NFC North: Blaine Gabbert

MINNEAPOLIS -- In time, the Minnesota Vikings' 30-28 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday night -- a preseason game in which both Matt Cassel and Teddy Bridgewater played a full half, and each fashioned a passer rating better than 125 -- could come attached with an ignominious footnote: It could be the night when Christian Ponder's chances of appearing in another home game as the Vikings' quarterback were permanently snuffed out.

Ponder
Ponder
Coach Mike Zimmer said last week that Cassel could play as much as a half in the Vikings' second home preseason game, and after the game, he added that the plan all along was to give Bridgewater the whole second half. That meant the Vikings effectively went into the game planning not to use Ponder, who was firmly entrenched as the team's starting quarterback at this time last year. This came on the heels of a training camp where Ponder never got more than a cursory look, and as the Vikings make decisions about their roster composition, it raised this question: Would the Vikings be better off parting with Ponder before the season?

There's a danger in only carrying two quarterbacks, as the Green Bay Packers found out last season, and I've long thought Ponder carried some value for the Vikings this year, in the sense that he could step in if Cassel were injured or ineffective and the Vikings didn't feel the time was yet right for Bridgewater's debut. But their use of Ponder to this point speaks to how marginalized he's become, to the point where the value of his roster spot -- or the return he'd fetch in a trade -- might exceed what he could provide as an emergency option.

The San Francisco 49ers, for example, were facing questions about their backup quarterbacks after a 34-0 defeat Sunday, to the point that coach Jim Harbaugh had to give them a vote of confidence. The 49ers shipped a sixth-round pick in 2014 and a conditional draft choice in 2015 to Jacksonville in exchange for Blaine Gabbert, who was picked two spots ahead of Ponder in the 2012 first round. They also have McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who was the Vikings' third-string quarterback until the team signed Josh Freeman last October. Could San Francisco -- or a team in similar straits -- part with a seventh-round pick for Ponder, whose mediocre career has still featured more success than Gabbert's or Bethel-Thompson's?

The fact the Vikings haven't traded Ponder to this point would suggest they haven't yet found a team willing to pay that modest price, or that they put a higher value on the quarterback than that. But even if the Vikings cut Ponder at the end of the month, it would seem there's a good chance that he'll sign with another team, which would offset some or all of the Vikings' responsibility for Ponder's $1.76 million base salary through the language in his rookie contract.

As rookies like defensive tackle Shamar Stephen and second-year undrafted free agents like receivers Adam Thielen and Rodney Smith make their push for roster spots, the Vikings might find themselves in need of a little extra flexibility. They could get it by parting with a quarterback who's never looked like more of an afterthought in Minnesota.

Wrap-up: Lions 31, Jaguars 14

November, 4, 2012
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A few thoughts from Sunday's events at EverBank Field:

What it means: The Detroit Lions won their second consecutive game to get back to .500 for the first time since Week 2. They're 4-4 after their most complete game of the season. They thoroughly beat down a team that deserved to be.

MegatronWatch: Receiver Calvin Johnson didn't practice all week and walked onto the field with a thick wrap on his knee. But Johnson had five receptions and 99 yards before the Jacksonville Jaguars even had a first down, and he finished with seven receptions for 129 yards -- more than he had produced in his past two games combined. Who needs practice?

LeshoureWatch: Johnson's early success only enhanced the Jaguars' attention on him in the red zone, opening the way for tailback Mikel Leshoure to enjoy a three-touchdown game. He scored on runs of 7, 1 and 8 yards -- all in the second quarter -- to give the Lions a 21-0 halftime lead. It was the first time a Lions running back had scored three rushing touchdowns in the first half since 1931, according to the NFL. The Lions haven't enjoyed a second-half laugher since their Week 16 victory last season over the San Diego Chargers. Consider it a reminder of how much easier it is to win with a fast start than a big finish.

Defensive takeaways: The Lions entered the game with three interceptions on the season but added two at the expense of Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Safety Erik Coleman's interception prevented a deep completion in the third quarter, while rookie Jonte Green caught a batted pass at the end of the third quarter to stop a Jaguars drive that reached the Lions' 26-yard line.

What's next: The Lions will play at the Minnesota Vikings next Sunday in an important division game.

Final Word: NFC North

November, 2, 2012
11/02/12
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 9:

Heading to bye: The Green Bay Packers are hoping to squeeze out one more victory to enter their bye week 6-3 and emerge, presumably, with a much healthier team. The Arizona Cardinals are reeling, having lost four straight after a 4-0 start, and their franchise hasn't won in the state of Wisconsin since 1949. (They are 0-7 at Green Bay over that span.) I will be most interested to see if the Packers try to get tailback James Starks more involved in anticipation of using him regularly in the second half of the season. Alex Green hasn't been explosive or productive in three starts after Cedric Benson's foot injury, and Starks has been biding his time on the sideline. I understand the Packers' hesitance in trusting Starks based on his injury history, but at some point, production -- or lack thereof -- should take top priority.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
AP Photo/Michael ConroyAaron Rodgers has proved this season that blitzing defenses don't faze him.
Blitzing Rodgers: The Cardinals have been a heavy blitz team this season. In three games they have sent at least one extra rusher on more than half of their defensive snaps, most recently Monday against the San Francisco 49ers. Will they dare blitz Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has torched the blitz on the relatively few snaps he's seen it this season? He has completed 70 percent of his passes for 10 touchdowns in 89 drop-backs. The 49ers also had their way with the Cardinals blitz, as quarterback Alex Smith completed seven of eight passes against it.

