With Greg Jennings out of the picture for the Minnesota Vikings receiving corps, the slot position in the Vikings offense is up for grabs and Jarius Wright looks poised to grab it. What he can bring to the offense is radically different than what Jennings provided.
The first superficial look at the two receivers doesn't provide much differentiation. Wright and Jennings are physically very similar receivers and had some eerily similar combine scores. Per Mockdraftable, the spider graph on the two showcases their physical similarity.
After ignoring Wright's bench press (Jennings didn't participate in that event), their scores match each other in a number of categories. With identical 40-yard dash times and similar heights, Jennings' only real physical advantage comes with his weight (still below average) and a much faster three-cone drill.
Wright's superior short-shuttle and explosion scores (10-yard split, vertical jump and broad jump) provide some level of distinction between his physical tools and Jennings', and that may provide Wright with a little more upside on contested catches, at least from an athletic standpoint.
For the most part, however, their physical scores don't really provide much insight into the big differences between the two styles of play.
With the introduction of Mike Wallace to the offense and the starting split end position presumed to be Charles Johnson's, who Norv Turner thought was the best receiver on the roster before the Mike Wallace trade, most of the impact of Wright's play will be felt in the slot, so looking at the route combinations and running skills between Jennings and Wright from the slot will provide us with the most insight into how the offense may change.
As route-runners, Jennings and Wright are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Whereas Jennings ideally wins with quickness and deception, Wright remains raw as a route-runner who wins with speed more than fluidity or misdirection.
As a result, the Vikings asked Wright to do less outside and from the slot than they did Jennings. Even late in the year, Wright didn't show the sophistication in route running that Jennings did early in his career despite the three years of experience Wright has with the Vikings.
There are a lot of unlockable traits for Wright that should make him a better route-runner if he can be coached into it, though whether or not receiver coach George Stewart can turn the key remains to be seen since he hasn't been able to do it quite yet.
That limited route tree may continue into the next year. While Jennings ran every route from the slot, Wright rarely ran routes outside of the three deep routes (the 70, 80 and 90 routes, more commonly known as corner, post and go routes) and comebacks. There were times on occasion when he would run a 60 route (often referred to as a "stab" route), but he would rarely run those that required economy of movement and precision at the route stem.
On the other hand, Jennings ran smash, dig, quick out, flat, arrow, smash, drive, slice and dart routes in addition to the route tree Wright was asked to run. Whether or not Wright will take on that full set of responsibilities remains to be seen, but it's clear that the way he wins is not necessarily conducive to that expanded set of duties.
Wright shows phenomenal physicality as a blocker, and fluidity with the ball in his hands, but for whatever reason, he does not employ either of those tools when running in space as a receiver. Though Jennings was never necessarily physical, he did a better job against contact than Wright did—despite reports that Norv Turner didn't like how much Jennings was "beat up at the line."
Perhaps Jennings wasn't winning against contact "the right way," but his ability to use his hands or dip his shoulders to slip away from contact while maintaining his route is admirable, and his ability to release into the pattern without disrupting the timing is something that Wright will have to learn, either through force or technique.
Jennings often shows his ability to get through jams at the line of scrimmage or in bump-and-run coverage while flashing open.
On the other hand, Wright has had consistent issues maintaining his route against tight coverage or physical defensive backs, though he improved significantly in his ability to avoid contact at the line of scrimmage through his release. Those defenders that stay tight to him still provide consternation, however, and can throw off the route concept designs and the timing of the offense.
With those limitations in mind, the Vikings will have to scheme the former Arkansas prospect into open spaces until he learns to either adapt his physicality to route running or learn advanced handfighting throughout the route to maintain openness and timing.
That limits his ability to help the offense in a way that provides diverse passing concepts for the quarterback to play with, constrains their answers against different defensive schemes and allows opponents to limit their looks.
This doesn't make Wright a particularly bad player or a productive one in a Norv Turner scheme, it simply means he—like any player—needs to be put in advantageous situations. With respect to the 40-yard dash times above, Wright has blistering speed (and runs faster than even the 4.42 would imply), while Jennings, whose athletic decline has been significantly overstated, is merely fast.
In that context, Wright has the ability to do things that Jennings can't against a wider array of defenders and defensive looks. It just so happens that the things Jennings can do better than Wright are far more numerous than the other way around.
Wright will run more routes this year than he did last year, and a broader set of them, but he likely won't perform them with the massive success he did in his limited route tree last year. That's fine, but it provides boundaries that weren't there before, especially because the Vikings receiving corps now consist of more players with limited route trees, like Mike Wallace, Charles Johnson and Cordarrelle Patterson.
It will be important for the Vikings to see significant development from Adam Thielen, pick a quick and polished receiver in the draft or rely on one of their practice squad players from last year to step up, like former Northwestern quarterback and current Vikings receiver Kain Colter.
This may end up leading to concepts that more closely mirror Dirk Koetter's "four vertical" offense than Turner's previous offenses, which have vertical aspects to them but often combined with routes at every level. The Koetter offense, now being run in Tampa Bay, may be what the Vikings need in order to extract the full capabilities of Wright, Wallace and Johnson.
