The Vikings have lost the most dynamic playmaker they might have ever had on their roster. Percy Harvin won't reach the depths of legend that Alan Page, Randy Moss and Paul Krause have, but there's no question that the Vikings have moved on from an explosive player who was essential to the offense.
And now they're tasked with replacing him.
After the flurry of the first day of free agency, Vikings fans might be a little depressed given the beating they've taken. Not only have they lost Harvin, they have seemingly lost their best option in the secondary with the departure of Antoine Winfield without acquiring any new talent.
With unarguably the worst receiving corps in the NFL, the Vikings have a clear need they must address and observers must be underwhelmed at the rate the Vikings have gone about fixing the problem.
But the process isn't over, and the Vikings have a bevy of options in front of them to deal with solving the offensive puzzle left behind in Harvin's wake.
The most obvious option for replacing Percy Harvin is to find someone who can fill his niche in the draft.
The problem, of course, is that Harvin's talent and skill set are nearly irreplaceable. No drafted wide receiver in NFL history has had more all-purpose yards in their first four years and only one player in the post-merger era has had more all-purpose yards per game in the same span of time—Terry Metcalf, between 1973 and 1976.
But that doesn't mean there aren't available players in the draft who share or carry many of the same skills as Harvin.
The former Viking has been a threat in the return game, the passing game and as a rusher. Similarly, there are a number of draftees who can emulate those talents.
The most obvious comparison is Tavon Austin, who found himself playing the slotback role in a shocking game against Oklahoma.
Austin has the ability to run nearly every route that Harvin runs, shows an ability to cut on a dime and changes direction with smoothness that is nearly unparalleled. He shares Harvin's vision and has many of the same skills as a receiver—body control, deception and explosiveness highlight his film.
More than that, he and Harvin both have gained an extraordinary amount of their yardage from screen passes. Austin had over a third of his targets (33.9 percent) come from screen passes, while Harvin had slightly more of his passes (39.5 percent, from Pro Football Focus) come from behind the line of scrimmage.
In addition, both of them have fantastic catch rates and drop rates—among the highest in their respective classes.
Austin is less talented, as is to be expected for a college player compared to a pro. He averages fewer yards after the catch (7.3 to Harvin's 8.7), fewer yards per screen pass (5.8 to 9.5) and has a worse time in traffic. Without the same strength and size as Harvin, he's also less versatile—Musgrave would have to eliminate runs between the tackles and some of the underneath routes through the middle.
If the Vikings want to replace Harvin with another multidimensional player that is a threat to run, catch or return kicks, then they could do a lot worse than Austin.
Besides Austin, Cordarrelle Patterson shows the same versatility, but also is missing a lot of the traits that made Harvin such a gadget threat. A highlight reel of Cordarrelle Patterson looks a lot like Harvin's resume. He ran to the outside, inside, was an electric returner and was a fantastic short-yardage receiver.
Like Austin, Patterson has the body control of an elite receiver and shows a surprising ability to replicate the deception that Austin and Harvin sell so well at the release.
Patterson is different in a lot of crucial ways, however.
Aside from the obvious height difference, Patterson is much more prone to dropping passes and is not a very refined route-runner at all. He'll round off routes and give positioning away to defensive backs. That, and his vision in picking running lanes or finding the seam in the return game leaves a lot to be desired.
Patterson could turn into a "big Harvin," but it's unlikely. More likely is that Patterson's role will be more limited and traditional, as a big man outside that runs intermediate routes.
Marquise Goodwin is an intriguing prospect as well. He doesn't have the resume Harvin did when leaving college, in that he only gained 491 yards from scrimmage his senior year. Like Harvin, Goodwin is versatile in a number of ways that should allow any creative offensive coordinator to have a field day.
The problem is that Goodwin is not nearly as effective in the same roles. Like Austin, he should be limited from running through the middle as a result of his physique, but he also simply doesn't have the fundamental skills that Austin and Harvin share.
Goodwin isn't patient when reading his blocks and finding holes to run through, and is also somewhat lacking in his vision, particularly when faced with the choice of running through a cutback lane. He runs extremely imprecise routes and has trouble with his footwork at the stem.
Part of Harvin's appeal has been his unbelievably efficient route running. He generates separation in nearly every way that a receiver can with body positioning, speed, explosion, deception, hand work and suddenness. Goodwin can't do that, especially without good route running.
