Minnesota Vikings: Breaking Down the Wide Receiver Position
For the Minnesota Vikings, the wide receiver position has been one of the easiest problems to identify. While they've had holes at defensive tackle and middle linebacker as well, the clear lack of separation of receivers from opposing defensive backs has been a constant problem.
But with signing Greg Jennings and drafting Cordarrelle Patterson, the Vikings have taken their first steps toward bolstering a receiving corps that could have easily been considered the league’s worst just a year ago.
As the Vikings head into training camp, it’s important for fans to know whom they have at receiver and what they can contribute.
Greg Jennings is the most recent player to move from the Packers to the Vikings in what looks to be a long-standing tradition.
Jennings is a versatile receiver, although not in the sense of Percy Harvin, Cordarrelle Patterson, Tavon Austin and Randall Cobb. Instead, he has the capability to line up in the slot, as a flanker or as a split end.
This gives the Vikings the flexibility to play their three best receivers in “11” personnel formation, where they bring one tight end, one running back and three receivers into the huddle. That’s important because the alternative is to either play players out of position or play a combination of pass-catchers who do not represent the team’s best at the position.
So while Jennings lines up on the outside in “base” snaps with only two receivers, likely as a flanker, the Vikings can bring Cordarrelle Patterson to play flanker and move Jennings inside to the slot. Alternatively, they can take Jerome Simpson off the field, fit Jennings in at split end and bring Jarius Wright in to play the slot.
Jennings’ strengths are in route-running, deceptive play and solid timing. He has a good release off the snap and reads defenses well. He also has some surprising deep-ball capability, but is likely going to be more of an intermediate depth player moving the chains and exploiting mismatches.
There’s little doubt that Greg Jennings is the best receiver on the roster, but he’s more likely to be a threat inside than deep and outside.
If he can return to his 2011 form, he’ll be a top-flight receiver that the Vikings should be able to count on for years to come. He is ranked as the 11th-most productive receiver in Football Outsiders’ effective yards metric—designed to minimize the influence of other receivers and the quarterback—and ranked 14th in Pro Football Focus’ receiver grades (subscription required).
Interestingly, Jennings ranked fifth overall among receivers in the passer rating his quarterback had when throwing to him, although much of that has to do with the high level of play from Aaron Rodgers.
Jennings has a variety of reasons to play in Minnesota, but he’s recently indicated that one of the major driving forces for crossing the border is to prove he can live up to any challenge and establish himself as an elite receiver without being diminished by the high level of quarterback play from Aaron Rodgers or the receiving cast, as described by the Star Tribune's Dan Wiederer:
After a productive, seven-season stay with the Packers, Jennings hit free agency in March seeking “something different.” He wanted a new opportunity to prove himself. He wanted, in his words, to feel wanted.
But why here? Why now? If his predominant goal is to succeed at the highest level, why was he so eager to leave Green Bay, where he posted three 1,000-yard receiving seasons, went to two Pro Bowls and contributed four grabs, 64 yards and a pair of touchdowns to the franchise’s Super Bowl XLV triumph?
He felt compelled to prove his career success hasn't solely been a byproduct of having played with future Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Rodgers and Brett Favre.
Not only will Jennings have to prove that he can produce without an MVP-level quarterback throwing to him, but he’ll have to prove he isn't as susceptible to injury as it may seem from first glance, having recovered from a groin injury the previous season and an ankle tweak back in May.
In some ways, he could prove an upgrade over the recently traded Percy Harvin. While he doesn't have the explosive athleticism, the dynamic offensive skill set or the sheer potential for yards after the catch, he has a number of behaviors and skills that Harvin doesn’t exhibit.
Aside from being a much more precise route-runner, Jennings is more consistent as well, reliably hitting his markers in stride and creating more opportunities for chemistry than many other receivers. In the Vikings offense, this is fairly important, particularly with coach Bill Musgrave's background in precision quarterback coaching from his time with the San Francisco 49ers.
Considered one of the most athletic prospects in the draft—if not the most athletic—Patterson brings the Vikings a relative clone of Percy Harvin, but with additional size to boot.
An incredible player with the ball in his hands, Patterson is fluid, agile and strong, racking up yards after the catch better than almost anyone else in college football.
Similarly, there are extremely intelligent analysts like Greg Cosell who think that Patterson hasn't been able to translate his explosive agility and cutting ability into route-running, while teammate Greg Jennings thinks his explosiveness at the break is his best attribute.
It is perhaps surprising that one of the most well-studied prospects for the 2013 draft has provoked such wildly different views and analysis, making Patterson more intriguing than at first glance.
There is no question, however, that Patterson is a raw receiver that needs to season himself to play well in the NFL. Of course, there are even differing opinions on how quickly he can pick up the receiving game, one of the most technically challenging positions to learn in the NFL.
