Vikings Biggest Draft Busts: Christian Ponder

Pick: 12th overall in 2011 NFL Draft

When looking back at the biggest draft busts in NFL history, it’s not only about the underwhelming performance of a selection. It can also be compounded by the players picked after said selection. Alex Smith retired this weekend after a solid career, but the 49ers will always be judged because they passed on Aaron Rodgers to select Smith (to be fair, Smith’s career trajectory changed in 2011 with Jim Harbaugh, but that’s another story for another day). On the opposite end of the spectrum, a pick like Laquon Treadwell could have been more devastating had he not been in a below-average draft class.

In 2011, the Minnesota Vikings had the nightmare scenario of selecting an inadequate player in one of the most stacked draft classes in NFL history. The Vikings selected Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder with the 12th selection in the draft. The impact (or lack thereof) of this pick reverberated throughout the organization for years to come.

Who Came Before Him

It feels like we always hear that we are entering the “year of the quarterback”. But to me, it feels like 2011 was the first year to really push that phrase. There was actually a discussion about whether the Panthers should pick Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert with the first overall pick. Even more bizarre is that Gabbert was considered the “safer” pick.

Of course, Newton proved to be worthy of the first overall selection, winning the 2015 MVP award and leading Carolina to the Super Bowl. They lost to the Broncos, 21-10. The defense was spearheaded by linebacker Von Miller, the second overall pick in the 2011 draft. Miller won Super Bowl MVP for his performance, and with three first-team All-Pro selections, is on his way to the Hall of Fame when his career is over.

Following the Bills picking Marcell Dareus at No.3 overall, A.J. Green went to Cincinnati at pick four, Patrick Peterson to the Cardinals at pick five, Julio Jones to the Falcons at pick six, and Aldon Smith to the 49ers at pick seven. The first bust of the draft was when quarterback Jake Locker was selected by the Titans at eight. The Cowboys selected All-Pro tackle Tyron Smith at nine, quarterback Blaine Gabbert went to the Jaguars at ten, and J.J. Watt was actually booed when he got picked by the Texans at 11. That’s a total of 18 first-team All-Pro selections (side note: A.J. Green actually never got first-team All-Pro, joining Locker and Gabbert as the only three not to get the nod in the first 11 selections).

The Selection

When the Vikings went on the clock, they surprised everyone and selected Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick. Everyone knew that the Vikings were looking for a quarterback (Rick Spielman actually wanted Gabbert). No one predicted Ponder would even go in the first round, including the quarterback himself. It felt like a reach from the second Ponder was selected, but with the first-round status, the team was going to give him every chance to succeed.

Ponder showed some success during his rookie campaign, with ability to run and extend plays (to a point). Unfortunately, Ponder struggled mightily with consistency. One week he’d look efficient, leading a 3-13 offense to some success. The next week, he would turn the ball over four times in the game’s first 20 minutes (which he did in Detroit). Ponder finished his rookie campaign completing just over 54 percent of his passes. He threw as many touchdowns as interceptions (13) in ten games as a starter and only threw for 1,853 yards. It was disappointing, but the team wasn’t very good either. Once 2012 rolled around, there was no more time for excuses. The Vikings drafted Matt Kalil at left tackle, and with pieces building around Christian Ponder, they expected a major jump in Year 2.

For the first six weeks of the season, it appeared as if he had taken that next step. The Vikings were 4-2, and Ponder was performing. He had thrown for eight touchdowns against only four interceptions and completed 67 percent or more of his passes in four of those six games.

Things turned quickly, however, and Ponder headed the wrong way. He failed to eclipse 100 yards passing in three of the final ten games of the season. He threw away a game in Green Bay where he wasted one of the best games of Adrian Peterson’s career with a crushing redzone interception, dropping Minnesota to 6-6. And even after Ponder led a thrilling “win-and-in” Week 17 game against the Packers to get the Vikings to the playoffs, he ended up missing the playoff rematch a week later due to injury. Minnesota lost in the Joe Webb game, and the future was murky.

2013 came and Ponder’s struggles continued as the Vikings opened the season 0-3. He got benched for Matt Cassel, then Josh Freeman, then got his job back, then lost it to Cassel again. Like before, he could never stay consistent and couldn’t string good games together. The coaching staff was fired following the season, and the Mike Zimmer regime spelled the end of the Ponder Era.

Other Draft Options: DE Robert Quinn, C Mike Pouncey, DE Ryan Kerrigan, T Nate Solder, T Anthony Castonzo, DE Cameron Jordan, CB Jimmy Smith, QB Andy Dalton

If that list hurt to read, just know that I had to leave about ten more players off the list, and that’s only first-round selections. Robert Quinn racked up 62.5 sacks in seven seasons for the Rams. Pouncey became a four-time Pro Bowler in Miami. Kerrigan has 95.5 sacks in his ten-year career in Washington. Solder protected Tom Brady’s blindside for seven seasons in New England. Castonzo has started at left tackle for Indianapolis ever since being drafted. Cameron Jordan, the son of Vikings star receiver Steve Jordan, has 94.5 sacks and is one of the best all-around defensive ends in the league. And Jimmy Smith has 14 career interceptions and has played in Baltimore his entire career.

Andy Dalton never had a spectacular career, but he would have been a major upgrade from Ponder. He led the Bengals to the playoffs in his first five seasons and threw for over 3,000 yards in each of his first six seasons. But with the run-heavy offense that the Vikings used with Adrian Peterson in his prime, they could have been a contender in the NFC at the beginning of his career.

The Final Word on Christian Ponder

Ponder never played a snap in the NFL after 2014. He remains the biggest miss of the Rick Spielman Era. He always said the right things and tried to do the things to become a franchise quarterback, but those things don’t matter if a player can’t perform.

This also shows what can happen when teams wait until they absolutely need to select a quarterback in the draft. Brett Favre had just retired and the Vikings had no contingency plan. In a draft full of franchise-changing talent, the Vikings selected Christian Ponder. And had it not been Ponder, it likely would have been Gabbert had he fallen to pick 12.

This can be used as a bit of a cautionary tale for the team this year. They are locked into Kirk Cousins for two more seasons. But as Kyle wrote previously, there is no viable quarterback on the roster behind him. With at least five quarterbacks likely being drafted in the first round next week, the Vikings could encounter a scenario where one of these guys falls to them or within range to trade up. Quarterback isn’t a pressing need, but the last thing teams want is to wait until quarterback is a need and they have to talk themselves into an inadequate guy for the job.