Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 7/6/12
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. There's no doubting quarterback Christian Ponder's importance to the Minnesota Vikings. An unquestioned starter heading into his second NFL season, Ponder was drafted by Minnesota with the No. 12 overall pick last season to be the long-term, franchise quarterback; the face of the Vikings. Ponder was the signature pick in 2011 for Minnesota, but he is just part of an important, potentially franchise-changing, draft class for the Vikings. In Ponder's shadow are three other second-year players who could develop into starters this season. Nearly all of the 2011 draft class will be counted on to contribute. "We're going to need each one of them to help us this season," Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier said. "Especially when we're counting on some other rookies for depth at other positions. Those guys who were drafted a year ago, we need them to kind of come in to their own sooner than their third year; we need them in 2012." Nine of the 10 selections in last year's draft made the Minnesota roster last season and could stick this year. Only linebacker Ross Homan, taken in the sixth round, failed to earn a spot last season. Second-round pick Kyle Rudolph will start at tight end. Two sixth-round picks, Brandon Fusco and Mistral Raymond, could earn starting spots at right guard and safety, respectively. Fourth-round defensive lineman Christian Ballard, fifth-round cornerback Brandon Burton, sixth-round offensive tackle DeMarcus Love, seventh-round defensive end D'Aundre Reed and seventh-round receiver Stephen Burton round out a vital draft class for the Vikings. Last season was the first draft in years without former coach Brad Childress's influence. Frazier worked with Rick Spielman, at the time the vice president of player personnel, but Spielman was undoubtedly the final decision-maker. This season promises to be much different for the 2011 draftees simply due to the offseason program. Last year's rookies were in the dark, left without an offseason program in their first year in the league. "After the lockout we didn't have the OTAs, so we didn't get to have the playbook," Burton said. "If you were drafted in the first round, you were lucky enough to get the playbook. But as far as the guys that were drafted later in the rounds, it was pretty much time was against you. You came in, you had to get the playbook, you had to learn as fast as possible. Of course, some people were set back by the lockout, but it was out of our control." This offseason has been vital and is a big reason why more is expected out of the second-year players. "Just to see Brandon, to see Christian, to see all those guys who were drafted last year going through those OTA's, they're so different than when they were introduced to Viking football in training camp," Frazier said. "It's good for our coaches but it's great for our players. They will take leaps and bounds because of this offseason, no question. We're seeing it." Burton has shown what a difference a year can make. As a late-round pick, he struggled in training camp and was then put on the practice squad. This year he has worked with the first-team at times during organized team activities and minicamp. "Stephen Burton's really the guy that's stood out to me," Ponder said. "He's put in a lot of hard work and he looks good in these OTAs. He really understands what he's doing and he just looks so much more confident. I've been really impressed with him. Brandon Fusco's going to be important at right guard. Christian Ballard on defense, Mistral, and there's a bunch of guys that really need to step up this year. This is a good class. I'm really happy I came in with those guys. We're going to make an impact this year." Ponder's success or failure will ultimately define his draft class. His development will have lasting impact on the team and the staff. Picking the right quarterback can set up a team for years. Missing can set the team back for nearly as long. For his part, Ponder seems to have embraced his status as the leader and face of the Vikings. He isn't alone though. He has eight teammates that have been through the same trials and are being counted on this year. "For both of us, it's our second year so the comfort level is 10 times what it was last year," Rudolph said. And if they can develop as expected, Ponder knows the benefits to being part of a strong draft class as well. "It's a young team," Ponder said. "There's kind of been a youth movement and that's exciting to see. When we do well, that means we're going to be together for a long time and that's exciting." Follow Brian Hall on Twitter.
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