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Updated: April 30th, 2014 6:42pm
Zulgad: Vikings' QB situation more waiting game than competition

Zulgad: Vikings' QB situation more waiting game than competition

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- There are times when access to coaches and players can be a beneficial thing and there are other moments when it only serves to confuse the situation.

The latter scenario proved to be the case Wednesday at Winter Park.

Upon completion of the second day of the Vikings' pre-draft minicamp, Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder both attempted to make a case for why they are beginning a competition for the starting quarterback job.

Cassel, you go first.

"I think there's competition every year," he said. "You come in and that's what it's all about. I remember when I was a seventh-round draft pick. I came in and I was the fifth on the depth chart and I had to earn my keep. I think it is all the more rewarding when you get out on the field, when there is competition, and you're able to battle and you earn that spot."

Your turn, Christian.

"Whatever happens, it's a competition," he said. "Whether it's Joe Montana or someone else here it's a competition and it's fun. It's fun to compete. When I first got here (in 2011), there wasn't (competition). ... Donovan (McNabb) came in and played and then I got the ability to go out and play and Donovan left and there wasn't much competition going on anymore. So this is going to be good for all of us and pushing us to be our best."

If you knew nothing about the Vikings' quarterback situation, you might be convinced the two veterans really are going to engage in a battle for the starting job. Of course, we all know better.

While they both could have said that there was a competition last season, it really was more a game of quarterback hot potato.

After starting six of the nine games in which he played for the Vikings in 2013, Cassel opted out of his contract and then was re-signed to a $10 million, two-year contract in March.

Ponder, the 12th-overall pick in the 2011 draft, opened last season as the starter, lost the job because of injury, was reinstated as the starter and then lost the spot again.

The Vikings have brought back Ponder on the final season of his rookie contract - there is a 2015 option for approximately $9.6 million that the team isn't expected to exercise by the May 3 eadline - but no one should hold their breath that new coach Mike Zimmer or offensive coordinator Norv Turner are expecting much.

This isn't so much a competition this time around as it is a waiting game.

Cassel almost will certainly head to training camp this summer as the starter and Ponder figures to be either the backup or No. 3 on the depth chart, unless Zimmer and Turner convince general manager Rick Spielman that he should pay the QB the $1.8 million he is due for 2014 and walk away.

The unknown factor is when the Vikings will add another quarterback and who that guy might be. The expectation is Spielman will select a quarterback in next week's draft, but the assumption of many is that it won't be with the eighth-overall pick in the first round.

Selecting a quarterback that early would create the expectation that that player would come in and immediately compete with Cassel for the starting job, if not be handed the starting spot. But if the Vikings go the direction that many think they will and pick a quarterback in the second or third round, that guy could end up second on the depth chart.

Meanwhile, Cassel and Ponder are doing their best to focus on the things they can control. This includes learning Turner's offensive system and trying to impress on the field.

Cassel said that after he decided to return to the Vikings in early March, he went to work on learning Turner's offense. Because he wasn't allowed to work directly with the veteran coordinator until recent weeks, Cassel made calls to some guys he knew who have played in Turner's system.

"I've had seven coordinators in six years, so I'm kind of used to this deal," said Cassel, who will be entering his 10th season. "It's just another challenge, but it's an exciting challenge because you know that the results are there when you look at Norv's resume and you look at the success the quarterbacks have had with him. It excites you as a quarterback, it encourages you because if you get out there, you work hard, you put in the time and the due diligence, then I think you'll be repaid when it comes to the season."

Cassel, who will turn 32 next month, will be looking to improve on a 2013 season in which he finished 25th in the NFL with a passer rating of 81.6. He threw for 1,807 yards with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions as he went 3-3 as a starter and appeared in all five games the Vikings won.

A seventh-round draft pick by the New England Patriots in 2005, Cassel knows what it's like to be way down the depth chart and he also had the experience of going to the Pro Bowl in 2010 with Kansas City.

Thus, he isn't about to assume getting a new contract to return to the Vikings provides him with any assurances.

"I don't take anything for granted," he said. "This is a new coaching staff, it's a new regime. You never know what's going to happen. You have to come out and earn it. The fact of the matter is they haven't seen me practice. I haven't been around them and it's a new system. You have to go out, perform, show them that you know the system, that you're accountable and that you can run the offense. Everything else will take care of itself."

As for what Zimmer, a longtime defensive coordinator getting his first chance as an NFL coach, will be looking for in his quarterback, he used the words "leader" and "tough guy" on Wednesday.

"The guy obviously has to have the physical skills," Zimmer said. "But I'm talking about the other abilities. "A guy that wants to put the game on his shoulders and at the end, take it and win it. Obviously they need to have the arm strength, and the mental quickness to make quick decisions. You've got guys that go out there all day and throw seven-on-seven. When the bullets start flying they have to keep everything slowed down, get the guys in the right place and then deliver it to the right people."

Ponder has failed to be that guy in his first three seasons, the last of which almost certainly served as his final chance to win a job the Vikings desperately wanted him to take.

"The past few years we haven't done what anyone has wanted to do," Ponder said. "Obviously the same goes for me. I haven't done what I wanted to do and these coaches are going to coach us hard and expect the very best out of us on every play. They are hard coaches and I think that's good. It's a clean slate for me. I'm going to try to learn as much as possible from Norv and (quarterbacks coach) Scott Turner and try to earn a position on the field."

In reality, Ponder will be hoping to stick on the roster, something that could happen solely based on his 2014 salary being guaranteed.

As for the potential of the Vikings drafting a quarterback in the first round, Cassel, for one, said he isn't thinking about that.

"I don't know that and I honestly don't make those decisions," he said. "Whatever happens happens and right now I think our concentration is on the minicamp. If somebody joins the team at the quarterback position, it is what it is and you just go out and you play." 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
In this story: Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder
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