He can't get off the line as well as the rest of the draft class and isn't nearly a reliable target that Harvin and Austin are on the field.
If the Vikings draft Goodwin with a mind to put him into the slotback/gadget/do-everything role that Harvin has excelled in, he'll take a year or two before he can even compete for a starting spot.
If the Vikings want to grab a receiver in the draft that could fulfill Harvin's role, their options are limited to three players—two of whom will likely go in the first round.
The Vikings aren't limited to finding a receiver to fulfill Harvin's role. It would be ridiculous to invest a high pick in a pure running back given Adrian Peterson's dominance and Toby Gerhart's underrated ability, but a slotback could fulfill many of the same functions as Harvin.
The biggest problem with this strategy, of course, is that the Vikings would need to find not just a reliable pass-catcher, but a consistent route-runner from the line of scrimmage in the slot.
Those running backs are rare. Not only do they need experience running out of a receiver position in order to understand the role they would play in such an offense, but they need to know how to handle different kinds of coverage, release off the line, run precise routes, create separation against better coverage threats and set up defensive backs among other things.
There are a whole host of skills that come with running routes from the line of scrimmage that make it distinct from running routes out of the backfield. Even the most prolific pass-catching backs would still not be a suitable replacement for Harvin in Harvin's role—especially because the running back role has already been taken.
That said, there are a few running backs who possess that capability.
Theo Riddick is the most obvious multi-capable running back in the draft, having spent his sophomore and junior years as a wide receiver and bookending his college career at running back. The advantage he holds over Goodwin and Austin is that he's clearly capable of running up the middle, and he can just as easily bounce outside.
He has excellent vision and can read blocks very well, and is just patient enough to let those blocks set up his run. Like Harvin, he has explosive burst and fantastic change-of-direction capability, although his calling card might be his absurd balance.
Nevertheless, his time at receiver did not impart him with the full breadth of receiver knowledge one needs to be successful. He's a far, far better route-runner than most running backs, but falls well behind his contemporaries at wide receiver. While he can avoid getting pushed off his routes, he doesn't always gain positioning and needs to work on his route timing in order to get there.
Most of his receiving gains in his senior year came through routes run through the backfield
Riddick could be turned into the type of Swiss army knife that Harvin embodies, but it would likely take too much work. Instead, Riddick should be content being a running back with occasional receiving capability.
Kerwynn Williams is in the same boat. He could very easily be asked to perform that role in the NFL, although he is likely going in the same direction as Riddick: a running back who has an additional talent instead of a player whose role isn't listed on an official team depth chart.
Williams only receives a mention here because he has generated extraordinary yardage with his pass-catching talents relative to his peers (697 yards in the air in 2012). Most of Williams' receiving yardage comes from routes run out of the backfield, routes that don't require the precision that Harvin's role demands.
He has been split wide, however. He just gets blown up in press coverage and moved around the field. Williams can't get a release off the line that generate the type of timing with a quarterback that makes him a real threat running as a receiver. He also doesn't have the capacity to focus his body and mind on the ball in the air while still planning his next move, meaning he couldn't be a yards-after-the-catch type of receiver.
The closest analogue of the running back class might be Robbie Rouse, an undersized running back who shows up in the mid-20s of many draft expert rankings, which should mean he would be a seventh-round prospect or even go undrafted.
That doesn't mean that he doesn't have the skills that would make him an effective slotback, just that his perceived role and ability do not fit each other. When viewed through another lens, however, he could be worth a little more.
He's 5'6" and 190 pounds, has trouble in pass protection and powering through bigger players. He's certainly not an every-down running back, and many teams will question his usefulness on third down, given his inability to stop the pass-rusher.
Rouse is not as explosive as Harvin, nor as agile. But he still shows up as much more athletic than his opponents on the field. He and Harvin also share a grittiness that sees an undersized ball-carrier take a 250-pound linebacker head on.
He's lined up in the slot and even outside of the numbers, and shows much more skill than most running backs positioned at the line in running routes and getting around defensive backs. He generates yards after the catch and yards after contact largely through a hard-to-define slipperiness, that looks different from, but is almost as effective as Harvin's technique to shed would-be-tacklers.
