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Updated: March 20th, 2013 2:48am
Pelissero: Greg Jennings' precision in pattern was alluring to Vikings

Pelissero: Greg Jennings' precision in pattern was alluring to Vikings

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

PHOENIX -- One of the dirty little secrets about Percy Harvin as an NFL receiver is how often he's not where he's supposed to be.

He's unbelievable once he gets the ball in his hands. He's as dangerous in space as anybody in the league. And he did improve as a route-runner in 2012, before an ankle injury ended his fourth, final and finest season with the Minnesota Vikings after nine games.

But it's tough to get someone the ball when the quarterback doesn't know where he's going to be, which is why the Vikings manufactured so many of Harvin's touches near the line of scrimmage -- something the Seattle Seahawks surely will do after trading for him, too.

Coupled with the lack of a vertical threat at split end, Bill Musgrave's offense evolved to heavily emphasize short throws that only enhanced Christian Ponder's reputation among some scouts as a one-read quarterback who is challenged to produce in the intermediate to deep passing game.

Greg Jennings doesn't figure to stretch the field often either. That element in all likelihood must come through the draft. Ponder should know where Jennings will be, though, and that alone has the potential to inject some much-needed rhythm into the NFL's 31st-ranked air attack.

"Route running -- a lot of people don't talk about it," Ponder said this week here at the NFL meetings. "A lot of people talk about speed, but if you run great routes, it's just as important as speed. So, it's something that he'll be able to rub off on the other guys. It'll be good for us."

Jennings isn't slow by any stretch, but he's not exactly a burner either. He ran the 40-yard dash in the 4.5 range at 5-11 and 197 pounds coming out of Western Michigan in 2006, when the Green Bay Packers drafted him in the second round (52nd overall).

Ask anyone who has studied Jennings how a smallish Mid-American Conference alum has racked up 6,537 yards and 86 touchdowns on 425 catches (15.4 average) over seven NFL seasons, and the answer always begins with the ways he can free himself in pattern.

"I thought he was an excellent route-runner," said Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, the Packers' offensive coordinator from 2007 to '11. "I thought he caught the football. He was fun to watch on film. Very smooth. He did things like a receiver should. Ran good routes. Got open. Caught the ball. Had a little slipperiness to him. He's just a good overall football player."

That's why the Vikings made Jennings' agent one of their first calls during the NFL's negotiating window, along with the agent for deep threat Mike Wallace, who signed a five-year, $60 million contract with Miami less than an hour after free agency opened.

That's why the Vikings were willing to increase their offer beyond their original plans to five years and $45 million with $17.8 million guaranteed, after the Packers made a late push on Friday during Jennings' visit to Minnesota with an offer of $8 million a year.

That's why the Vikings looked past Jennings' age (29), declining production (career-low 10.2-yard average on 36 catches in eight games in 2012) and injury issues the past two years, focusing on the way Jennings played late last season after he was recovered from sports hernia surgery.

In short, they needed somebody Ponder could trust as he enters a third NFL season that will go a long way towards determining his own future at the most important position.

"He's a very intelligent football player," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said of Jennings. "He's one of those guys that he can play multiple positions and that gives an offensive coordinator a lot of leeway with his talents."

During his visit to Winter Park, Jennings watched film with coordinator Bill Musgrave and receivers coach George Stewart, who showed him places they'd like to put him in the offense. The plan for now is to start Jennings at the "Z" (flanker) -- the same spot Harvin played, although the way that position operates figures to be vastly different.

Jerome Simpson remains the starting "X" (split end) by default for now, a $2.1 million insurance policy if whatever outside receiver the Vikings select high in next month's draft comes along slower than hoped. Jennings figures to play some there and plenty in the slot, too, depending how Musgrave incorporates Jarius Wright and others into the scheme.

"I want to be versatile. I don't focus on one spot," Jennings said at his introductory media conference on Friday night. "I'm one of those guys that likes to learn the concept. I want to understand the concept. I'm a big believer if you learn the concept ... you pretty much know the ins and outs of the offense."

Jennings probably has lost some "long "speed. Most have by his age. He's more of a possession-type receiver anyway, though he's made his share of big plays, particularly at his peak in 2010.

Comparisons were made internally to other receivers who have been productive past their prime and age 30 such as Reggie Wayne and Anquan Boldin, whom the Vikings attempted to acquire from Baltimore before signing Jennings. (San Francisco got him for a sixth-round pick instead.)

"Not going to be a big 'RAC' guy or necessarily a pure deep threat, but a good hands-catcher and also can work inside and outside," an executive in personnel for another NFL team said of Jennings. "Can be a quarterback-friendly type of receiver, yet there are some concerns that sit there because he's 30 years old (in September and) he's had some injuries here and there."

The Vikings passed Jennings on his physical. But they structured his deal so that they won't owe him another dime if age, injuries or simply an inflated base salary ($8.9 million in 2015, '16 and '17) compel them to cut him after two seasons.

That'll be more than enough time to determine if Jennings can give the Vikings -- and Ponder -- what they've lacked the past two years with Harvin in essence taking long handoffs and the likes of Michael Jenkins, Bernard Berrian and Devin Aromashodu struggling to beat man coverage.

"And that's just him and the quarterback getting on the same page," Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said. "I think it'll be tremendous help for Christian, just as he can learn from some of the experiences that Greg has had."

None of that is to knock the talent of Harvin, who received a five-year, $64.5 million contract extension from Seattle that included $25.5 million in guarantees. He's five years younger than Jennings and, frankly, is far more physically talented.

But the Vikings are hopeful adding a receiver as detailed as Jennings will provide an important first step towards balancing an offense that runs through MVP halfback Adrian Peterson and previously featured a second option who also needed to get handed the ball.

"When you know where a guy is going to be and how he runs his routes, that's important," Ponder said. "... That's the most important thing, is receivers getting open. The good thing is I think (Jennings) can play inside and outside, so we'll be able to be versatile with him and put him in different places. I think he's going to be getting the ball a lot."

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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