I previously wrote an extensive rundown of that offense, but the basics are simple:
“Four verticals” is simply the base concept that many other passing plays hinge off of, not a commitment to the deep ball—in 2013, Matt Ryan threw the lowest percentage of his passes over 20 yards of all NFL quarterbacks, and ranked 22nd of 33 in 2012. The idea behind the system is not to consistently create deep shots, but to leverage against the free safety—make sure that he’s always wrong.
While quarterbacks will often make reads based on the safety coverage, the emphasis of the system is to make nearly everything about the safety, not just which half of the field to read. Sight adjustments are an important part of the offense (more on them later), but the significant thing is to make the passing offense revolve around the free safety.
A general rule for the outside receivers looks to be cribbed from Air Raid offenses—they run a "9" route (go/fade/fly/streak, etc.) at full speed, but decide 10 yards in whether or not they will beat the corner over the top. If they do, they continue running the route as-is. If not, they’ll convert to a curl route. This is less a judgment of talent and more of positioning and coverage—if the corner is going to stay on top, then it’s easier to take the curl route and the cheaper yards at 12-14 yards.
The idea to have receivers run routes that default to a streak pattern before optioning into something else would take advantage of the current corps' strengths and would also take advantage of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's prodigious talent at reading defenses.
It would also mask some of the deficiencies that the current corps have by staying true to what they do best until the defense gives up something easier.
Still, it means that Wright will have to attack the ball much better than he did in 2014.
He has had consistent problems winning contested catches (something that seems common on the roster at the moment) and will need to play with more of a "my ball" mentality in the Coryell system the Vikings run, especially if they plan on using comeback routes to take advantage of the space created by a vertical system.
This is part of the physicality Wright will have to learn to succeed on a more consistent basis in 2015, because with the opportunity waiting for him, he'll have plenty of chances to move the chains.
To heap on a larger burden to what Wright must learn in order to fully take advantage of comeback routes and other man-beaters, he'll have to begin deceleration or preparing for his cuts later in route. Though his stop-start ability is good—sometimes better than Jennings'—he'll begin to break into his route a full yard or two earlier.
Beyond that, Wright will have to learn how to bait defensive backs into the wrong route before switching into his true route, all while maintaining timing with the offense. Jennings was an expert at that and often had defensive backs flip their hips in the wrong direction or backpedal and sit on the wrong route before looking hopelessly out of position.
Sometimes it was an obvious deception—driving hard upfield on a go route (despite how rarely he actually ran it) before seeing the defender commit and crossing his face—and sometimes it was more subtle, using head or hip fakes to get the cornerback to take false steps.
On the other hand, Wright shows very little of this capability, though he did flash it at the end of the year. While his double-move against Richard Sherman in 2013 caught some attention at the time and provided the only brief spark of optimism on a dreary day, his overall ability to move the defense in the wrong direction is subpar.
This isn't because Wright is refusing to send the wrong signal or because of any advanced techniques he's missing. It's often because he'll provide clear clues as to what he's doing either before the snap or during the play.
He therefore obviates the advantages he has physically by allowing defenders to gain extra steps before the route hits the stem, sometimes allowing defenders to jump underneath and get their hands on the ball.
While Jennings provided a good outlet option and moved the chains better than anyone else on the offense (he had 40 catches that went for a first down, leading the team in both total receiving first downs and first downs per catch, per Pro-Football-Reference.com's play finder), Wright's ability to do that may be limited even though he had a good (but not great) first-down conversion rate last year.
His route-running and catch-point ability make a possession role dangerous unless he improves in a big way. Again, he did provide glimpses of that improvement late in the season, so it's certainly not impossible, but his role right now will be similar to Victor Cruz's role in New York (when he was healthy) in providing the uncommon ability to be an every-down deep threat from the slot.
Wright was remarkably efficient for the Vikings last year, and in the final six weeks of the season—when Bridgewater was at his best—his production was remarkable, and far better than Jennings in terms of yards gained per route run (a Pro Football Focus statistic).
There are critical sustainability issues that need to be answered with that, however. That efficiency score is built off of a scant 20 targets, and the Vikings played with more receivers split wide in the final six weeks than they did in the first 11—meaning more receivers had the ability to widen up coverage and make it easier for Wright to win his routes.
Beyond that, the way Wright won his routes isn't a recipe for success on a consistent basis, meaning that the Vikings offense will likely lack the kind of reliable target that keeps an offense on schedule.
In the end, Wright will play a far different role than Jennings did despite taking over his spot on the roster as the primary slot receiver. While Jennings was more comfortable playing as a Wes Welker-type slot receiver, Wright will play more like Cruz.
To add to that, Wright is both an excellent blocker and fantastic screen receiver, meaning he can still provide plays for the offense that punish defenses for cheating—something every receiver needs. If they can't punish defenses for reading the wrong route, they can at least punish the defense for trying to defend their best weapon, which in this case is Wright's deep-threat capability.
Those screen options and outside runs he can open up attack defensive adjustments to deep threats in a big way and will mean that at the bare minimum, Wright can provide options, even if they aren't as traditional or plentiful as Jennings did.
Though Wright may have difficulty making the large changes needed to provide additional value to the Vikings, like providing reliable possession options, he may be able to take small steps that can slowly build toward adding that element to his game. Sinking his hips later in route and more often while running may provide additional acceleration out of the stem, as would adding one or two moves to get off of jams at the line of scrimmage.
Wright will see more routes and targets next year. It will just look a little different than what we're used to seeing.