Lance Zierlein at the Sideline View has heard from his sources that Patterson requires many more reps than most receivers in order to learn something, while Dave Hyde running the Sun Sentinel's Draft Winds blogs has found evidence to the contrary.
So, the Vikings are left with an unquestionably talented physical specimen who has a lot to learn. But, he may or may not have bad, hard-to-break habits. He may or may not have difficulties with basic route-running.
And he may or may not have the mental quickness to learn the game in an appropriate amount of time.
The Vikings and the fans will learn in short order how quickly Patterson can learn. With only one year in a major college program, Patterson is left with gaps in knowledge not just in the techniques he needs to master, but also in reading defenses and adjusting routes.
It’s unsurprising that he’s competing for a starter spot at the moment, but for right now he looks to be behind Jerome Simpson at split end.
With game-breaking speed and the ability to turn into a sudden and explosive route-runner, Patterson’s ceiling is nearly limitless. But his floor scares people, and he could end up as a marginal tweener like Dexter McCluster instead of the multi-capable threat that Percy Harvin has become.
A speedster from Coastal Carolina University, Jerome Simpson found himself with the Vikings last year by way of the Bengals, where he continuously flashed potential but didn't get on the field often enough to contribute.
When he finished serving a suspension he earned due to possession of marijuana, he was thoroughly underwhelming for the Vikings. Much of his issues can be traced to a pinched nerve in his back, which created numbness.
That numbness affected him enough that he didn't flash the explosion he had early on in training camp or with the Bengals.
Simpson right now is the most likely starter at the Vikings’ “X” position, the receiver lined up at the line of scrimmage, instead of off.
That means he has a greater propensity to run deeper routes and will often be paired against the opposing team’s best press corner.
Simpson has the ability to read defenses well and adjust on the fly to the looks that he sees, but isn't known for running precise routes on the intermediate and short levels.
With plus body control and excellent athleticism, Simpson seemed prime for a breakout year, but never got it done. At worst, he’s a high level backup receiver and at best, a late-blooming deep threat with average hands but excellent mid-air adjustments.
While Simpson isn't going to continuously box out defensive backs or set up extremely deceptive fakes, he will often display the type of speed that made him such an intriguing pick to the Bengals. If he can put it together this season, he’ll be one of the most pleasantly surprising players on the Vikings roster.
A possession receiver at Arkansas, Wright transitioned to a role in the slot for the Vikings and was slow to come onto the field.
With an impressive debut (and excellent send-off against the Green Bay Packers), Wright could be the perfect complement to a developing passing game that had been lacking a credible threat of any sort since Week 9 of 2012, when Percy Harvin left the Seahawks game injured.
Wright is a quick and speedy player, who nevertheless may lack in comparison to Percy Harvin.
But all the tools are there to make a difference, and he’s comfortable playing deep, should Ponder improve his anticipation and create exclusive real estate on deep throws. His suddenness should make him a threat on shorter routes, and if he can improve his footwork, he’ll be a consistent target for Ponder.
That makes Wright a little more versatile than the average slot receiver. If he can add a number of routes to his repertoire, he can explode onto the scene as a difference-maker while Patterson continues to develop his fledgling skills.
There’s no shortage of excitement for Wright, and he already looks like he’s paying back the investment the Vikings made in him when they picked him in he fourth round.
Teammates with Wright since childhood, Childs entered his penultimate year of college as a highly-touted receiver prospect that could go as early as the first round.
Unfortunately, a patellar tendon tear at Arkansas forced his draft stock to plummet, and he didn't fully recover for his final year, barely rehabilitating his draft value. While a solid Pro Day implied serious recovery, he didn't get selected until late in the fourth round.
Nevertheless, Childs was brimming with potential.
Unfortunately, a promising training camp was cut short with a bilateral patellar tendon tear injury, which meant that both of his knees experienced what only one knee had earlier—and that meant his kneecaps weren't anchored to his knees.
A difficult injury to recover from normally, having to recover from injuries to both knees is unprecedented.
Aside from the amazing story that this presents, it also gives the Vikings the ability to push Patterson and Simpson at split end, giving them a traditional deep threat who has experience running the NFL route tree, can get open deep and has the ability to use his body to adjust for poorly thrown balls or difficult passes.
Childs has length and speed, and not a small amount of agility. If he can return to it, like early reports are indicating, then he can be a serious threat for the Vikings.
If he returns from injury in form, the Vikings would have three players at split end and two at the flanker position. But given Patterson and Jennings’ ability to play the slot, they really have much more versatility than that will imply.
Unfortunately, that would make it difficult for other players to crack the roster at wide receiver. It's also entirely possible that the Vikings will field six receivers in order to develop an additional player.
Burton made the roster last year at wide receiver, but was used much more often to block than receive.
