Christian Ballard (Otto Greule Jr/Getty)
Christian Ballard is making a strong initial impression on the Vikings, who are looking for ways to get him involved in the defense when the regular season rolls around and many other rookies fade to the sidelines.
Christian Ballard kept tumbling down the draft board in April, with teams passing on the physically gifted defensive lineman two, three, even four times.
All Ballard could do was sit and wait, and the long and arduous experience finally ended on the final day when the Minnesota Vikings grabbed him in the fourth round.
A failed drug test at the NFL Scouting Combine scared many teams away from Ballard, the dreaded “character problems” overshadowing his tantalizing combination of size, speed and technique.
The early returns have been nothing but favorable for Ballard and the Vikings. Ballard leads the team with two sacks in the first three preseason games and has shown so much promise and versatility that the Vikings are toying with moving end Everson Griffen to linebacker in some packages.
“We thought we were getting a coup where we took him in the draft,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “He has not disappointed.”
Draft weekend may have been painful, but the end result may have been perfect for Ballard. The Vikings have a history over taking chances on players with checkered resumes, especially on the defensive line.
With Frazier running the show, highly respected Karl Dunbar as the defensive line coach and rock solid veteran Kevin Williams anchoring the unit, the Vikings think they have the right pieces in place to help players who may need a little extra guidance.
It’s served them well in the recent past. They traded for Jared Allen in 2008 despite a history of DWI arrests and promptly made him the highest-paid defensive player in the league.
Allen has responded by being one of the best defensive ends in football over the past three years.
In 2009, receiver Percy Harvin fell to them at pick No. 22 in the first round after failing a drug test at the combine. Harvin won offensive rookie of the year honors that season and is the team’s No. 1 receiver heading into this season.
Then there was Griffen, who was projected to be a first-round pick last year, but fell to the Vikings in the fourth round after scouts grew concerned about his maturity and focus.
Griffen has run into a few problems off the field as a Viking, including a misdemeanor for a run-in with police in Los Angeles in February.
Frazier spoke to Griffen about his conduct, and he has responded by being one of the more impressive defensive players in the preseason.
The Vikings like him and Ballard so much that they had Griffen run through some drills this week as a linebacker, hoping they can get them both on the field in certain situations and add depth to their injury-depleted linebackers.
“We like Christian a lot. We think he’s going to be an excellent football player,” defensive coordinator Fred Pagac said. “Obviously, he has a lot to learn yet. He’s improving daily and before it’s all said and done we think he’s going to be a really fine football player.”
Like all rookies, because of the NFL lockout Ballard didn’t have an offseason around the team to get up to speed with his defensive assignments and start forging a chemistry with his teammates. He’s been getting a crash course in August and is learning as fast as he can.
“You can’t really focus too much on what you did wrong, but what you can do better,” Ballard said. “Your hand placements, getting off the ball faster. That’s the thing, you come out here and focus on those things and when you get in the game, it’s going to carry over from the practice field.
“Coach Dunbar is a great coach and Kevin’s a great teacher, so coming out here and learning from those guys has really helped me out.”
While Frazier and Pagac have been impressed with the 22-year-old’s quick study, Williams is a little slower with the praise.
“They’re doing some good things, but a lot of things they still need to improve on,” Williams said of the youngsters on the line. “When those young guys come in in the second half, they need to pick up where the older guys left off and we let that go this past game and we need to clean that up this week.”
The messages are hitting home with Ballard.
“The speed’s so much faster than college ball and that’s definitely been the biggest thing for me,” he said. “I think I’ve done OK so far. I’ve got a lot of room for improvement and that’s what I’m looking forward to and I’m pretty excited about it.”