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The future of the Vikings, part 3: Wide receivers

Sep 18, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs (14) celebrates his touchdown with wide receiver Adam Thielen (19) during the third quarter against the Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings defeated the Packers 17-14. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

“The Future of the Vikings” is a series of articles looking at everything from strengths and weaknesses to draft and free agent options to schemes and trends heading into 2017 and beyond. Read Part 1 on quarterbacks here and Part 2 on the running backs. For Part 3, the wide receivers…

Stefon Diggs, star receiver

There was no sophomore slump for Stefon Diggs. He made that quite clear from the start of the season, catching 16 passes for 285 yards in the first two games. While he was slowed by injury, missing three games and making just nine receptions over the final three weeks while battling a hip issue, Diggs still finished in the top 20 in catches and was ranked among some impressive company by Pro Football Focus.

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Diggs proved in 2016 that he can be a reliable top target, capable of getting open consistently despite opponents game-planning to stop him. The only remaining question about the Vikings’ second-year receiver is if he can be as dangerous as the league’s best receivers. Can he put his name with the Antonio Browns, Odell Beckhams and Julio Joneses?

Players can only be what they are. Simple, right? But when we analyze players’ performances, we often take the shortcut of ranking them against their peers rather than looking at how much value they bring to their team. In the case of Diggs, he can’t be expected to run vertical routes like Mike Evans or Julio Jones because he does not have their size. He also can’t be expected to turn quick passes into home runs on a consistent basis like Odell Beckham and  because he isn’t as explosive. Diggs’ best skill is his route running, so his value exists in being open at a higher clip than most receivers, no matter who is guarding him or how opponents try to shut him down. That might result in fewer home runs, but a high percentage of successful plays.

Throws that went in Diggs’ direction were caught 75.0% of the time for 8.06 yards per target. Here’s how that compares to some of the league’s top 10 in total receptions:

Larry Fitzgerald: 6.52

Antonio Brown: 8.23

Odell Beckham: 8.08

Julien Edelman: 7.00

Jordy Nelson: 8.27

Mike Evans: 7.54

Doug Baldwin: 8.95

Jarvis Landry: 8.67

Michael Thomas: 9.31

Golden Tate: 7.97

The Vikings’ poor offensive line limited their ability to use Diggs on intermediate routes. He caught 55 of his 84 passes between 1-10 yards. His skill in that area comes with finding soft spots in zone coverage, often times when lining up in the slot. When Bradford was given a chance to stand in the pocket or use play-action, we got a good view of what makes Diggs tough to stop. Diggs is at the bottom of the screen. He slams on the breaks and turns toward the sideline in perfect rhythm with Bradford.

The fact that many of his catches are on short passes does skew this next number a bit, but Diggs was one of the NFL’s absolute best when it came to catching the ball when it came in his direction. According to SportingCharts.com, he only dropped one pass in 2016.

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Route running is Diggs’ calling card, but teammates say there is more to it than that. They praise his intelligence, work habits and competitive fire.

On locker cleanout day, Diggs told the media that he hopes to improve next season. He said the plan is use smarter workout tactics in order to improve his chances to stay healthy. If Diggs can stay in the lineup, the Vikings can count on him to be their No. 1 receiver for a long time.

Why is Stefon Diggs unstoppable? Vikings defensive backs explain

Adam Thielen is legit

If you’re adept at using Google.com, you can go back and find articles from training camp that opine about whether Adam Thielen would be cut by the Minnesota Vikings after they drafted Laquon Treadwell. How one season can change so many things. Thielen’s vast improvement resulted in a jump from 12 catches in 2015 to 69 receptions last year.

If Stefon Diggs was Andre 3000, Thielen would be Big Boi. He acted as a very nice compliment to the Vikings’ top receiver. While opponents were looking to shut down Thielen, he found himself with favorable matchups and he won 1-on-1 battles with his size, speed and route-running combination. At times, it seems that opponents underestimated him as a deep threat.