The "Mighty Mouse," Robbie Rouse, has issues with deep speed and patience that don't make him a perfect fit, and he also needs to learn a lot more about the receiver position before he can take over that gadget role for a team, but he has the basic techniques and capabilities to command more than a minimum UDFA contract, perhaps even garnering a seventh-round pick.
There are other running backs in the draft who are pass-catchers, but even Kenjon Barner, Jospeh Randle, Giovanni Bernard and Ray Graham—all threats with the ball in the air—do not show the capability to handle the multiple responsibilities of a slotback who can line up across the field against linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks.
Building a team doesn't just happen through the draft. Savvy teams can find gems through free agency or even the trading process in order to keep the system they have and maximize value. There are a number of players in the NFL who could transition to a role similar to Harvin's. Some teams have already started, thanks to Harvin's success in Minnesota.
The first name that comes to mind is also the player who might be most familiar of the list to Vikings fans: Randall Cobb.
It is undeniable that the Packers have been grooming Cobb to fulfill a similar role to Percy Harvin, and they've had him run reverses, end arounds, sweeps, dives and anything else you might want from a speedy running back.
They've also had Cobb returning kicks and punts, to great effect.
Naturally, Cobb has been an effective receiver as well. He does a good job generating yards after the catch, although his capability isn't nearly the same. His agility and athleticism are nearly on par with Harvin's, but his ability to create separation with that athleticism is a little behind.
He could do more to improve his route running and footwork, and be a more reliable target for an all-world quarterback like Aaron Rodgers. He also doesn't have the soft hands and haul-in capability Harvin displays, with a very high drop rate (12.09 percent according to Pro Football Focus).
Nevertheless, he's explosive and can run out of any formation (they are usually draw runs out of shotgun, however) while providing an excellent receiving option. He has excellent vision as a returner and is the closest the league has to a Harvin analogue besides the troubled playmaker himself.
The Vikings would not be able to target him for a trade, however. Besides the fact that Cobb is a growing part of an offense that expects to see the Super Bowl and plays two games a year against the Vikings, he's extremely cheap to have on the roster.
The next-best bet is probably Darren Sproles, who functionally serves that role for the Saints. While a frustrating fantasy pickup in 2012, Sproles ended the year with 911 yards from scrimmage. Interestingly, he had more receptions this last year than rushing attempts and had a nearly balanced workload the year before with 87 attempts and 86 receptions.
Sproles may have been the "first" modern gadget player, and has been extraordinarily productive catching, running and returning. In 2011, he set a record for single-season all-purpose yards. Sproles has the type of agility that can break games. His burst is elite as he explodes through seams and holes. He might be the most sudden player in the NFL.
His best talent might be the ability to execute a decision at the very last moment—no player in the NFL might be better at cutting at the last second without betraying his intentions. He runs receiver routes and displays a variety of receiver skills, including sinking hips at the breaks, exploding out of cuts and maintaining precise footwork.
Naturally his size limits his opportunities in the receiving game, and he would line up outside significantly less than a player like Harvin has, and he still needs to do more to beat press coverage.
Despite all his physical talent, his technical skills are still significantly behind Harvin's. Nevertheless, if properly utilized, he could also become one of the most dangerous players in the NFL, like he has been in the past.
For that reason, it would likely cost far too much for the Vikings to acquire him. The Saints are also competitors and may be particularly driven to go all-in on another Super Bowl run after a disappointing 2012. While they have some of the best running back depth in the league, it would be hard to pry Sproles from the team.
Andrew Hawkins might be the NFL player most likely to move (of these three) if a concerted effort was made to capture him. Hawkins may be one of the nimblest player in the NFL, despite the fact that he hasn't produced at an elite level yet.
Hawkins' greatest asset—the ability to move around the field like a ghost—shows up on returns, something he has yet to do at the NFL level. In Toledo and in the CFL, however, he was absolutely dominating. He was the fifth returner for the Alouettes, but exhibited vision to set up his blocks and make gains. He didn't take any to the house, but was extremely consistent, providing more yardage than a typical return while not buffing his stats with a long gain.
More than that, his short-area quickness has given him a decent reputation for generating yards after the catch. His hands are more reliable than Cobb's, but he is much worse in traffic. He also can't create real estate for the ball and will find himself contesting a lot more balls than he should.
