Is Ponder the draft’s dark horse?

Coming into the year I thought Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder was the best senior quarterback in the nation — yes, better than Washington’s Jake Locker . He displayed a good handle of the offense, anticipated routes well, looked comfortable buying time in the pocket and had the ability to make just about any throw asked of him.

However, after suffering a shoulder injury toward the end of the 2009 season and a rash of other bumps and bruises throughout the 2010 season (elbow and forearm), he obviously wasn’t the same player. And because of his lacking arm strength, opposing defenses were able to compact the field, forcing Ponder to use his legs more to create plays for himself, which ultimately led to a very poor 2010 season for him.

So, most people just wrote him off after the season, giving little thought to the idea that his injury-plagued throwing arm could have led to his struggles. I’m not buying that argument, because the guy just didn’t forget how to play football and be an efficient ACC passer in one season.

Therefore, after taking some time off after the season, resting his arm and rejuvenating himself for the 2011 Senior Bowl, Ponder was spinning the football as well as I have seen from him over the past two seasons. The football was coming out of his hands cleanly, he displayed good balance in the pocket and kept the ball held high and cocked ready to throw at any moment.

Plus, above all else, he seemed confident anticipating throws, getting the ball out on time and forcing opposing defenses to cover the entire field — something he was unable to do during his senior year because of his lacking velocity due to his injuries. And in my view Ponder knew he couldn’t make all the throws and was instead forced to try to create plays with his feet, causing his eye level to go down too quickly and leaving a lot of plays on the field he would have made if at full strength. His eye wasn’t a flaw in his game I saw from him as a junior, it was a flaw he had to develop because of the circumstances this past season.

Therefore, from an evaluation standpoint, Ponder’s senior year can be looked at in only a couple of ways…
1. He’s a tough kid who tried to play through the pain and do what was best for the team despite not having his best stuff.
2. He may have developed some medical issues that now need to be checked out and determining if he can hold up throughout the course of an NFL season is key in determining his draft stock.

However, other than that there isn’t too much in my mind you can get out of the season from him because he was simply playing with a limited hand.

But what I do know is that based off his junior tape — when he was healthy — and at the Senior Bowl — again, when he was healthy — the guy was able to accurately spin the football on all areas of the field. He deciphered information well, is a smart kid and a hard worker off the field and has exhibited the kind of mental makeup to get kicked in the teeth, dust himself off and get back on the horse, an attribute we have already seen from him a number of times already during his college career.

He doesn’t have the same skill set as the trio of junior signal-callers in this year’s draft or even Jake Locker. But at the same time he’s the one guy in the class I would go to bat for on draft day because the guy can make all the throws for you from the pocket or on the move, he gets it from the shoulders up and knows how to handle the adversity that comes with being an NFL quarterback. Which is why I have him graded out as the second-best quarterback prospect in the nation.

The evaluation of a prospect isn’t just a senior season. It’s a four-year process that is going to have its ups and downs. But, in order to get the best evaluation on a player in my mind, it’s best to look at the entire picture and not just an injury-plagued senior season, which is the case for a guy like Ponder.

Follow me on twitter: @WesBunting

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