Stopping the run: There has been so much discussion about the turnovers generated by the Chicago Bears, and the resulting touchdowns, that few people realize the Bears have allowed the fewest rushing yards in the NFL this season. Part of that can be attributed to opponents rushing a league-low 145 times against them, but they are also averaging only 3.8 yards per carry, the eighth-lowest total against a defense. We'll find out how stout the Bears are when they travel to face the Tennessee Titans and running back Chris Johnson, who has more rushing yards over the past five weeks, 550, than any other NFL running back. Over that stretch, Johnson is averaging three yards before contact on each carry. That indicates the Titans' offensive line is generating some nice holes for him.

Catching up: Sunday's game at the Jacksonville Jaguars is one the Detroit Lions can't afford to lose if they intend to get back in the playoff race. The Jaguars (1-6) have lost each of their past three home games by at least 17 points, and their defense has an NFL-low seven sacks -- including none in the first quarter. That should give the Lions a good chance to grab an early lead, beat their season-long trend of slow starts and allow them to direct their defense's attention squarely at rushing quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Although he threw well last week against the Packers, Gabbert has a torn labrum in his left (non-throwing) shoulder and might not hold up well to a barrage of early hits. He has been sacked 17 times this season, the 12th-highest total among NFL quarterbacks.

Tough to tackle: Sunday's game at CenturyLink Field will feature the NFL's two most powerful tailbacks, at least this season. The Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson has gained 404 yards after contact, and the Seattle Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch has 303. Those are the top two figures in the NFL. That's not a good sign for the Vikings defense, which has struggled to tackle opposing running backs the past two weeks. On the other hand, Peterson is the Vikings' best chance to take and maintain control of a game in a tough environment. The Seahawks are 3-0 at home and 1-4 on the road, and their pass rush might overwhelm quarterback Christian Ponder if the Vikings fall behind.

(Statistics courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information unless otherwise noted.)

Wrap-up: Packers 24, Jaguars 15

October, 28, 2012
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A few thoughts on Sunday's events at Lambeau Field:

What it means: Fortunately for the Green Bay Packers, ugly and/or short-handed victories count the same as blowouts in the standings. This game against the Jacksonville Jaguars was a struggle from the start, but ultimately the Packers held on to win their third consecutive game and improve to 5-3.

Offensive struggles: The Packers played without their top two receivers, Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, as well as their top running back, Cedric Benson. And it showed. They put up a season-low 238 yards of offense, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers finished under 200 yards for only the 11th time in 70 career starts. The Packers worked hard to establish their running game against the NFL's worst-ranked run defense, but tailback Alex Green managed 54 yards on 22 carries. One of the biggest plays of the game was Rodgers' decision to take a shot downfield on third-and-7 with two minutes, 44 seconds left. Receiver James Jones couldn't make the catch, but a pass interference call on the Jaguars' William Middleton moved the ball 38 yards to the Jaguars' 38-yard line. That field position put the Packers in position for a 25-yard field goal that made it a two-score game.

Special teams excitement: Davon House's blocked punt in the second quarter, eventually recovered for a touchdown by rookie Dezman Moses, was the play that allowed the Packers to operate with a lead during some tough times in the middle of the game. House came unblocked off the right side of the Jaguars' formation. The Packers tried a trick play from the Jaguars' 37-yard line in the third quarter, shifting from a field goal formation into a punt formation before punter Tim Masthay unleashed a long and incomplete throw down the right hash mark. Replays showed Masthay had tight end Ryan Taylor open for a first down. That's the risk of such calls. Masthay is a punter, not a quarterback. As easy as it might look on television, you can't assume a non-quarterback will make the right decision on a throw. It's not his professional expertise.

Defensive struggles: The Packers did well to hold the Jaguars to 15 points considering quarterback Blaine Gabbert had receivers open for most of the afternoon. Gabbert completed 27 of 39 passes for 303 yards in the Packers' first game without cornerback Charles Woodson, and the Packers' tackling was inconsistent. Linebacker A.J. Hawk won't want to watch replays of his miss in the flat of running back Rashad Jennings, leading to a 24-yard pass play in the fourth quarter.

Injury report: Nose tackle B.J. Raji returned to the lineup, but the Packers lost two other defensive linemen during the game. Rookie Jerel Worthy suffered a concussion and Mike Neal injured his ankle.

What's next: The Packers will host the Arizona Cardinals next Sunday at Lambeau Field.

