Vikings still have some questions at receiver position
JUL 12, 2013 5:00a ET
This is the third in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Minnesota Vikings' July 26 start of camp.
TODAY'S POSITION: WIDE RECEIVERS
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 6
Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): LaMark Brown, Stephen Burton, * Greg Childs (likely to open season on the physically unable to perform list), Erik Highsmith, *Cordarrelle Patterson, Rodney Smith, Chris Summers, Adam Thielen, * Joe Webb, * Jarius Wright
The breakdown: There's been a changing of the guard for Minnesota's receiving corps. Gone is leading receiver Percy Harvin, traded to the Seattle Seahawks. Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu left for other teams in free agency, not really courted to return to the Vikings. The change, in all actuality, had been coming for Minnesota and was probably due, other than losing Harvin. Harvin was a unique talent, the leading receiver in the league last year before he was hurt with an ankle injury and missed the seven games. But Harvin, whether a misconception or not, was never seen as a true No. 1, outside receiver by many. Harvin wasn't used as a deep threat and did most of his work inside or on screens. He was, however, one of the most talented players in the league with the ball in his hand and his absence will be felt.
Minnesota hopes it finally has its true No. 1 receiver and a capable replacement for Harvin's production in Jennings. Signed as a free agent, Jennings will be motivated to prove he still has plenty left after leaving the Green Bay Packers. Jennings can be a deep threat, but he will also do work across the middle. If he can resemble the same player he was earlier in his career in Green Bay, it will be a perfect match between receiver and team. One issue is Jennings will have to stay healthy though. He's missed 11 games over the past two seasons. But he's been a three-time, 1,000-yard receiver, has scored double-digit touchdowns twice and has averaged 15.4 yards per catch in his career.
Health is also important for Jerome Simpson. Simpson never lived up to the expectations he created when he signed last summer with Minnesota as a free agent. He was expected to finally be the deep threat the team has long needed, and he showed early chemistry with quarterback Christian Ponder. But he missed the first three games because of a suspension. He had four catches for 50 yards and drew two big pass interference penalties in his first game back, but then suffered a mysterious back injury that caused issues with his legs and never really was the same. The ultra-athletic Simpson didn't have his usual burst, speed or leaping ability, though he did post 11 of his 26 catches over the final three weeks as his back improved. He says he's fully healthy now and ready to show what was missing last season.
The overhaul continued for Minnesota in the draft when it traded several draft picks for the right to draft Cordarrelle Patterson out of Tennessee. Patterson is big (6-foot-3, 205 pounds), quick and has the ability to develop into an elite, No. 1 outside receiver. But he's considered more of a developmental project and needs to refine his route-running. Much of his initial impact might come as a replacement for Harvin on kickoff returns. At Tennessee, he was dangerous with the ball in his hands and his college coaches designed different ways to utilize Patterson and get the ball to him, in some similar ways to Minnesota and Harvin. Patterson might get the chance to make an impact in the same way. Jarius Wright, who basically was Harvin's replacement in the lineup last year, showed some ability in his rookie season after finally getting a chance to contribute. He's smaller, but quick and will likely be Minnesota's slot receiver.
Best position battle: If the Vikings choose to keep five receivers on the active roster, as they did much of last season, it only leaves one more roster spot open with several intriguing options. Minnesota could decide to keep six receivers this time around, in addition to second-year receiver Greg Childs, who might be eased back as he returns from torn patellar tendons in both of his knees that wiped out his rookie season. Childs likely will start the season on the either the PUP list or injured reserve. Webb's move to wide receiver might be the most interesting aspect to follow during training camp. Joe Webb is very athletic, has good size at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds and coaches say he has the hands to stick at receiver. But after three years in the NFL mostly spent at quarterback can he make the transition to receiver. He will have good competition from the likes of Stephen Burton, who's done little in his two seasons in Minnesota, 6-foot-6 undrafted rookie Rodney Smith, practice squad holdovers Chris Summers and LaMark Brown and undrafted rookie Adam Thielen, who had good moments during organized team activities and minicamp. Thielen, at 6-foot-3 and quick, might be a darkhorse candidate to make the roster.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Packers; 2. Lions; 3. Bears; 4. Vikings. In what was a closer ranking than initially expected, Green Bay earns the No. 1 ranking based on the known quantity of Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb. The Packers were able to lose Jennings to a division rival and still have perhaps the best set of three receivers in the NFC North. Of course, having Aaron Rodgers delivering the ball helps. Nelson and Jones are both big receivers with speed, and Randall Cobb is the best slot receiver in the division now that Harvin is in Seattle. The only part that keeps the Lions, Bears and Vikings from taking the top spot is the reliance on unproven or rehabbing receivers. Detroit was almost given the nod as the team with the best receivers based in large part on having Calvin Johnson, the league's best receiver. Johnson gives the Lions a good head start, but Detroit will be hoping for healthy returns from Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles. The two played a total of 15 games last season. Chicago's Brandon Marshall is the division's second-best receiver. The Bears spent a second-round pick on Alshon Jeffery last season. He played only 10 games and had just 24 catches in his rookie season. The third receiver for Chicago right now appears to be Earl Bennett, a favorite of quarterback Jay Cutler, but not a game-breaker. Marshall gives the Bears an edge over Minnesota. Jennings gives the Vikings a legitimate No. 1 if he stays healthy and can get back to the production he had in Green Bay. There's still a lot of uncertainty behind Jennings, with Simpson trying to show he's healthy again, Wright in his second season and Patterson considered a raw rookie.
Frazier says: "I think we've made a lot of progress in the time we've been out here (on the timing between Ponder and the receivers). We've done a lot of different drills to work on that timing, so I think we've made progress and we're about where we need to be, going into training camp. The obvious answer to the question is, by the time we line up against Detroit, we'd better have that timing down, you know? So we have time to get that done. You'd like to have it done, at least by the third preseason game, you'd like to feel like you're just about there. We'll see where we are, but we think we're getting closer to where we need to be."
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