For example:

Thielen caught several deep balls this year, including a 35-yard touchdown in his breakout game against the Houston Texans, but he was at his best on intermediate routes. He caught 20 passes between 11-20 yards through the air for 357 yards (17.9 yards per catch).

As a nice bonus, the ex-Mankato receiver was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the 10th best run blocker in the NFL.

At the No. 1 and 2 receiver positions, the Vikings should feel like they are set. They will likely invest in Thielen, who is a restricted free agent, long term this offseason.

Cordarrelle Patterson’s future

Heading into the 2016 season, most assumed the Cordarrelle Patterson era was over in Minnesota, but the Vikings found a way to utilize the former first-round pick in their short passing game.  While the running game struggled, quick throws and screens to Patterson became a pseudo running attack.

The problem is that he still struggled with route running and catching contested throws, meaning the Vikings could only use him in the short passing game, nothing more. The ESPN splits below were from before his one catch for 39 yards in Week 17, but that was the only catch he made over 20 yards all year.

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The Vikings were smart to utilize their talented playmaker despite his limitations. If he were under contract, the conversation would shift to finding even more unique ways to get him the ball like lining up in the backfield etc. But Patterson is a free agent, meaning the Vikings will have to decide if they want to pay out free agent dollars for a special teams dynamo/bit player in their offense.

If Pat Shurmur returns as offensive coordinator, he may find more value in Patterson than other offenses – ahem, Norv Turner – might. The screen game and run/pass option plays are a big part of what the Vikings will do in a West Coast system. However, the question will be if they can find other receivers with speed and playmaking ability to do the same thing at a cheaper price.

Most kick returners are replaceable, but Patterson has proven that he is not. He has led the NFL in return average three of the last four years and returned five for touchdown. Not to mention that he was a terrific gunner on punt coverage.

The price should be the determining factor. If he is looking for a deal in the same range as Mohammad San received last year, an average value of $6.5 million, that would probably be too rich for the Vikings’ blood, but it would be pretty surprising if he wasn’t searching a contract that topped Jarius Wright’s $3.7 million.

Speaking of Jarius Wright…

One of the world’s great mysteries is why Jarius Wright was completely phased out of the Vikings’ offense.

When Wright was in the lineup, the former fourth-round pick played well, catching 11 passes on 14 targets, but he was rarely used despite catching 42 and 34 passes the previous two seasons. The Vikings would be unwise to cut Wright based on his salary. It will make sense after next season, however. The red categories are dead money (left) and cap savings (right).

(via Over The Cap)

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A trade is also possible, but what type of return would anyone expect for a receiver who caught 11 passes and is owed a lot of money?

Speaking of receivers who dropped off, the Vikings will probably move on from Charles Johnson, who is a free agent.

Laquon Treadwell’s nightmare rookie season

It seemed pretty peculiar on opening day when the Vikings did not give 23rd overall draft pick Laquon Treadwell even a sniff of the field. Well, that trend continued for most of the season. Treadwell caught a grand total of one pass, making his rookie year the second worst in the last 25 years.

How did it happen? Can it be fixed?

Head coach Mike Zimmer said several times over the past few weeks that he believes Treadwell can be a good player because of his ability to get in and out of breaks and his hands.

But there are issues that may not be easy to overcome. One is Treadwell’s speed. He ran a 4.64 40-yard dash at his pro day, which was slower than all but seven receivers at the NFL combine. A slow 40 does not make it impossible to become a good receiver – Michael Thomas was only 0.07 ahead of Treadwell – but it does demand that all the other elements of a receiver’s game are on point. And for Treadwell, they weren’t.

Zimmer also mentioned his rookie’s issues with route depth. Bradford looked in his direction on a key play against the Cowboys and Treadwell ran too far past the sticks

Injuries also hindered the former Ole Miss star’s first season. Zimmer mentioned he had an issue with his feet early on, then he missed the final three games of the year with an ankle injury suffered on special teams against Jacksonville. The Vikings were giving him more playing time leading into the Jacksonville game and it’s likely he would have grabbed a few more passes, especially against the Bears in Week 17 with Diggs out, but that doesn’t take away from the concerning debut season.

