Even with all of their offseason moves, the Minnesota Vikings still have to figure out how to fill the huge hole left from the Percy Harvin trade. Last year before suffering a season-ending ankle injury in Week 9, Harvin was getting mentioned as a possible league MVP. As early as Week 5, Gregg Rosenthal from NFL.com had Harvin listed as the sixth-best player in the league.
In his four seasons with the Vikings since being drafted in the first round of the 2009 draft, Harvin gained more yards than any other Vikings player—including Adrian Peterson. Of course, Harvin had a slight advantage of returning kickoffs, where he averaged 796 yards per season.
Harvin has been described as a wide receiver in a running back's body. Standing only 5'11", he is one of the hardest runners in the NFL. Because of his versatility, the Vikings will not be able to replace Harvin with just one player—in fact, it might take as many as three or four to match the explosiveness that Harvin plays with.
Where to start?
Harvin's strongest position is when he lines up as the slot receiver. From here the Vikings would put him in motion and hand him the ball, or have him run a slant or screen pass.
The obvious person to take over here is Greg Jennings. A quick look at their receiving stats indicates the two are similarly effective.
It shouldn't be a surprise that Harvin has averaged more catches—after all, he has been the Vikings' best receiver. While in Green Bay, Jennings was always a part of a great receiving corps. In three of his four seasons in Minnesota, Harvin led the Vikings in receptions, while Jennings was the Packers' leading pass catcher in two of his seven seasons.
What each player meant to their respective teams is no better reflected in their 2012 stats. Both players missed almost half the season, yet Harvin was still the Vikings' leading receiver with 62 receptions in just over eight games. Jennings, who played in eight games for the Packers, was fifth in receptions with 36.
The biggest difference between the two players comes in their ability to run the ball. In seven seasons, Jennings only rushed the ball once, while Harvin has averaged 27 attempts per season.
The easy answer here is just to continue to give the ball to Adrian Peterson. After Harvin suffered his season-ending ankle injury, Peterson averaged 165 yards per game, including the 182 yards he ran for against the Seahawks in Week 9 last season.
Without Harvin in the lineup, Peterson became the Vikings' main weapon. Even when the opposing team knew the ball was going to AP, they couldn't stop him. The loss of Harvin's running ability should be of little concern to the Vikings—as long as he remains healthy.
Another option could be backup running back Toby Gerhart. He could provide an occasional wrinkle to the offense. Don't misunderstand that statement, no one is ever going to confuse Gerhart for Harvin. However, even as a backup, and with limited action, he has averaged 21 receptions per season—almost as many carries per season that Harvin has.
In three seasons, Gerhart's percentage of catches to runs is 26 percent compared to Peterson's 10.3 percent for his career. With Gerhart on the field, it presents more possibilities that the defense needs to account for.
Last year was supposed to be Gerhart's chance to shine. With Peterson easing his way back into the lineup after having major knee surgery, Gerhart was going to get a few more opportunities. Instead, he had the fewest attempts in his short career, resulting in a 3.4-yards-per-carry average—the lowest in his career. Perhaps this season, with nothing to prove and no expectations, he will step up and replace some of the yardage gained by Harvin on the ground and in the air.
The last position that will suffer from the loss of Harvin is on kickoffs. In four seasons, he returned five kickoffs for touchdowns, including three for more than 100 yards. During his first two seasons, Harvin was the team's main returner on kickoffs. He averaged 41 returns in 2009 and 2010.
The Vikings, in an attempt to get Harvin into the offense more and more, limited his returns in 2011 to only 16, the same number he had in eight games last season. The results were for Harvin to make the most of those chances. His average per return increased from 25.5 to 34.4 yards.
No other Viking has more than one kickoff return for a touchdown in franchise history. In fact, with only 11 players to ever return a kickoff for a touchdown, you have to go back to 1998—11 seasons before Harvin was drafted by the Vikings—to total five kickoff returns for touchdowns.
That means there is virtually no way to replace that type of performance on special teams any time soon.
The best bet for the Vikings will be to use Patterson on kickoffs.
In his only season at Tennessee, Patterson did it all. He finished second to Justin Hunter in receptions with 46 catches for 778 yards and five touchdowns. He was third on the team with 308 rushing yards and led the team with 677 yards on kickoff returns. In total, he led the Volunteers with 1,864 all-purpose yards and 10 touchdowns with 99 combined attempts.
Compare that to Harvin, who in eight games for the Vikings had 100 combined rushing, receiving and returns attempts and totaled 1,347 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns.
While it's not a fair comparison, it still indicates Patterson is the best option to close the gap on all the contributions that headed west when the Vikings traded Harvin to Seattle.