Effective at moving defensive backs off of plays and creating space for Adrian Peterson, Burton didn't have nearly the same success catching the ball out of the air. One of his five catches that year was his fluke touchdown tipped off of a pass intended for Kyle Rudolph.
While he’s improved his route-running and technical capabilities as a receiver, he hasn't improved enough to make a serious impact for the Vikings. While he’s been able to practice well for the past two years, this might be his final year to impress the coaching staff.
Typically the development curve for wide receivers stops shortly after the second year, which is why Burton has to prove he’s developed an extraordinary amount once more.
It’s clear that Burton is a hard-working player, but without preternatural physical ability, he’ll have to hang his hat on study and technical ability. He could once again join the roster as the fifth receiver, but it would be unlikely should Childs recover from injury.
Largely running intermediate routes, Burton is a player that wouldn't be too difficult to replace and is in an entirely different spot this year than last, when roster spots were easier to grab.
An extraordinarily athletic player, more so than probably Cordarrelle Patterson, Webb could have the capability of turning into a big-play receiver that consistently stymies defenses and changes the game.
That’s not likely, however, and with only part of a professional season and even less of a college season spent at wide receiver, Webb hasn't had the seasoning that makes for a professional wide receiver.
Aside from the dozens of technical skills one must master, receivers need to display a particular kind of athleticism in order to succeed at their position.
There’s a very good chance that Webb’s specific athletic capabilities are well-suited for the receiver position, but it will be more than merely difficult for him to transition to a new position where he catches the ball instead of throwing it.
While the clock is ticking on Burton due to the “three-year” rule for wide receivers, the long development curve for impactful receivers could spell doom for Webb’s young career at wide receiver given that he doesn't have the technical polish that many rookie receivers have after a successful career in college.
There will be no shortage of fans cheering for Joe Webb’s successful transition to wide receiver. Should he make it, the Vikings will sport two “space” players to replace Percy Harvin (Webb and Patterson), three tall, fast deep threats (Webb, Patterson and Childs), three slot receivers (Webb, Wright and Jennings) and the most explosive running threat in the NFL.
Undrafted Free Agents
The Vikings have five receivers that either were undrafted free agents in 2012 and didn’t make a roster or signed with the Vikings in 2013 as undrafted free agents: LaMark Brown, Rodney Smith, Chris Summers, Erik Highsmith and Adam Thielen.
Typically long shots to make the squad, undrafted free agents are largely height/weight/speed prospects that are hoping to impress teams enough to make the practice squad or even the roster proper.
It’s a difficult row to hoe, and Chris Summers has successfully made the practice squad on two consecutive teams. LaMark Brown has been on three different practice squads despite only having been in the league one year.
They are both intriguing, first because Summers has more height and speed than a typical receiver prospect and also has a history of college production. He holds the record for the most 100-yard games in Liberty University’s history with 10 and has two of the school's top five receiving seasons, ranked first and fifth. Unsurprisingly, he has more receiving yards in his career in school history.
LaMark Brown played for some time as a tight end, before the Vikings moved him back to wide receiver. He didn't have the blocking chops to stay at tight end, but he may be a little slow to be a classic receiver. Instead, he’ll have to rely on his strength and body positioning, as his 220-pound frame is a bit rare and certainly valuable.
Rodney Smith also has all three tools, but didn't have the history of college production despite playing for one of college’s higher profile passers in E.J. Manuel. His worry isn't speed—he has a lot of that—but his college production was so poor (never over 600 yards a season) that he couldn't really make a big name for himself.
Erik Highsmith is more of the opposite of Smith: not a poor athlete (but poor Pro Day numbers) but definitely more refined. He projects as a flanker because of his inexperience against press coverage, but he is generally precise and thorough with his route-running with potential upside to become a deep threat. Right now, he’ll want to nail down his technique because that will be his advantage over the undrafted free-agent receivers competing with him.
Adam Thielen is sure to have quite a few fans in Mankato, as he went to college there. Spending his high school time setting records near the Fargo-Moorhead area at Detroit Lakes High School, Thielen went on to put together over 50 percent of the receiving yardage of the very same school where the Vikings are holding training camp.
Thielen is a relatively fast receiver who played against a lot of cushion when catching passes for Minnesota State, Mankato. At 6’3” and 200 pounds, he has the build to play well, but needs to prove he can play in adverse conditions where technique is the order of the day. In some ways, he's already done that by winning a contract in tryouts over the more well-heralded Nicholas Edwards.
Overall, the Vikings might stand in a much better spot for their receiver corps than they did before, simply because more of it is well-known. On the other hand, it is unlikely that a healthy Percy Harvin is worse than the combination of Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson, so the Vikings still may struggle.
Nevertheless, it makes perfect sense to be cautiously optimistic.
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