The Vikings have to approach the offseason with zero expectations from their former first-rounder. They must act as if he isn’t even a part of the offense, then if he proves otherwise, it’s a bonus. There have been other receivers to struggle out of the gate then grow into the role, but you have to go back to the likes of Johnnie Morton to find them.

Free agency/draft

If the Vikings do not re-sign Cordarrelle Patterson, they will have options in free agency to find a No. 3 receiver. Players like Baltimore’s Kamar Aiken, Kendell Wright of Tennessee, Buffalo’s Robert Woods and Terrance Williams of Dallas are just some of the free agent options assuming that the Vikings won’t go after a big fish.

If they do happen to go big to bolster the receiving corps for a possible post-Adrian Peterson passing attack, there are some serious names on the free agent list. Chicago Bears star Alshon Jeffery, Tampa Bay’s Vincent Jackson, Washington star receiver Pierre Garcon, Cleveland’s Terrelle Pryor and Cincinnati’s Brandon LaFell would all add a different dimension to Minnesota’s passing game.

There’s also the possibility – though remote – of landing Larry Fitzgerald, a Minnesota native. He is owed $11 million next season and could be released by the Cardinals without penalty. However, it would seem that leading the NFL in receptions in 2016 would be a good case for sticking around.

As for the draft, the Vikings have more desperate needs than receiver for their second and third round picks, but plenty of good receivers (Stefon Diggs, for example) have been found past the third round. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see them pick one in the late rounds.

  • Bill

    There have been other receivers to struggle out of the gate then grow into the role, but you have to go back to the likes of Johnnie Morton to find them.
    How about Thielen?
    Also, why wouldn’t they bring back Johnson

    • Matt Coller

      You can’t compare him to Thielen because Thielen was an undrafted free agent. I was referring to first-round picks who struggled out of the gate.

      • Scott Mitchell

        Unrelated, but I wanted you to know that I like the fact that you interact on the comments. Some of the other guys seem to think they are above us poor folk.

        • Matt Coller

          Thanks, Scott. I enjoy chatting with folks about the team. Didn’t do as much of it as I wanted to during the season, so I’ll be jumping in regularly throughout the offseason to see what ya’ll think of my work. Appreciate you guys leaving comments 🙂

      • Bill

        Demaryius Thomas was another raw 1st round receiver, caught 22 passes in his rookie year and was a “bust” until his third year. Injuries, WR depth, and Norm Turner limited Treadwell. Let’s wait until the third year before there are “zero expectations”. FYI – Boldin ran a 4.85. Treadwell advantage is size and hands.

        • Jordan Musser

          I agree but also it is all up to Treadwell. Will he continue to work at getting better? Instead of becoming negative after last season and losing hope will he look at it positively and work to get better? That will be up to him, but I definitely haven’t lost faith in him or think he is a bust. He needs to get his chance to play and when he is on the field he needs to make plays.

    • Brian_pdx

      Johnson hasn’t done anything to justify a roster spot.

  • Vito Mazzariello

    OFFENSIVE line, O LINE ……Draft the whole OL from Oklahoma Sooners!

    • Matt Coller

      The offensive line article is coming out Sunday 🙂

      • Mike Kano

        Are you expecting to get a lot of comments on that one? 🙂

        • Matt Coller

          Haha, yes.

      • Talltales08

        It seems that Zimmer has a knack for coaching up just about any defensive player right? So why not trade some of our pro-bowlers/ Griffen/Rhodes for early first round picks then nab top tier OL-men? Whatever else came our way via those trades we could then address the teams other issues.

        Your thoughts?

        • Logical, and not.
          It took a couple years to get them to where they are now. We want to add to that, not subtract from it and rebuild.