Free Head Exam: Minnesota Vikings

September, 10, 2012
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After the Minnesota Vikings' 26-23 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    We've noted several times that quarterback Christian Ponder had an efficient, if late-starting game. We should give some credit for his performance to receiver Percy Harvin, who was a hard-running multipurpose threat for the entire game. He turned some high-percentage plays into productive gainers, finishing with 104 total combined offensive yards on six receptions and five carries. He made most of those yards on his own. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), 77 of his 84 receiving yards came after the catch and 17 of his 20 rushing yards were after first contact. In a word, that's awesome. Harvin has slimmed down to his college weight of 190 pounds but is still running both through and around people.
  2. I watched the game while monitoring the other two early NFC North games in the Lambeau Field press box. Every time I glanced at the Vikings, it seemed defensive end Brian Robison was making a play. According to PFF, here was his final line: six pressures, three additional hits on Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert, a batted pass and three tackles. There are plenty of things to pick at on the Vikings' defense, but know this much: The team continues to be rewarded by its decision to promote Robison and allow free agent Ray Edwards to depart two years ago.
  3. Very quietly, the Vikings' 14-year sellout streak ended Sunday. Attendance was announced at 56,607 at the Metrodome, enough to ensure a local television broadcast under new rules enacted for this season but not enough to fill a stadium that technically has capacity for 64,111. To be clear, there have been many games in recent years where far less than capacity showed up. The NFL's new rule simply alleviated the need for a corporate sponsor, or the Vikings, to buy leftover tickets to avoid a television blackout. From what I understand, fans were plenty loud in the second half Sunday. And I don't necessarily blame locals for not flocking to a home schedule that includes matchups against the AFC South in a building whose days are numbered.
And here's one issue I still don't get:
Is there anything Adrian Peterson can't do? I'll be the first to admit I didn't think Peterson would be the Vikings' primary rusher in Week 1, just 260 days after he tore two knee ligaments. Sometimes possibilities are limited only by what can be conceived, and Peterson never wavered on his intent to be ready in time. Coach Leslie Frazier said he targeted Peterson for 10 to 15 carries. He finished with 17. To the naked eye, Peterson looked awfully spry. Said Frazier: "Some of those runs, I told him afterwards, 'I'm not sure you weren't just faking that ACL [injury].'" The Vikings will monitor Peterson carefully for soreness and swelling. But as we've discussed before, as long as the medical people have signed off on his physical recovery, coaches are confident in his ability to play and everyone trusts that Peterson will tell the truth and report any discomfort, there is no reason not to play him as early as possible.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

It appears the Green Bay Packers are taking their training camp competition at right cornerback, as well as nickel safety, down to the wire. Reports from Green Bay suggest that the candidates for both spots haven't been told who will start Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.

Jarrett Bush opened and finished camp at right cornerback, yielding to several challengers in between. It now appears down to him or Sam Shields, who had a strong performance in the preseason finale against the Kansas City Chiefs. Meanwhile, it's not clear whether M.D. Jennings will hold on to the second safety job when the Packers are in nickel or whether rookie Jerron McMillian will win it.

The uncertainty is relevant if it reflects the lack of a clear winner at either spot. If it's just a matter of a Week 1 competitive advantage, well, we've all seen that before.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • The Packers' offense isn't concerned about its sluggish preseason, writes Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • With that said, the Packers know they have a tough challenge against the 49ers defense, notes Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
  • 49ers receiver Randy Moss on his return to Lambeau Field, via Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News: "I've had success on that field, won and lost. I just don't like people bringing up the old stuff. I try to have fun with the fans, try to have fun. But at the same time, I want to go out and compete."
  • This is a good time for the Minnesota Vikings to go young in the defensive secondary, writes Mark Craig of the Star Tribune.
  • The race for improvement between the Vikings' Christian Ponder and the Jacksonville Jaguars' Blaine Gabbert should decide Sunday's game at the Metrodome, writes Judd Zulgad of 1500ESPN.com.
  • Vikings receiver Percy Harvin has slimmed down to his college weight of 190 pounds, notes Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has worked on getting closer to coach Jim Schwartz. Chris McCosky of the Detroit News has more.
  • John Niyo of the Detroit News on Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford's national ESPN commercial: "I'd argue it's another positive sign for this franchise -- and this franchise player -- to see Stafford happily playing the role of the self-deprecating star. Part of the reason the ad was so well received among his teammates this week is because it's so genuine, and genuinely funny."
  • It's a mutual lovefest this week between Schwartz and Rams coach Jeff Fisher, writes Anwar S. Richardson of Mlive.com.
  • Lions running back Jahvid Best (concussion) expects to be ready to play when his time on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list is up, writes Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press.
  • The Chicago Bears have finally begun building around quarterback Jay Cutler, writes Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune.
  • Here's an odd development: Bears right tackle Gabe Carimi is still working his way back from last year's knee injury, according to Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times. Here's what offensive coordinator Mike Tice said about Carimi: "He's going to take a while to be up to full speed. I don't think he’s all the way back yet. The endurance in his leg is going to come with game time."
  • Bears receiver Brandon Marshall had 21 receptions the last time he played the Indianapolis Colts, as part of the 2009 Denver Broncos, recalls Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com.

You've no doubt heard the news: The Minnesota Vikings have benched starting quarterback Donovan McNabb in favor of rookie Christian Ponder, an inevitable move that has been brewing all season. ESPN's Chris Mortensen has confirmed a story originally reported by Jason La Canfora of NFL.com.

