Pelissero: Vikings buying Jerome Simpson as 'legitimate' deep threat
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The Minnesota Vikings know the dangers of overpaying for speed all too well.
Agent Drew Rosenhaus squeezed $16 million in bonuses out of them for Bernard Berrian in 2008 -- a contract that remains a sore spot and contributed to the Vikings' caution when dealing with another Rosenhaus client, Sidney Rice, three offseasons later.
That might explain why the Vikings were not only willing to take a chance on Jerome Simpson, but downright giddy about signing a 26-year-old receiver whose one productive NFL season was marred by a felony drug arrest and subsequent guilty plea.
At a clearance price -- one year and up to $2 million, with Simpson handing three weeks' pay ($141,176) to charity during his suspension -- the Vikings are cautiously optimistic they've found another one of the missing pieces to make coordinator Bill Musgrave's offense go.
"He's a legitimate split end," Musgrave said shortly after Simpson signed last month, ending his six-week wait on the free-agent market. "He has speed to threaten down the field and also get in and out of breaks and beat man coverage."
Musgrave hoped he could get something similar last season out of Berrian, who ended up playing five games and catching seven passes before the Vikings cut him. But Berrian had a sprinter's mentality and long-running aversion to fighting for jump balls.
His replacement, Devin Aromashodu, proved largely useless when manned up in the passing game, too. Aromashodu got the most action of any receiver (676 snaps, 65.1%) but finished with only 26 catches in 78 targets (33.3%).
Simpson -- a raw second-round draft pick in 2008 out of Coastal Carolina who had 23 catches in 13 games over his first three NFL seasons combined -- opened eyes last season not only with his 4.4-range speed at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, but a rare ability to hurdle defenders in the open field.
"He's more of a speed guy than he is a short-area, quick, stop-and-start guy," a personnel director for another NFL team said. "He's more of a one cut-type route-runner. I think he kind of came on a little bit last year."
Simpson finished with 50 catches for 725 yards (14.5 average) and four touchdowns, recording three 100-yard games and scoring a touchdown for the ages by sticking the landing on his flip over Arizona linebacker Daryl Washington in a Dec. 24 win.
Soon after Simpson joined the Vikings' offseason workouts, one assistant coach referred to him as "Gumby," and quarterback Christian Ponder marveled at the 26-year-old's "unbelievable" physical talents.
"I was throwing post routes and trying to overthrow him and I couldn't," Ponder said. "The guy is so fast. He's so athletic. I think he's going to be a great asset to our 'X' position."
Simpson isn't a finished product by any stretch. Despite his speed, he has only 13 career catches for 20 yards or more, and he dropped nine of 96 balls thrown his way last season.
If nothing else, though, Simpson figures to balance speed on the perimeter and divert some attention from Percy Harvin, as Rice did before he bolted for Seattle on a five-year, $41 million deal last summer.
The split end runs most of the intermediate to deep routes in Musgrave's offense, especially off play action, and the lack of a vertical speed threat permits defenses to lean on single-high looks and quarters coverage that free up safeties for run support.
"He's got a dominant trait," the personnel director said of Simpson. "That's what the kid has -- he can vertically stretch the defense."
Of course, Simpson can't do anything to help the Vikings until Week 4, when his suspension is lifted. (He's allowed to participate in all workouts through the preseason.)
The Vikings extensively researched Simpson's background and the circumstances of his September arrest before scheduling a visit, during which those present said Simpson made a point of emphasizing the incident was isolated and he had learned his lesson.
However, the details of that arrest -- 2½ pounds of marijuana shipped to his Kentucky home, 6 more pounds found inside along with drug paraphernalia, packaging materials, scales and smoking devices -- will hang over Simpson for the foreseeable future. He's already served a 15-day jail stint and is on probation for three years.
"Everybody knows that that wasn't my character, what happened, and it's basically just (time to) prove it," Simpson said. "You can talk all you want to, but if you don't prove it, it really doesn't mean a hill of beans."
The Vikings are quietly thrilled by the prospect of Simpson proving himself in Minnesota, at a price that minimizes the fallout if he lands in trouble again or doesn't impact the offense the way coaches believe he can.
Simpson's lack of playing time early in his career was another red flag when he hit the free-agent market. The other side of that is Simpson has less mileage on the legs that to a large extent will determine where his career goes from here -- along with rehabbing the image that forced him to settle for a one-year deal.
"It's going to be huge to have a guy like that stretch the field, get downfield and be a threat on 'go' routes or deep posts and keeping those safeties honest," Ponder said. "It's only going to make our offense a lot better."