        • Jordan Musser

          Like Northwoods stated it took a couple years for those players to get to where they are. But I like the idea of a trade. It seems we are pretty deep along the DL especially DT so a trade of one of them might make sense. The thing is not too many people would give up a high pick for them.

          Best thing is hope we get some comp picks to add to the 8 we have and make them all count. no Beavers taken in this draft

        • Matt Coller

          It isn’t a crazy idea if there was a player who could replace the pro bowl-level play. Griffen and Rhodes are special talents. It isn’t just a matter of coaching them up. Rhodes ran faster than any player in the league when he got that INT against Arizona…and he’s 6-1. That’s freakish.

      • David Prestin

        You’ll be licking your chops on that one. Even I won’t be ripping your negativity in that article. LoL

  • badzeitgeist

    I’m not sure why Sanu money would be too rich to bring back CP84 — for any given price point, I would rather have Patterson than Sanu. He can do more things, and has more upside. Sanu has had his moments, but it isn’t like Sanu has lived up to his college career in the pros.

    • Matt Coller

      It seems like it would be a lot of money for a guy with limitations. The question is, could they find another play-making receiver and good kick returner for less money? They probably could. I don’t think Sanu is great shakes, he’s probably overpaid, which they don’t want to do with CP84. I like Cordarrelle for his versatility etc. Him coming back would be good if they don’t have to break the bank

      • David Prestin

        With salary cap increasing pretty much every year, wouldn’t a contracts % of the cap be a better measuring stick? If Sanu contract was say 10% of the teams cap at signing, CP’s new deal at 10% of next yrs cap would be for more money by default. Plus CP isn’t just a kick returner, he’s the best in the league. And a versatile offensive weapon. Pay the guy.

        • Jordan Musser

          Would like to see Shurmur if he is around or the next OC use him all over the field – RB, Slot, Outside, shoot even TE. Why not line him and Rudy up on the line. The only question is if CP84 is smart enough to know all those positions and their responsibility.

          • Matt Coller

            I read a cool article by a former NFL player Geoff Schwartz (sp?) about how the Packers simplified the reads for Ty Montgomery. Maybe something like that would be possible for CP84. I totally agree with you that they should spend the offseason working to design ways to get him the ball if he is re-signed.

          • Jordan Musser

            Matt – can you share that article?

    • Jason Bump

      I think he is saying Sanuk is overpaid

  • Ron Johnson

    I think they are on pretty solid ground as far as receivers go but having 5 or 6 solid ones makes a big difference for an entire season. I would like to see them dangle either Johnson or Wright or both as trade bait to fix the other, more pressing issues, like the O line and running back.

    • Matt Coller

      I agree with needed more than just two good receivers. The only thing is: who would take Wright in a trade? His disappearance was surprising, but pretty clear he’s not part of their plans

      • Ron Johnson

        I’m not that familiar with all the NFL team’s rosters but a solid slot receiver with hands and speed (things Wright has always demonstrated) is a weapon that not all teams possess so if your a good GM you find the match and make a deal while trying to keep your pants up.

        • Matt Coller

          His cap hit would be the problem. I’m not sure what team wants to pay $3.7 million on the cap for a receiver who had 11 catches last year. There are probably a lot of ways to find another Jarius Wright. You might be right though, if some team liked him from before…

      • Jordan Musser

        His disappearance is because Diggs worked majority of time out of the slot. And though Wright is a good receiver, Diggs is far superior. It would be nice though if Treadwell can step up and make a big stride next year and we could line up 4 wr sets with 2 receivers on both sides, Wright in the slot on one side with Thielen outside then Tread on the outside and Diggs inside on the other side.

    • Brian_pdx

      Johnson isn’t under contract. Hard to trade if a FA.

    • Mike Kano

      Vikings fans seem to harbor these strange hopes that the team can trade bubble players and get meaningful players in return. There is only one Cleveland, and Spielman can only rob them so often before even they catch on.

      • Talltales08

        The Browns have been Spielman’s trade bitch for a few years now, and the football God’s know how they love to blow the draft.