Ponder made his NFL debut in the fourth quarter of Sunday night's blowout loss to the Chicago Bears and will make his first start this Sunday at the Metrodome against the Green Bay Packers. Some thoughts on the decision, in advance of speaking with the affected parties, presumably during the Vikings' regular media availability on Wednesday:

  • It has always been a matter of when, not if, this move would occur. These days, it's rare for a highly drafted quarterback to stand on the sideline for his entire rookie season. Rookies Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert and Andy Dalton are already starting for their respective teams. The Tennessee Titans have left Jake Locker on the bench mostly because Matt Hasselbeck is having a career renaissance as their starter.
  • [+] EnlargeChristian Ponder
    Bruce Kluckhohn/US PresswireChristian Ponder is expected to start at quarterback for the Vikings on Sunday.
    McNabb's performance wasn't awful, but it fell well short of the Hasselbeck paradigm to maintain the starting job under this scenario. The Vikings' offense has drifted through the first six games with little discernible identity. Elite play from McNabb could have helped, but I think even the Vikings knew he was no longer an elite player when they acquired him in July. In reality, as we discussed at the time, he is a good backup who can provide credible spot starts and insurance behind a rookie starter. It just took the Vikings six games to get to that point.
  • The debate about acquiring McNabb, rather than starting Ponder right away, largely will prove irrelevant. How much better off would the Vikings be if Ponder had started from Week 1? Would they be 2-4 instead of 1-5? Maybe 3-3? In the intensely competitive NFC North, it's moot. They weren't likely to be in the division race at this point regardless. Did Ponder's development get set back by missing out on six starts? In the grand scheme of things, I doubt it. The only negative the Vikings would have avoided is the local ugliness generated by the inevitability of this transition. Fans, and possibly Vikings teammates as well, never embraced McNabb because he was so obviously a short-timer.
  • In his preseason appearances, as well as Sunday night, Ponder proved more mobile than advertised and quite accurate while throwing on the run. The Vikings would be foolish not to capitalize on those attributes against the Packers, who will no doubt throw disguised coverages and various alignments at him. It would make sense to get Ponder out of the pocket and maximize the time he has to make decisions.
  • In our SportsNation chat earlier Tuesday, a number of you questioned whether it's smart to start Ponder against the Super Bowl champions. After the way things have gone with this offense, I think it would have sent an alarming message about Ponder if the Vikings weren't willing to play him this week. And, quite frankly, the Packers' pass defense has been arguably the least impressive segment of their team this season.
  • In the short term, the biggest boost Ponder can give the Vikings is the extra fire that typically comes along with rookie quarterbacks. McNabb was a calm and steadying influence, but let's just say he didn't appear to be taking these losses too hard. The Vikings could use an injection of competitiveness from the most important player on the field.

I'll have more on Wednesday, I'm sure.

Lions back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
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NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: Coach Jim Schwartz has maintained the same offensive and defensive schemes since arriving in 2009, minimizing the mental cram factor in training camp. But significant transitions loom at several positions, and they will be rushed in less-than-ideal situations. The Lions need to establish three starting defensive backs, two linebackers and will also need to find a balance for their running back duo of Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure.

Biggest challenge: I think someone once said that cornerbacks don't grow on trees. (Neither does money, I hear.) We've been over this issue before, but here are the facts: The Lions' top two cornerbacks currently under contract are Alphonso Smith and Nathan Vasher. Is that their plan for 2011? Will they be aggressive enough to land one of the few starting-quality free agents available? Is veteran Chris Houston more likely to re-sign? Perhaps, but the Lions have a complex problem to solve in quick fashion.

Obligatory Stafford reminder: It's been well-established that quarterback Matthew Stafford's right shoulder has healed after January surgery. He has looked buff during offseason workouts and is ready to resume his role as the Lions' franchise quarterback. At 23, Stafford is about the same age as 2011 rookies Jake Locker, Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert. But two years of injuries have put Stafford into something close to a make-or-break season. He needs to stay on the field.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Defensive end Cliff Avril, cornerback Chris Houston, running back Kevin Smith, quarterback Drew Stanton.
ESPN.com’s NFL writers rank the top 10 up-and-coming assistant coaches in the league today. Next week: Top players overall.

Seven NFL teams named new head coaches after last season, tapping into a pool that included experienced coordinators and relatively unknown assistants alike. The class of 2011 featured longtime candidates (Leslie Frazier, Ron Rivera). It also included a trusted position coach in Mike Munchak (Tennessee Titans) and a couple of relative hotshots in Hue Jackson (Oakland Raiders) and Pat Shurmur (Cleveland Browns).

Who will comprise the NFL's next batch of head-coaching candidates? That was the question ESPN.com hoped to answer in this week's edition of the offseason Power Rankings. We established one ground rule by eliminating any assistant who has already had a permanent head-coaching job. The idea was to develop a list that focused on the "next wave" of coaching candidates.

No less than 24 NFL assistants received at least one vote, a reflection of both the variables involved in head-coaching searches and the relative lack of national name recognition for all but the most highly regarded assistants.

So in that vein, it was no surprise to see four well-known assistants at the top of our list, headed by New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell -- who placed first or second on six of the eight ballots. Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan finished second, followed by New York Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and Arizona offensive line coach Russ Grimm.

