be ready to go, but it definitely creates some concern from a depth standpoint.”

The Vikings expected to be deep at the position after drafting Floyd 23rd overall, but particularly at the three-technique tackle position, they're sweating things out before they start the season. Floyd will head into the opener with just 53 snaps of preseason experience, and if Williams isn't ready, the Vikings could be leaning on the rookie more than they'd planned to do. They would like to rotate Williams and Floyd, but that might not be an option in the first week of the season.

And defensive tackle Christian Ballard is still away from the team while he deals with personal issues. Frazier said "nothing has changed" with Ballard's situation, and it's becoming clearer the situation will take some time to get resolved. Ballard might be a better fit as a nose tackle than a three-technique, but he would help the Vikings' depth at the moment. With him gone, and with knee injuries complicating things for both Floyd and Williams, the Vikings won't start the season anywhere near as settled on the defensive line as they'd like to be.

"With Sharrif coming off an injury, with Kevin a little bit banged up, now you’re into your depth quite a bit," Frazier said. "We have some other guys on our roster that we’ll try to give an opportunity and see how they progress, but we’re all hoping that Sharrif will play well and continue to improve and that we’ll get Kevin on opening day.”
Welcome to Around the Horns, our daily roundup of what's happening on the Vikings beat:

Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams will have a MRI on his knee today after being chop-blocked on Sunday night by 49ers offensive tackle Joe Looney. The hit from the second-year tackle caused Williams to leave the game in the third quarter, and afterward, the veteran told reporters he wasn't too happy about how Looney played.

"I feel all right," Williams said. "Don't really know what's wrong, but I think I'm fine. I was just upset that I'm getting cut like that 11 years in from a guy I don't even know who the guy is. Between the pain and the fact that no one was looking it was terrible."

As we discussed Sunday night, the Vikings are thin at defensive tackle at the moment with Sharrif Floyd out until the start of the season and Christian Ballard away from the team. Williams wasn't likely to play in the preseason finale on Thursday night anyway, but with the Vikings' roster down to 75 players by then, they'll have to make sure they have enough depth to get through their game with Tennessee.

Continuing on: