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Updated: April 29th, 2011 2:00am
Pelissero: 'Genius' Ponder faces tough test to make Vikings look smart

Pelissero: 'Genius' Ponder faces tough test to make Vikings look smart

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The first word everyone seems to associate with Christian Ponder is intelligence.

Rick Spielman says he's "extremely bright, one of the smartest guys we evaluated and spent time with."

Leslie Frazier calls him "an extremely intelligent young man."

One NFC scout raised the former Florida State standout's name unprompted in a recent discussion about young quarterbacks' challenging transition to the complex pro game.

"Now, some rookies are rare," the scout said. "Like, Ponder is supposed to be a genius."

And so it is with no small sense of irony that Ponder becomes the new face of the Minnesota Vikings, whose braintrust faced questions and catcalls about the wisdom of selecting him 12th overall in the NFL Draft on Thursday night.

Make no mistake: the Vikings were in a tough spot once the phone didn't ring with an offer to move back a few spots, considering what had just transpired ahead of them.

Tennessee already had snagged Washington's Jake Locker at No. 8. Jacksonville had surrendered a second-round pick to move up for Missouri's Blaine Gabbert at No. 10. And the Vikings feared the Washington Redskins, who moved back six spots in their deal with the Jaguars, would take the fourth quarterback off the board.

"The thing that we went back and forth on," Spielman said, "was when are you going to get another chance to swing?"

As it turned out, the Vikings would have had that chance. No other quarterbacks came off the board on Thursday, leaving TCU's Andy Dalton, Nevada's Colin Kaepernick and Arkansas' Ryan Mallett within striking distance of the Vikings' second-round pick (No. 43 overall).

The fact that Spielman, Frazier and company weren't willing to take the risk confirmed what we already knew: the Vikings couldn't afford to reenter the NFL's uncertain offseason without a quarterback they can point to as the franchise's future.

That's why they went through an unprecedented vetting process, dating to covert ops in December.

That's why they still were meeting with ownership on Wednesday afternoon to let everyone make their closing arguments.

"You don't want to say, 'Well, if we don't get a quarterback this year that we like, then maybe we're looking at a quarterback next year,'" Spielman said.

"Who knows what the quarterback class is next year? I know we're planning on not picking at 12 again. Especially at the quarterback position, if you have a guy rated on your board where you think it's worthy to take him and you feel very confident that Christian Ponder was worthy of the 12th pick ... we have to take a shot at it."

That didn't stop the crowd at the Vikings' draft party from chanting the name of Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara before the pick was announced. Boos echoed inside the Winter Park fieldhouse as reporters entered a short time later, fans streaming out the exit and a few hurling protests when Spielman went to the podium.

Here's the upside on Ponder: a smart, tough football player who has worked under center in a pro-style offense, has strong short-to-intermediate accuracy, moves well in and out of the pocket.

"It's the overall package," said another NFC scout who ranked Ponder ahead of Dalton and Kaepernick. "The decision-making. Better arm strength (than Dalton) is what kind of gives him the notch there. They're all good leaders in their own sense and they're all good guys. I think Ponder's just a little bit more talented."

Here's the downside: an injury magnet who is a little short (6-foot-2, 229 pounds) and is known for struggling with deep balls -- a flaw exacerbated when Ponder played his senior season with a forearm condition that required weekly drainage and postseason cleanup.

"I think I was mislabeled as injury-prone," said Ponder, who threw for 6,872 yards on 61.8% passing in 37 college games (34 starts).

"I mean, everything was bad luck. I had a third-degree separation on my AC joint in my junior year, and that was from throwing an interception and tackling the guy 'cause I was mad."

Ponder has to be smarter than that at the next level, if he's going to make the people who draft him look smart, too. Only two other quarterbacks have been first-round picks in Vikings history, and only one -- Daunte Culpepper, who went 11th overall in 1999 -- was drafted higher than Ponder.

Spielman all but admitted Ponder wasn't the highest-rated player remaining on the Vikings' draft board and wouldn't go further than saying he was "one of our top-rated quarterbacks." This was a pick driven by need, which can be a dirty word on draft night even when signs point to the target having a chance to start from Day 1 at the most important position.

"He knows their offense inside and out," Spielman said. "He's worked in a pro-style offense. He's taken some snaps from the center. You see how accurate he is when he gets back and sets his feet. All (rookie quarterbacks) are going to have some things to learn and work on, but we felt he was NFL-ready."

The Vikings better be right, with the way they tied the future to this 23-year-old's right arm on Thursday night. The next 15 players off the board were linemen, cornerbacks or receivers whose names will be raised every time Ponder runs into trouble.

He's a guy who graduated from Florida State in 2½ years with a 3.73 GPA. He was the only Division I player in the country to play his senior season after completing a master's degree.

And that's nothing compared to the task Ponder has ahead of him as an NFL rookie -- learning quickly enough to rally a fallen team and a frustrated fan base that already wants to call this bold move stupid.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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