Fewell is an ideal candidate in many ways, having spent time as the Buffalo Bills' interim coach in 2009 and leading a substantial turnaround of the Giants' defense last season. Fewell interviewed for four head-coaching jobs last winter, and NFC East blogger Dan Graziano suggested that experience, along with a high profile afforded to coaches in New York, make him "the most likely guy on the list to be a head coach soon."

Just don't bother forwarding his name to AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky, who couldn't find room for Fewell on his 10-man ballot. Kuharsky noted the Giants' poor performance in Week 2 last season against the Indianapolis Colts, during which quarterback Peyton Manning threw three touchdowns and cruised to an easy 38-14 victory.

"Certainly I'm letting one game overinfluence my ballot," Kuharsky muttered. "But Fewell's plan for the Giants against the Colts last season was so bad that I could not help but score him down for it. Was he not familiar with how Peyton Manning and Indianapolis operate?"

We can't cover every coach who received votes in this exercise, but let's hit some of the more interesting names that received attention.

Another Ryan? Deserved or not, Ryan has long been considered a loose cannon. There is little doubt about his schematic prowess, but hiring him would require a confident owner ready to make a leap of faith.

The success of twin brother Rex Ryan with the Jets might have softened the perception of that risk, and collectively we see Rob Ryan on the doorstep of a job.

"Similar to Rex, Rob Ryan is good with X's and O's and has the type of outgoing personality players want to be around," AFC North blogger James Walker said. "I think both are equally important in today's NFL. Both brothers say exactly what's on their mind, and before that scared off a lot of teams. But Rex broke the ice with his success in New York and that could help Rob in the future."

The next generation: Schottenheimer has turned down more opportunities to interview for head-coaching jobs than he has actually submitted to. He has nixed requests from the Miami Dolphins and Bills in recent years, but he did interview for the Jets' job that ultimately went to Ryan. I placed him atop my ballot (he finished No. 3 overall) because I think NFL people have made up their mind that he is the kind of young and innovative assistant who can turn around their franchise. (Think: Cowboys coach Jason Garrett.)

Schottenheimer's pedigree doesn't hurt -- he's the son of longtime NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer -- and I'm not sure how closely teams will dissect the specifics of the Jets' offensive performance. Graziano, on the other hand, thinks Schottenheimer is close to coaching his way out of the golden-child image he cultivated and left him off his ballot.

"Having spent a good amount of time around that team the past couple of years, I just feel like defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is the more likely guy to end up a head coach," Graziano said. "Schottenheimer's under a ton of pressure as Ryan defers the offensive responsibilities to him. I feel like, if the offense has a bad year, he could end up in trouble or even out of a job. And given their youth at quarterback and running back and the uncertainty of their receiver situation, a bad year for the Jets' offense is possible.

"Now, he could be a genius, make chicken salad and be the next hot name eight months from now. But I think there's the potential that he may have already peaked as a hot coaching prospect and that he might not be set up to succeed in New York."

The big fella: Four years ago, Grimm thought he would be the next Pittsburgh Steelers coach. He moved to Arizona after the Steelers selected Mike Tomlin instead, and we view his status as a head-coaching candidate with wide disparity.

AFC West blogger Bill Williamson put Grimm atop his ballot, and AFC East blogger Tim Graham had him No. 2. Kuharsky and I left him off.

Williamson thinks Grimm has moved to "the top of the food chain" largely because most of his "hot-name" contemporaries have already gotten jobs. As well, Graham suggested that it will soon be Grimm's turn because he is still well-regarded throughout the league.

Personally, I couldn't get past Grimm's well-publicized gaffe after interviewing with the Chicago Bears, after which he referred to the team owners as the "McClaskey" family. I also agree with NFC West blogger Mike Sando, who ranked Grimm No. 8 and wondered: "Is he still ascending? Grimm seems content coaching the line in Arizona. He has plateaued and doesn't seem to be losing any sleep over it."

Welcome back: Unless you're a college football fan, you might not have heard of Jacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. He spent six years as the head coach at Arizona State, but has drawn some quiet acclaim for his work with the Jaguars and made a strong impression while interviewing with the Denver Broncos last winter.

"In a setting where he won't have to deal with boosters and can shine for being a smart X's and O's guy with strong coaching DNA," Kuharsky said, "I think he'd do far better. He's smart and will interview quite well. He really impressed John Elway and the Broncos before losing out to John Fox's experience. St. Louis wanted him as coordinator, but Jacksonville wouldn't let him go. He's heading into the final year of his contract. How Blaine Gabbert develops early on will have a big bearing on Koetter's future."

Secret weapon: In two years, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have developed quarterback Josh Freeman into one of the better starters in the league. The man largely responsible is offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who navigated a disastrous 2009 preseason -- coach Raheem Morris promoted him in the middle of training camp after firing Jeff Jagodzinski -- and NFL teams often seek out coaches with success developing young quarterbacks.

"I think Olson deserves a ton of credit for developing Freeman so quickly," said NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas. "Freeman threw for 25 touchdowns and six interceptions in his first full season as a starter and carried an incredibly young team to a 10-6 record. I also think people need to look at what Olson did last year with rookie running back LeGarrette Blount and rookie receiver Mike Williams. He helped make them into instant stars."