That and his make-you-miss ability isn't complemented with something that Harvin, Cobb and Sproles all have: the ability to take a hit. Hawkins goes down far easier due to contact. He's significantly weaker than Harvin and Cobb and needs to spend time in the weight room before he takes this sort of role on.
He hasn't really lined up in the backfield with the intention to run through the tackles, and his strength and size are good reasons why. These are fixable, however, and he could be a poor man's Harvin if developed correctly. He further needs to develop a better read of defenses and improve his route-running, but he is an incredible athlete worth looking into.
Given that the Bengals seem interested in his development it is unlikely they let him go, but a trade for him would be significantly cheaper than for other slotback options. He will be a restricted free agent after the 2013 season, so the Bengals might have a floor on his trade value that would make it difficult for the Vikings to put together an attractive package. Still, it's worth a look.
Believe it or not, the Minnesota Vikings have an innovative offensive coordinator. What he lacks in context and play-calling he might make up for in play design and creativity.
Sure, you can gripe about third down calls and play balance, but there's little question that Bill Musgrave's offense helped create the Harvin position in the NFL. No one had so fully utilized such a multidimensional player in so many ways so effectively, despite poor quarterback play.
Who's to say Musgrave can't do it again?
It might just be time to move on from the Harvin-Peterson offense to a new paradigm.
There are several receivers in the draft with playmaking capability that don't match Harvin's group of talents. Players like DeAndre Hopkins have the capability to provide a reliable option at any level of the field, while possession prospects like Quinton Patton can provide a more consistent ball-control offense to enable the ground game and spell the defense.
There are any number of players to design the offense around. While there's no Julio Jones-type prospect in the class, there are strengths to each prospect that make them valuable building blocks for a competitive offense.
As mentioned above, Hopkins is a threat to advance the ball from anywhere on the field. Working him into a five-step-drop offense that puts him in intermediate positions across the field will stretch defenses horizontally while runs up the middle should put Peterson into the secondary relatively easy.
Alternatively, grabbing a player like Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson, Terrance Williams, Aaron Dobson or Da'Rick Rogers should stretch defenses vertically, the benefits to which are obvious. Unlike moving defenses to the sidelines, players are more likely to converge on ball-carriers, but will do so further upfield. Given that Peterson excels once he's given space, this might be the better of the two options.
With Dobson and Williams, the Vikings further have the opportunity to give quarterback Christian Ponder more leeway when passing because of their ability to adjust to the ball in the air. With that in mind, a looser offense that more closely resembles the Run'n'Shoot that includes more field reads than reads of the defense and receivers that adjust their routes on the fly.
This means that Ponder will less likely "throw receivers open" and display good ball placement and will have to hammer home chemistry with his receivers more than most, but it makes the offense more unpredictable.
With Patterson, Hunter and Rogers, ball placement is much more important, so the Vikings would need to stick to more West Coast offense principles that keep a disciplined set of patterns that improve timing and create familiarity.
Players like Keenan Allen, Robert Woods and Quinton Patton reinforce an offense centered around Peterson that emphasizes low-turnover, low-possession games. These receivers would be asked to run intermediate routes that move the chains and are more cognizant of landmarks on the field. Like an offense with the Tennessee trio described above, it would rely on timing, but would deal with play breakdowns easier—these players know how to create space for themselves and improvise, even if their improvisation doesn't lead to long, 20-yard gains.
It wouldn't open up the field for Peterson as much as the other offenses, but it would make the offense more consistent, getting slow yards in an attempt to keep scoring low and dominating with the run game. Reducing the number of total possessions has been working for teams like San Francisco, and taking reliable shorter gains in order to get benefits later on is a tried-and-true strategy.
At any rate, the Vikings have a lot of options to reorient their offense.
With Wes Welker, Greg Jennings, Danny Amendola, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Danario Alexander available to play a marquee role for the Vikings, they could choose to start shaping their offensive philosophy before the draft starts.
An ideal solution would be to sign a player with one set of talents and draft a complementary player in order to add depth and complexity to the offense.
But if the Vikings wanted to design the offense around a playmaker currently available, they'll look at the draft as a supplement, not a guide to how the offense will need to change.
With a high-volume receiver like Welker, the Vikings could choose to run a West Coast offense with reverse reads, moving progressions from the bottom up instead of the other way around. That would make Welker the primary mover of the offense, and make other receivers and playmakers constraint options once the defense primes in on Welker.
