The Minnesota Vikings' offseason acquisition of Jerome Simpson will ensure that Christian Ponder establishes himself as a solid quarterback in the coming season. While not a flashy signing, Jerome Simpson possesses the basic skills necessary to open up the Vikings offense and maintain the offensive balance needed to be effective in today's NFL.
The Vikings have a bevy of problems, as you would expect of any 3-13 team. Beyond clear issues with the linebacker, safety and offensive line positions, the Vikings face uncertainty at wide receiver.
Not only has Percy Harvin caused headaches of his own, but the Vikings have not had a reliable deep threat since Sidney Rice and his bum hip left for greener pastures in Seattle.
The offseason saw some low-profile moves by the Vikings to shore up their weaknesses, including signing former Bengals receiver Jerome Simpson.
The lanky receiver will not be the savior of the organization, but he has a skill set that the Vikings need and would otherwise lack. His mix of talent and ability will enable the other playmakers on the Vikings offense to make a splash—potentially moving the Vikings out of the bottom 10 in points scored and total yards and into much more respectable territory.
Simpson gives Ponder a large field, a friendly target and an open defense.
His most obvious talent is his athleticism. He is more than his prodigious flip: Simpson is quite the all-around athlete who can stretch the field. His combine speed—he runs a 4.42 40—translates to on-field speed, and he is difficult to man up on.
This ability to pull defenders is most evident on his best assignments—the deep slant and the post/go routes. He can maintain speed to beat most cornerbacks and can reserve acceleration for when he needs to adjust to a thrown ball.
Despite an inability to maintain that pace on particularly long stretches, Simpson's quickness and height pull defenders away from other receivers on the field. The clearest example of this is his game against the Baltimore Ravens. Starting for the Bengals due to AJ Green's injury, Simpson gashed one of the league's top defenses for 152 yards.
Consistently, his speed and size created separation from defenders and he flashed his ability to get downfield quickly.
The most interesting thing about that game is that he didn't really get involved until the two minute warning of the first half. From there, the defense had to keep changing their coverage concepts and still allowed over 125 yards in a single half of play.
Outside of his speed, Jerome also exhibits exquisite body control, with excellent command over his ankles, knees, hips and shoulders. He kept his toes inbounds on sideline catches, shook press coverage and forced corners to bite on twists and fakes.
But these technical details are just gravy; his best assets for Ponder and the young Vikings offense are his ability to adjust to a thrown ball into the air and his large catch radius. He can leap well and in stride, providing tantalizing potential for big plays.
His abilities can save bad throws and even prevent interceptions (the most recent instance of which occurred in OTAs, where he had a spectacular catch against Chris Cook).
While the new quarterback is figuring out the offense and reading NFL defenses, Simpson will enable Ponder's development by giving him options and bailing him out. Even when running short routes, the athletic young receiver from Coastal Carolina will present a large target for Ponder to throw to, and give Ponder some cushion for mistakes.
Given Ponder's apparent proclivity for throws to the back shoulder or behind the receiver, Simpson's fantastic ability to react and respond to a thrown ball will be invaluable. He's not the league's best when it comes to midair adjustments, but he certainly stands out and clearly knows what to do with his body when the ball is up for grabs.
His last and most overlooked quality is his route intuition. Contrary to popular opinion, Jerome Simpson clearly demonstrates an understanding not only of a complex NFL playbook, but the concepts and functions behind different route options.
He reads defenses well, often displays great decision-making on route reads and can get into open space.
Beyond that, his ability to create open space for himself will often create open space for others. When designated as the first receiver for the offense, Simpson draws attention from defenses or makes them pay.
Counterintuitively, this implies that Jerome Simpson flourishes in more complex offenses than simple ones—offenses that require checks at the snap, multiple receiver options determined pre-snap and post-snap, and decisions made on the fly, all planned out.
Chemistry is impossible to predict or project, but if Ponder and Simpson are on the same page when it comes to reading the defense, they will gain yards at a good clip and always be a threat to move the chains. This read-and-react capability is critical for attacking defenses like Green Bay, who rely on cornerback savvy and generating turnovers.
How big of an asset will Jerome Simpson be for the Vikings?
Naturally, the first response to any assertion that Simpson can learn new playbooks is to ask why he never started for the Bengals. The answer lies not in Simpson's learning curve, but in the fact that he's simply not a great receiver.
Take a quick look at his competition for a spot: in his rookie year, he competed with T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Chad Ochocinco/Johnson and Andre Caldwell to see the field. He only had 13 snaps that season.
A year later, Housh was replaced by Laveranues Coles and Simpson only saw the field five more times.
In a controversial 2010, Coles was replaced with Terrell Owens. Simpson once again could not overcome competition for a starting slot, but did get over 150 snaps and caught the ball 80 percent of the time it was thrown to him (20 of 25 times), putting him ahead of every receiver who played 300 or more snaps except Austin Collie.
He did well in his time as the primary receiver. In 2011, he finished with 725 yards and 53 receptions, and shined in games where AJ Green was absent. He forced defenses to adjust to him, giving Dalton an out much more than expected, and found open space.
Jerome Simpson is also going to help the Vikings running game. He won't start in his first few games for the Vikings this season, and there is a high degree of likelihood that Adrian Peterson will be absent or limited in his participation in the early season as well.
Aside from this superficial connection, there is also another way they are tied to each other—they are dependent upon each other for success.
Adrian Peterson was up against the most 8-man boxes in the league in 2011. This has as much to do with the fact that the Vikings were the fifth-worst passing offense as it does with the Vikings' prodigious running game—second-best on a per play basis.
The calculus for teams makes a lot of sense—if the Vikings are not effective as passers, concentrate on their runners. While it didn't work all the time, it limited the options the Vikings had on the offense, nullifying any contributions the offensive playmakers could have made.
Because a potent passing offense correlates extremely well with a strong running game, opening up defenses could enable a healthy Adrian Peterson to have a historically good year. A rising tide will lift all boats, and a good passing game will ensure a powerful running game.
Not only will Adrian Peterson be a benefactor, but one of the best slot receivers in the NFL—Percy Harvin—will explode. Wes Welker has proven that offenses can exploit excellent slot receivers, and Percy can force incredible mismatches against nearly any NFL secondary. Harvin generated nearly 1325 yards from scrimmage, and did this while defenses keyed in on him.
With one of the highest snap-to-target percentages in the league (second, behind Antonio Brown) at 19 percent, defenses knew to focus on Harvin. When matched with other legitimate receivers, Harvin will be able to post his first 1,000-yard receiving season and enter the ranks of elite receivers.
Jerome Simpson isn't perfect by any means, something I've indicated in the past. While he knows which routes to run, he runs them somewhat poorly and rounds off corners. He has trouble getting off of releases when pressed, and has serious timing issues, forcing him to adjust more than he should (and causing a number of dropped passes).
Many of his problems won't go away with time and are difficult to change. But in order to be effective, Simpson doesn't need to be great. He needs to merely be good and let Ponder, Peterson and Harvin shine.