Super Bowl entitlement: The Green Bay Packers were the only team to place more than one name in the top 10, as would be expected from a championship team. Assistant head coach/inside linebackers Winston Moss is at No. 6, while safeties coach Darren Perry finished No. 10. I also voted for receivers coach Edgar Bennett, who has moved over from running backs coach and is clearly being groomed for bigger things.

I'll detail my ranking of the Packers' assistants, including why I think so highly of Perry, in a future post for NFC North readers. But we'll say this for now: Moss is a strong leader who has drawn interest from the Raiders, while Perry is a disciple of Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his coveted 3-4 scheme.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

My AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky, who lords over the highly debated and increasingly powerful NFL Twindex, found some humor in a light-hearted Twitter exchange between Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder and Blaine Gabbert of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

It started with Gabbert announcing he was headed to the Florida Keys for vacation and continued with Ponder ribbing him for not spending "26 hours out of each day studying the playbook." Gabbert asked Ponder if "u still on your Viking ship from Norway? Or wherever you come from," and Ponder responded that "at least my mascots didn't go from one cat to another..tigers and jags #prrrrrr oh so scaryyy..."

I re-tweeted Ponder's final shot -- "Going to throw and get better with #ChrisWeinke at #IMG while others (@BlaineGabbert) are frolicking in the Keys working on their tan" -- and a few of you wondered if he was serious. As Kuharsky pointed out, it was all in good fun. Hopefully both quarterbacks maintain their sense of humor once they get on the field.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson, via Albert Maruggi of 1500ESPN.com: "I feel as good as I have since I've been in the league. When you get the time off and you're not getting back into it right away, helmet on and going through those things, your body gets a little more chance to rest."
  • Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, speaking to Ted Glover of the Daily Norseman, said he has made "a number of amendments and revisions" to his offense to account for the shorter timeframe he'll have to install it this year.
  • Green Bay Packers guard Josh Sitton on his Super Bowl ring, via D.C. Reeves of the Pensacola News Journal: "People just want to see it. I'm super excited to show everyone because I'm so impressed by it. When we first saw it, my jaw was just to the floor it was so unbelievable."
  • Chicago Bears linebacker Nick Roach defended teammate Brian Urlacher, who has came under some silly criticism from NFL linebacker Dhani Jones, according to Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com.
  • Stefan Logan appears to have found a home with the Detroit Lions as a kick returner, receiver and running back, writes Tim Twentyman of the Detroit News.
  • Police ruled that former Lions and Packers defensive end Jason Hunter was hit by a knife thrown by his girlfriend on accident in April, according to the Associated Press. No charges will be filed.
Better late than never, let's take a moment to reflect on the highlights of Tuesday's SportsNation chat. I was too caught up in a whole lot of nothing this week to circle back on our chat, but you brought forth a number of interesting topics to continue mulling.

Topping the list was a surprising number of you who thought the Detroit Lions operated from miscalculated priorities during the draft. We also hit the Minnesota Vikings' quarterback situation, the Chicago Bears' plans for their offensive line and the Green Bay Packers' future returner.

We'll move through the issues one team at a time, adding a few extra smart-aleck comments and commentaries along the way.

Detroit Lions

Nathan (DC)

Everyone loves the Lions pick of [Nick[ Fairley in the first round. I don't. [Anthony] Castonzo and [Prince] Amukamara were still on the board. The Lions won't be able to afford to pay both [Ndamukong] Suh and Fairley in a few years. I think they blew it. Am I way off base?

Kevin Seifert (2:03 PM)

Well, I wouldn't assume they wouldn't be able to pay both of those guys. Even if there is a cap at that point, your management of it is strategic. You put your money in your priorities. The Lions have clearly prioritized their defensive line. And regardless, they should have at least four years of both guys signed to their rookie deals. Four years is about as far ahead as anyone in the NFL looks. I'm fine with them passing on Castonzo and Amukamara as long as they continue to address their needs in free agency. But I do agree it's a risk.

Andy (Arlington, VA)

Kev, Detroit is getting way too much love for their draft. They took their best position on defense, and bolstered it. They left their dreadful LB corps and secondary intact. I realize media types get all drooly thinking about Suh and Fairley together, but don't you think Mike McCarthy might have an idea how to gameplan that?

Kevin Seifert (2:26 PM)

Well, it's hard to gameplan to get around two monsters in the middle. That's why they're so valuable. They're the closest to the quarterback and the first opportunity to disrupt the play.

Further comment: At some point, the Lions are going to have to address an offensive line that has a 33-year-old left tackle in Jeff Backus and a 32-year-old center in Dominic Raiola. But it's clear the Lions' consternation doesn't equal that of some fans. As for cornerback, the Lions might be prepared to make a significant financial investment in free agency. Don't forget they were willing, according to reports, to give up first-, second- and fourth-round draft picks to trade up for LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson.

Minnesota Vikings

doc (montana)

The Vikings have taken a lot of heat for there first round pick. I am old school and Bud Grant once told me the closer the player is to the ball the smarter he has to be, center and quarterback is what he is talking about and if you look a Matt Birk and some of the elite quarterbacks they are a lot smarter then they are physical specimens. If you buy into that in which I do ( think we may have the steal of the draft. What am I missing?

