Wednesday September 21st, 2011

Is Christian Ponder ready to take over for Donovan McNabb? (Bruce Kluckhohn/US Presswire)

As of this coming Sunday, three quarterbacks taken in April's draft will be starting: Cam Newton in Carolina, Andy Dalton in Cincinnati and, the most recent addition, Blaine Gabbert in Jacksonville.

Meanwhile, Jake Locker and Christian Ponder wait their turns, the former in Tennessee and the latter in Minnesota. Which one's in line to become a starter next? It depends on a few factors ...

1. The Contract Situation

Locker and Ponder each are stuck presently behind veteran quarterbacks -- Matt Hasselbeck and Donovan McNabb, respectively.

Hasselbeck, 35, could be a Titan through at least 2013, which is the year his current contract runs through. McNabb, on the other hand, restructured his contract when Washington traded him to Minnesota. He'll be a free agent after the 2011 season.

Would the Vikings re-sign McNabb when they spent a first-round draft pick on Ponder? If not, riding McNabb through the season, if the Vikings fall out of the playoff picture altogether, seems fruitless.

Advantage: Ponder

2. The Team

While point one easily leaned Ponder's direction, this one's a little tougher to judge.

Both Minnesota and Tennessee have elite running backs -- Adrian Peterson for the Vikings, Chris Johnson for the Titans. Both teams also have question marks on the offensive line and good, but not great, defenses.

At this point, though, the Vikings are 0-2 and could be three games back in the NFC North by Sunday, if they lose to Detroit. The Titans, on the other hand, could have an opportunity to pounce in the AFC South -- Indianapolis is downtrodden without Peyton Manning, Jacksonville's already turned to Gabbert after a Week 2 blowout loss and Houston is an annual disappointment.

The longer a team stays in the race, the less chance it throws its rookie QB into the mix.

Advantage: Ponder

3. Who's more ready?

This is the toughest category to judge right now. Ponder looked like he would be able to make the jump quickly back in April -- he completed nearly 70 percent of his passes last season at Florida State and excelled academically in college.

Locker, meanwhile, seemed to have all the physical attributes but often struggled to put it all together at Washington. Ponder's more of a pocket passer, whereas Locker's mobility is one of his biggest strengths.

We don't have a lot to base this one on besides preseason play. Locker was very solid there, completing 32 of his 49 passes and posting a QB rating of 88.5. Ponder struggled a bit more, hitting 27-of-49 passes and compiling a 79.5 rating.

Advantage: Push

4. The opposition

Jacksonville waited until after a visit to the Jets to slide Gabbert into the lineup, for this weekend's game against a much-less imposing Carolina squad.

Minnesota plays Detroit and its fierce front seven in Week 3, then plays four of its next six on the road, including visits to Chicago and Green Bay. The Vikings also host the Packers in that stretch, then play Oakland and Atlanta back-to-back in Weeks 11 and 12.

Tennesee has a trip to Pittsburgh in Week 5, but the schedule's pretty favorable otherwise: Denver, Houston, Indianapolis and Cincinnati at home; Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Carolina on the road, before a challenging closing stretch.

Neither QB would really be able to ease into the mix, but the Titans at least avoid the potent NFC North.

Advantage: Locker

All things considered, both Locker and Ponder probably could use more time on the sidelines before they're thrust into the starting lineup. But as we've seen around the league this year, there can be some benefit to getting rookies game action as soon as possible, too.

Hasselbeck's also played better than McNabb thus far, with McNabb turning in a horrific 39-yard passing performance in Week 1. Considering their current situations, it would make more sense for the Titans to ride it out with Hasselbeck longer than the Vikings do with McNabb. So, the guess? Ponder gets his shot before Locker -- possibly within the next couple of weeks, if Minnesota can't turn it around.

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