Zulgad: Veteran coach voices confidence in trio of Vikings' receivers
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
MANKATO, Minn. - Only 12 days into training camp, the Minnesota Vikings would seem to be facing some early-season troubles at the split end position.
Jerome Simpson, signed as a free agent this offseason, will have to sit out the first three games of the regular season as punishment for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
Greg Childs, a fourth-round pick, had his rookie season come to a premature end Saturday night when he suffered a gruesome injury, tearing the patellar tendons in both knees near the end of practice.
So how high is the Vikings' concern?
That depends on whom you speak to about the situation.
Wide receivers coach George Stewart has been in this profession for 30 years and coaching in the NFL for 24 seasons, including the past six with the Vikings. According to Stewart, there is no need to worry.
"You're talking about Jerome being down," Stewart said. "We knew that going into the draft, going into the offseason, that Jerome would not be there the first three games. Greg Childs was a rookie, so it's hard to place a lot of stock in a rookie.
"We're pretty established with a veteran group at that X position. You're talking about Michael Jenkins, you're talking about Devin Aromashodu, you're talking about Manny Arceneaux. All three of these guys played for us last year, they have experience. We did not panic when Greg went down. We stayed the course and we can go to war with the young men that we have."
It remains unclear whether the Vikings will try to bring in another split end to open the season, but Stewart's job is to coach the players he's given. That's why he remained upbeat Tuesday as he discussed what Jenkins, Aromashodu and Arceneaux can provide.
The reality, though, is that while the three have an excellent opportunity to grab playing time early in the season, all have plenty to prove.
Jenkins, who is entering his ninth NFL season, signed a three-year, contract with the Vikings as training camp opened last year after spending his first seven seasons in Atlanta. The 30-year-old caught 38 passes for 466 yards with three touchdowns in 11 games, missing the final five games because of a meniscus injury.
Jenkins is due to make a base salary of $2.5 million this season, and coach Leslie Frazier said on Monday that, "we've got to see him continue to come along physically," in the preseason.
Aromashodu is on his second consecutive one-year contract with the Vikings and stands to make $800,000 in 2012.
The 28-year-old led Vikings' wide receivers last year by playing 676 snaps, totaling 65.1 percent of the offensive plays. However, he finished with 468 yards on 26 catches (18.0 average) in 78 targets (33.3%) -- the lowest percentage of any NFL receiver who played at least one-third of his team's offensive snaps. He also dropped five passes.
Arceneaux, 24, was signed by the Vikings out of the CFL during the 2011 offseason and spent the majority of last year on the practice squad. He did see action in three games as a reserve and finished with one catch for 10 yards. He is due to make $465,000 in 2012.
Stewart said that all three receivers have one thing in common. None had the benefit of working with the Vikings in the offseason program last spring or summer because those sessions were wiped out by the NFL lockout.
"You look at our football team, we were behind the 8-ball last year," Stewart said. "None of those guys had a chance to rhythm up to our coaches, to have a chance to learn our offense."
Stewart said it has been a huge difference watching guys in Mankato this summer after having the benefit of working at Winter Park during the offseason. This has been especially true for Arceneaux, who drew Stewart's praise.
"Emmanuel Arceneaux has improved more than any player in one year that I've ever coached," Stewart said. "That's in (all my) years of coaching and in every facet. He's going to be a player that's going to help us again this year."
Asked to elaborate on the areas in which Arceneaux has improved, Stewart said: "Everything. Route running, run blocking, catching the ball, confidence in what he's doing. The whole gamut as a receiver. Now is he ready to go to the Hall of Fame? No, but he has improved from year one to year two, and as a coach and as a player that's what you strive to have."
Childs' injury came only days after he made a fantastic catch in practice going up and reaching his hands around cornerback Brandon Burton's head in mid-air to pull in a 24-yard touchdown pass from Joe Webb.
It was the type of reception that Sidney Rice made on a routine basis as the Vikings made a run to the 2009 NFC title game and the type of catch the Vikings haven't seen nearly enough of since that magical year.
Jenkins (6-4), Aromashodu (6-2) and Arceneaux (6-2) all have the height to get that type of jump ball but the desire to go get the football has to exist as well.
Stewart said he talked to Aromashodu about that exact subject this offseason.
"We call it the moment of truth catch," Stewart said. "That's the catch that when the ball is in the air everybody is (going after it). The moment of truth catch. He made one against Kansas City last year for a touchdown but in some plays last year we didn't come up with it. He's doing a great job this summer making those plays."
While the Vikings want to see Jenkins, Aromashodu and Arceneaux contribute, they will be keeping the spot warm for Simpson's return in Week 4 for the Vikings' game at Detroit.
Simpson, a second-round pick of the Bengals in 2008, had a career-high 50 receptions for 725 yards with four touchdowns in 16 games with Cincinnati last season. Stewart said Simpson has been as good as advertised and maybe better.
"Coming out of school, I knew Jerome was a great athlete," Stewart said. "I didn't know he was as bouncy. I don't know if that's the right word for it, but he is 'Bambi' like. I never watched Lance Alworth play, they call him "Bambi." But (Simpson's) unbelievably athletic.
"He is a super athlete. He does a lot of things naturally. He can run real fast, he catches the ball, he has a great attention to detail and those are things we are very fortunate in our scouting department, (general manager) Rick Spielman and his people, went out and got him. I know our fans (said), 'Jerome Simpson?' But he's going to help us."
Stewart's primary focus these days is making sure Jenkins, Aromashodu and Arceneaux do the same in the Weeks 1 through 3.