Kevin Seifert (2:16 PM)

Well, Ponder has the first part taken care of. There's no doubt he's a book-smart kid. He'll be able to learn the plays and know the reads without a doubt. But does that mean he can play? Two different issues. A smart quarterback can still get rattled in the pocket and can still make poor decisions. Difference between smarts and instincts.

Elliot (Toronto, ON)

Kevin, you may be no [Rick] Spielman, but if you were, would you have traded the 2nd-round pick to Dallas to get Blaine Gabbert? Getting [Kyle] Rudolph was important, but who'd you rather have, him and Ponder or Gabbert?

Kevin Seifert (2:24 PM)

I would have looked at it this way: Is the difference between Gabbert and Ponder worth a second-round pick? I think that's questionable. But if I felt it were, absolutely I would have done it. Drafting a quarterback in the first round should be a once-in-decade thing. You should do everything you need to do to get it right.

Further comment: Ponder's intelligence is particularly important when you realize he'll be asked to absorb the Vikings' playbook after little to no offseason work and, the team hopes, win the starting job out of training camp. As for whether Gabbert is a second-round pick better than Ponder, I think that's questionable at best.

Chicago Bears

Paul (Denver)

What do you think of [Gabe] Carimi? Does he hold down LT for ten years or will he be shifted over to RT as a nasty run blocker?

Kevin Seifert (2:45 PM)

I'm thinking right tackle, especially this season. But it's incumbent on them finding someone to play left tackle. I wonder if that will be J'Marcus Webb.

Steve (NY)

I read a draft analysis on Yahoo! that said Carimi is overrated... thoughts?

Kevin Seifert (2:28 PM)

As always, it depends on who you talk to. Seems like a mean, tough guy. The Bears could use some more of that, even if he ends up on right tackle. Other than Olin Kreutz, a lot of the linemen they played last year were pretty passive.

Further comment: When people say Carimi is a "Mike Tice" kind of offensive lineman, referring to the Bears' offensive line coach, they mean he is a blue-collar mountain mover who is strong enough to overpower opponents and thick-skinned enough to absorb Tice's barbs constructively. If he is who we think he is, Carimi will help set an important attitude tone for this line.

Green Bay Packers

Bryant (Milwaukee)

Does Randall Cobb instantly become the Packers best option to return punts and Kicks?

Kevin Seifert (2:49 PM)

I would think so, yes. Let's get Tramon Williams as far away from punt returns as possible.

Further comment: The question isn't whether Cobb becomes the Packers' returner. It's the extent to which McCarthy can find an immediate role for him in the offense. Cobb has the potential to be a game-changer.

Bonus "question"

Peter (Atlanta, GA)

Is Rashard Mendenhall the dumbest athlete on the planet right now?

Kevin Seifert (2:46 PM)

I would say yes. Resoundingly.

Further comment: Is any necessary? More than an intelligence issue, Mendenhall has a judgment issue. Free speech is great. Factual distortion, on the other hand, is not guaranteed by the First Amendment.
As you might remember, we spent some time during the draft run-up reviewing Jon Gruden's QB Camp interviews. Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Mallett and Andy Dalton all got their chances.

Christian Ponder wasn't part of that exercise, but he did participate in ESPN's Sports Science evaluations. In the video below, you can watch as Ponder's improvisational skills are evaluated.

(Don't tell Trent Dilfer.)

Christian PonderSteve Mitchell/US PresswireThe Vikings had no choice but to take a chance on Christian Ponder.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- I've been using a baseball analogy for years to describe the Minnesota Vikings' increasingly desperate future at quarterback. After years of band-aid solutions and poorly conceived development plans, the time had come to take a swing for that elusive franchise quarterback.

Thursday night, the Vikings saw it the same way.

Finally.

"The thing that we went back and forth on," vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman said, "was this: 'When are you going to get another chance to swing?' If we didn't get a quarterback this year that we liked, then maybe we're looking at a quarterback next year. Who knows what the quarterback class is next year? And I know we're sure as heck not planning on picking at No. 12."

After beating the drum for so long, I can't disagree with Spielman's logic, his approach or the end result: Florida State's Christian Ponder, whose pre-draft stock was so uncertain that he turned down an invitation to attend the draft in New York City because he thought he might not be selected until the second round. Whether it was Ponder or TCU's Andy Dalton or Washington's Jake Locker or even Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, the Vikings weren't going to move forward as a franchise until they identified and committed to a plan at this position.

That said, if you were one of the fans who booed the decision at the Vikings' draft party or jeered Spielman as he answered questions live on stage, I understand that too. Neither Spielman nor coach Leslie Frazier claimed he was their first choice, not after a draft that saw three quarterbacks selected in the top 10 for the first time since 1999.

I don't think many people who watched Ponder's career at Florida State, especially his senior season, came away thinking he is the next great quarterback in the NFL. He is an indisputably smart prospect who completed 62 percent of his career passes at a top football school and displayed leadership and toughness by playing through a painful bursa sac injury last season.

If you're upset with anything, blame the mistakes that led up to this moment. The franchise was crippled by trusting that Tarvaris Jackson, a second-round draft pick in 2006, would one day develop into a starter. His failures led to a series of short-term replacements that only delayed the inevitable decision to move on.