That is, the Vikings could punish teams when they key in on Welker by moving up the ladder of available receivers—all of whom would theoretically be easier to throw to.
That will create consistent, but short, gains with the potential for explosive capability when the defense is caught unawares. Welker is more technique than physical talent, so the big gains will be few and far apart for him, but designing an offense around him would have to be exciting.
Guys like Jennings and Amendola would primarily operate out of the slot as well, but would provide more versatility to the offense given their athleticism and ability to stretch the field from inside. Both do a very good job of working cornerbacks who are shaded outside and can find seams to make big plays. Demanding deeper zone coverage in base sets and man coverage in nickel sets, they could also enable the run game by backing the secondary up or taking a linebacker off the field.
This sort of offense would need to work in tandem with Kyle Rudolph to flood the middle zones and keep receivers on the outside to operate as constraints once the defense contracts.
This would keep the screen game alive, but it would no longer be a focal point of the passing offense. In this case, Ponder would need to be more accurate, given how much passing would happen in traffic.
Players like Darrius Heyward-Bey and Danario Alexander present field-stretching opportunities, although they would largely play outside and wouldn't be as versatile as a number of other players, but they are also more difficult to match up against. They have the combination of speed and height that make for a quintessential deep threat who can provide a boom-bust offense.
In this scenario, the Vikings could rely on Adrian Peterson to constrict the defense while using deep players to operate as constraints that give Peterson room. Kyle Rudolph would have to keep defenses honest over the middle, but creating an attack that represents Air Coryell would be an option that these receivers certainly provide.
While this option is largely in jest, it is a way to test the prevalence of pass-happy offenses and challenge the turn towards lighter linebackers, nickel sets and smaller defensive tackles.
Here, the Vikings wouldn't grab a receiver so much as they would grab a blocker who catches. While the best options for that—Martellus Bennett and Dawyne Allen—are gone, grabbing free agents like guard Brandon Moore and yet another fullback with decent hands, like Greg Jones II, and the Vikings are set to run any number of old-school running formations.
From the "Maryland I" with two running backs, a fullback and two tight ends closed to the formation (where a triple option possibility adds a new wrinkle, especially with zone-blocking concepts that were not implemented when the offense was initially run in the 1950s) to the wishbone, the Vikings could use the tandem of Gerhart and Peterson to punish teams for building themselves to defend against the pass.
Christian Ponder could operate out of the Pistol while players like Jarius Wright could be converted to scatback if need be.
The Vikings would want to modernize by adding a pass-catching running back with extra speed, either through the draft (there are many, including the aforementioned Riddick, Rouse, Barner, Williams, etc.) or in free agency, where they can grab a player like LaRod Stephens-Howling or Jackie Battle for cheap.
The two fullbacks—Jerome Felton and Greg Jones II—would rotate with the H-back (Rhett Ellison) in lead blocking duties, while Ellison would himself rotate with John Carlson and Kyle Rudolph as the in-line tight end. Rudolph and Carlson would complement Jarius Wright and Stephen Burton on the outside.
The speedy back would keep Peterson and Gerhart fresh and also play in the lost on passing downs, while Rudolph and Carlson split wide with Wright and Burton.
The versatility of the tight end corps would provide endless options to audible in an out of plays, so that a run play featuring seven players on the line and two lead blockers can turn into a single-back formation with three receivers on the line of scrimmage and one in-line tight end.
The Vikings have experimented with two lead-blockers before, and it has generally worked, with Ellison creating a new gap for Felton to plunge through as he takes on the middle linebacker.
Rostering two fullbacks, three tight ends and possibly four running backs (given that playing three heavily would require some insurance) would limit wide receiver options, but would also allow the Vikings to play the wishbone, Flexbone, pistol, Full House, the Delaware Wing T, the Double Wing (with Ellison and Rudolph as the wingbacks) and the full set of "I" formations, including the Power I and the Maryland I.
The single-wing, of course, would be too outdated.
Running option, triple option, wildcat and veer concepts would certainly force football teams to dig up old film and really excite fans who have longed for more heavy hitting.
If the Vikings were interested in proving that the running game isn't dead, they could go all-in on the concept. They've already integrated the use of both man and zone blocking, along with asymmetrically aligned blockers in odd formations.
This could be the worst of all possible reactions to the Harvin trade, but it would also be the most interesting.