The Minnesota Vikings are entering training camp with only three quarterbacks—something they’ve only done once in the last seven years (in 2010, with Tavaris Jackson, Sage Rosenfels and Joe Webb)—and could potentially enter the season with only two.
It’s a bit foreign to Vikings fans, but becoming much more common in the NFL. In 2009, only seven teams opened the season with only two quarterbacks (Green Bay, New Orleans, New England, New York Giants, Chicago, Jacksonville and Washington). In 2013, that total doubled. Much of this has to do with the elimination of the “third quarterback rule,” which functionally gave NFL teams a free active roster spot reserved for a third quarterback but limited their usage.
When the NFL expanded the active roster to 46 players without requiring that the 46th player be a quarterback, there was a smaller incentive to carry a third quarterback because he was no longer a free spot on the game day roster, and he could instead be replaced by another defensive lineman or receiver.
When the rule was eliminated in 2011, the number of teams who rostered a third quarterback in opening day dropped immediately from 21 in 2010 to 17 in 2011, and it has stayed closer to 17 since then.
In the last five years, both Mike Zimmer and Norv Turner have been on squads that more often than not only had two quarterbacks on their roster—out of ten opening day rosters, they’ve had exactly two quarterbacks six times. Since the rule change, they’ve only had one roster out of six with three quarterbacks (Cleveland last year). Perhaps also relevant is the fact that Turner has had a few rosters before the rule change with only two quarterbacks (2010 with San Diego and 2004 with Oakland).
Rick Spielman, who of course will have a significant impact on the final roster, has only ever had three quarterbacks on his rosters come opening day.
NFL rosters are tricky and tradeoffs are imperative. The fact that the Vikings are in the middle of a cornerback experiment, with reclamation projects Derek Cox and Josh Robinson, as well as late-round (or undrafted) flyers like Jabari Price, Kendall James, Shaun Price and Julian Posey. It may make sense to keep more than the five the Vikings did last year (six including Blanton), especially as they skimped on offensive linemen (with only eight) and receivers (five).
The fact that the bottom of the receiver chart might be an extremely competitive battle and that Josh Robinson may not be salvageable means that there’s reasons to prioritize depth at skill positions than at quarterback. After all, if the team is down to its third quarterback, it’s probably not going to win anyway. Not so at receiver or defensive back.
In all likelihood, Christian Ponder is going to be the third quarterback on the roster, and therefore the candidate to be cut. Keeping or cutting him wouldn’t impact the cap one way or the other because his money has been fully guaranteed and the Vikings would be wise not to make decisions because of the sunk cost fallacy.
Most quarterbacks who are third on their respective depth charts are developmental. Joe Webb and McLeod Bethel-Thompson fit that role for the Vikings and it’s something you see throughout the league—Pat Devlin, Ricky Stanzi, Case Keenum, Ryan Lindley, etc. The Vikings do not really have a quarterback that fits that description very well.
There is a small relationship between how “settled” a quarterback is and how many a team keeps on the roster—Green Bay, New England and New Orleans usually keep two on the roster (though not always)—but Cincinnati, St. Louis, Buffalo (perhaps not by choice), Tennessee and Chicago did as well. Further, relatively safe quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Colin Kaepernick, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Stafford saw two players behind them instead of just one.
The perception of injury risk to the top quarterback may play a role, too. Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers were not contemporarily seen as injury risks heading into the season, and despite missing all of 2008, neither was Tom Brady. Peyton Manning’s age and recent neck surgery does make him a candidate. So do Roethlisberger and Stafford’s injury history.
It isn’t easy to divine a pattern from a limited sample size and a scant distribution of relevant variables, like internal injury perception and how “settled” a quarterback is, but it’s safe to say the Vikings probably do not have a lot of indicators that would allow them to skimp on a quarterback, like an elite passer or a top quarterback well-known for surviving hits.
Regardless, the question likely falls to whether or not the benefit of a third quarterback exceeds the benefit of a sixth receiver or defensive back (or ninth offensive lineman or second fullback, etc.). With the cost to the team nearly identical either way (a small decrease in cap space of around $500,000 is likely necessary for a different player), it really is a simple this-or-that decision.
There shouldn’t be much debate that for all his failings, Ponder is a much better “third quarterback” than teams traditionally have. Ponder, with enough time, comfort and against certain defenses, can put together a winning performance or at least put together a “game manager” role within the confines of the Norv Turner offense. It is difficult to say that for a player like Ricky Stanzi or Ryan Lindley. It could be one of the few instances where a team putting in their third quarterback wouldn’t be a death knell.
On the other hand, the benefit of keeping a developmental player at another position on the roster is potentially a free draft pick next year and a player that can make sure the team doesn’t suffer too much if an injury at another position occurs—much more likely given how many cornerbacks and receivers are on the field at a time and how much more punishment they suffer relative to quarterbacks.
If Price, James, Prater or Posey work out as the sixth cornerback, they could eventually develop into a starting-caliber player like Jamarca Sanford did at safety. That saves the Vikings from having to spend draft capital early on and focus on other needs—perhaps linebacker, for example. Even if they don’t, the Vikings’ injury history at defensive back might simply demand more depth there.
A secondary, related, question would be about in-game needs. It isn’t very likely that two quarterbacks get injured in the same game, and it is slightly more likely two cornerbacks or two receivers do—necessitating spot duty from a player at the bottom of that depth chart. It should also be noted that any player that would be added to the roster solely because the Vikings made room by cutting a quarterback would not likely be on the game day roster, but the requirements change week-to-week.
On the other hand, one injury at the position (should it send a player to injured reserve) will force the Vikings to look into free agency for an in-season replacement during the week, and a replacement-level cornerback, wide receiver, offensive lineman, etc. will likely be better at their position than a replacement-level quarterback… unless Sage Rosenfels decides to hold off on his budding broadcast career and give the Vikings another go-round.
Over 40 percent of the league decided to roll with two quarterbacks last year in favor of roster space somewhere else. For all the money invested in Christian Ponder, the Vikings are a dark horse candidate to follow suit because of the importance of roster depth and the prospect of developing untapped talent. Should they?