By the time that point arrived, the Vikings' depth chart looked like this:

  1. Yuck
  2. Ick
  3. Bleah

Actually, it was:

  1. Joe Webb
  2. Rhett Bomar
  3. And that's It.

That list doesn't suggest a need. It's a crisis. And what you saw take place Thursday night was just that. It was crisis management. The Vikings didn't take the best player available. They took the best quarterback available, at least on their board, and in a quarterback-driven league, they have no choice but to tie their hopes to him.

Spielman called Ponder "one of our top-rated quarterbacks" who was "right there in the mix" with other quarterbacks he evaluated. But Spielman admitted he considered a trade that would have netted the Vikings a presumably higher-rated quarterback, Missouri's Gabbert, but he wasn't willing to give the Dallas Cowboys his second-round pick (No. 43 overall) to move up three spots to No. 9.

Frazier said that Ponder would have been "hard to pass up" at No. 12 and spoke as if he would be an immediate starter. (Providing he beats out Yuck and Ick.)

So what are they getting in Ponder? It won't be the mobility of Cam Newton or Locker, and Ponder isn't as smooth of a passer as Gabbert. But the Vikings undoubtedly got one of the smartest quarterbacks in the draft, one who scored a 37 on his Wonderlic test and who graduated from Florida State in 2 1/2 years. He completed his MBA in May 2010 and spent last season working on a second graduate degree in sports management.

Ponder completed 68.9 percent of his passes and averaged more than 300 yards per game as a junior at Florida State, but his performance dipped dramatically after the bursa sac injury last season. Reverting as a senior is always a warning sign among NFL teams, and his collection of college injuries -- which also included a third-degree shoulder separation after making a tackle following an interception -- drew some raised eyebrows as well.

The injuries compelled Ponder to play in the Senior Bowl, where he excelled and began the process of convincing teams he was healthy. Thursday night he said: "I think I was mislabeled as injury prone."

Ultimately, the Vikings spent a day and a half with him on the Florida State campus and came away convinced he was among the players they would consider drafting at No. 12. Was he the player they hoped to draft? Neither Spielman nor Frazier said that. They called the choice a "no-brainer," but it wasn't because they think Ponder is the next Aaron Rodgers or even Matt Ryan. It's because they knew better than anyone that Yuck and Ick weren't a realistic option.

A free-agent acquisition would only prolong the process. It was time to take a swing. They didn't get the fastball they were hoping for. But when you're behind in the count, sometimes you get a curveball. The Vikings couldn't wait on their pitch. It wasn't time to be picky. Christian Ponder, welcome to Minnesota.

We've spent the past few months reviewing the various incarnations of mock drafts produced by ESPN analysts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, so let's take a final look at their latest. Kiper's went live Insider late Wednesday night, and McShay's just posted Insider.

I should also note that one of the country's most respected draft predictors, Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, published his mock draft Thursday morning. You need Morning News subscriber access to read it, but he did predict an early run on quarterbacks that would leave the Minnesota Vikings choosing TCU quarterback Andy Dalton at No. 12 overall.

Onward...

Minnesota Vikings
Pick:
No. 12
Kiper: Washington quarterback Jake Locker
McShay: Boston College offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo
Seifert comment: McShay's mock illustrates the Vikings' positional problem. By taking Castonzo at No. 12, they miss out on the top seven quarterbacks of the draft. By the time their No. 43 pick arrived in McShay's 7-round effort, the following quarterbacks were all off the board: Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Locker, Dalton, Christian Ponder, Ryan Mallett and Colin Kaepernick.

Detroit Lions
Pick:
No. 13
Kiper: USC offensive tackle Tyron Smith
McShay: Smith
Seifert comment: Conventional wisdom has suggested the Dallas Cowboys will take Smith at No. 9. But if Smith falls to the Lions, they would be getting the player generally considered the top offensive tackle in the draft. There is every reason to believe that general manager Martin Mayhew would make this choice if Smith is his highest-rated player at the time, regardless of need at other positions.

Chicago Bears
Pick:
No. 29
Kiper: Mississippi State offensive tackle Derek Sherrod
McShay: Sherrod
Seifert comment: Obviously, trades weren't a part of these mocks. Sherrod is the best tackle available in each case, but it's not clear if the Bears value him as a first-rounder or if they would trade down in this scenario.

Green Bay Packers
Pick:
No. 32
Kiper: Baylor guard Danny Watkins
McShay: Texas cornerback Aaron Williams
Seifert comment: It's almost impossible to predict what general manager Ted Thompson will do, given the relative balance of his roster, and it's very reasonable to expect him to consider a trade that would move out of the first round altogether.
In the video below, ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay offers a visual illustration for why I "reached" for a quarterback at the No. 12 overall pick of the ESPN.com blogger mock draft.

By McShay's reckoning, the Vikings will have their pick of every quarterback except Auburn's Cam Newton and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert. By the time their second-round pick comes around, Washington's Jake Locker, Florida State's Christian Ponder and TCU's Andy Dalton are all off the board. In that scenario, the Vikings would be left to choose between Arkansas' Ryan Mallett and Nevada's Colin Kaepernick.

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