Charles Johnson Cementing His Role as Vikings Starter at WR

Darren PageFeatured ColumnistDecember 9, 2014

Dec 7, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Charles Johnson (12) catches a pass against the New York Jets but fumbles it at the goal line before the Vikings recover it for a touchdown in the second quarter at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings’ playoff hopes still hang by the thinnest of threads, but evaluating young players and continuing to build the team has been objective No. 1 for some time. One of the brightest developments on that front is the emergence of newfound talent at the receiver position in Charles Johnson. He is cementing his role in the starting lineup.

Back in September when the Vikings claimed Johnson from the Cleveland Browns' practice squad, he only got a single paragraph on the team’s official website. It was just a run-of-the-mill transaction at the time.

The 25-year-old receiver was a seventh-round flyer of the Green Bay Packers in 2013. He was cut and then picked up by the Browns, only to find out he had a torn ACL in one of the oddest situations in NFL player transactions, per Pro Football Talk.

After a year of rehab and some preseason action, the Vikings snatched him up.

Being familiar with Norv Turner’s offense from the time both spent in Cleveland in 2013, Johnson found the field quickly. After he was eased in at first, Johnson broke through with a big showing in Chicago four weeks ago.

Teddy Bridgewater has thrown the ball Johnson’s way more often than he has to anyone else ever since:

Vikings Wide Receivers: Weeks 11-14
Source: ESPN.com

The quarterback has looked his way in a variety of scenarios as well. Bridgewater has called Johnson’s numbers on hot routes, on in-breaking routes when needing big chunks and most notably on vertical routes. Bridgewater has quickly become comfortable with Johnson's ability, and Turner has certainly featured the athletic receiver.

A pair of stutter-and-go routes toasted the New York Jets on Sunday. The second would fail as a result of interior pressure toying with the timing, but the first was a 56-yard touchdown strike.

Johnson brings something to the offensive equation that was sorely needed before his arrival: a vertical pass-catching threat.

Two years ago at the scouting combine, Johnson put his repertoire of athletic skills on full display. His 40-yard dash is in the 87th percentile for receivers, and his broad jump is in the 98th, per Mock Draftable. Simply put, Johnson is explosive. The Jets sure thought so when he breezed right by them numerous times.

That speed changes the dynamic for the Vikings' air attack. While Bridgewater was still trying to find his footing as a starting QB, his receivers were struggling to defeat tight coverage. He was repeatedly forced off his first and second reads, resorting to checkdowns all too frequently.

With Johnson’s emergence, the last-resort throws are becoming less frequent. Play designs are actually working. When Bridgewater has Johnson as his first option, the ball is coming out on time, because his receiver gets open.

Telekinesis or some unexplainable connection isn’t the reason why Bridgewater and Johnson are connecting. Being open is all that's needed.

Even better at this point for the Vikings is that Johnson’s big-play potential has already made a splash. If not for untimely pressure from the middle, Bridgewater likely would have found Johnson for a second long touchdown pass against the Jets.

Bridgewater has 25 completions of 20 yards or greater thus far, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. Johnson has six of those despite only recently having his role amplified.

Without an immediate decline, Johnson can bank on a cemented spot in the lineup. Minnesota’s coaching staff gave him the opportunity to win the starting spot over Cordarrelle Patterson, a player whom the Vikings invested a lot in and were trying to bring along for some time.

The waiting is up, though. Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune provides the snap counts for the receiving corps from Sunday, and they paint a pretty clear picture on where the Vikings stand between the two:

Cordarrelle Patterson got just one offensive snap yesterday. Charles Johnson, meanwhile, played all 58. Jennings got 52. Wright got 35.

— Matt Vensel (@mattvensel) December 8, 2014

Johnson won Patterson’s job, and he may not give it back.

That doesn’t mean Johnson has made it. While he could keep his job with plateaued play at this point, the potential reaches much higher.

Johnson has caught only 21 of 41 targets this season for a measly 51 percent completion rate. Progress still needs to be made in the way he handles contact from defensive backs. As a naturally lean receiver, he must rely on his hands and his feet to elude heavy contact. Then when the ball arrives, he must attack it with more aggressiveness. Bridgewater is still waiting on the contested catches.

A little patience can go a long way, though. This is Johnson’s de facto rookie season on the field, and he already has progressed from where he was when first stepping onto the field for Minnesota.

The Vikings should be thanking their lucky stars that not only was Johnson available for them to claim but also that he has so thoroughly taken to his opportunity. He has proven a perfect reinforcement for the Minnesota offense.

If Johnson wants his starting job into 2015 and beyond, by all means, he has a leg up to go and earn it.

Statistics via ESPN.com unless noted otherwise.