        • Ron Johnson

          See my response above but in addition, any team that needs a solid slot receiver would love to have Wright and his team friendly contract. He’s shown that he is reliable and talented but underused here. That’s the point of trades, trade what you have in excess for what you are lacking.

      • Ron Johnson

        To make myself clear, I’m not expecting anyone trade their starting left tackle for Wright, but rather a young, promising lineman from their bench for a highly talented yet underused receiver in Wright. For whatever reason he didn’t see the field much this year but when he did he did not disappoint demonstrating that he is still a solid receiver on a team that has plenty of them. He is still under a friendly contract so get something for him rather than have him spend another season catching balls from backup quaterbacks on the sidelines.

  • David Prestin

    Bring them all back. Patterson plays multiple positions so pay him. Wright might be expendable if Treadwell takes a step up.

    • Jordan Musser

      How good would this group be if we could run the ball and protect Sammy for more than 1 second?

      • David Prestin

        No kidding. Could be really fun to watch.

  • Gordon Guffey

    ((( At the No. 1 and 2 receiver positions, the Vikings should feel like they are set. They will likely invest in Thielen, who is a restricted free agent, long term this offseason. )))

    While I’m happy with the Vikings WR’s I do have questions ~

    The Vikings will have to wait and see if Diggs is capable of the injury bug that cased him to drop in the draft ~ If I remember correctly he missed games every season in college ~ So I dont feel all that comfortable and no one saw the Thielen Train coming ~ So is he a one year wonder or is he going to be able to do this yearly ~ At this point I feel much more comfortable about Thielen than I do Diggs ~

    You can thank Shurmur for Cordarrelle Patterson’s future ~ Had Norv stuck around to the end of the season Patterson would have been basically a KR who played on offense when Norv called yet another run up the middle for no gain ~ Patterson is a weapon as a return man also so I dont see the Vikings just letting him walk away without sticking one of the lower tags on him where they can match any offer he gets ~

    I’m not sure about Jarius Wright and what is going on ~ He earn a nice contract before he too disappeared in to Norv’s Doghouse ~ And I’m not saying it waswasn’t earned ~ However he is a capable player and has proven that in the past ~ Perfect slot WR who can play outside if called on ~

    Laquon Treadwell’s nightmare rookie season is over ~ But if the Vikings are worried I dont see Wright or Patterson going elsewhere ~ They IMHO will find a way to keep both with Treadwell bring up the rear ~

    • Matt Coller

      You’re right about Diggs and the injuries. He said he was going to change the way he trained to try to avoid some injuries next year – who knows if that works or not. You’d think Wright would make a good fill-in for Diggs because he’s like the poor man’s version, but he didn’t do much when Diggs was out during the year. Agree with you on Shurmur. Patterson should give him a cut haha

  • sandbun

    They’d have to overpay for a guy who has missed a lot of time the last two years, but if they could steal Jeffery away from the Bears, man it would be fun to see the type of damage Diggs and Thielen would do against team’s 2nd and 3rd corners trying to cover them without much help and with Jeffery clearing out a lot of room in those intermediate routes they like to run. Not to mention Jeffery would be a big help as a target when they get inside the 10. None of them are as talented as Carter or Moss, but it would clearly be the best WR core we’ve had since the 3 Deep days. We would actually have an offense that could threaten people. One that would give us confidence when we need to run a 2 minute drill at the end of halves. If they can find a way to do it and still have the means to fix their o-line issues, I think they should.

    • Jordan Musser

      I have same philosophy and Jeffrey’s value has decreased significantly with his injuries and PED suspension. If we could get him for a 3-4 year deal in the $25-$35 million range i say do it.

      • Javelina Ben

        He is often injured and that concerns me. The O line fixes would open up the running game and improve the passing game. Sam likes the Shotgun, AP can’t play well out of it. Time to go air, fix the oline, keep CP84 if possible, work with Tread, his 40 time is the same as the top (Fitz) receiver in the league.

    • Matt Coller

      If they were able to spend a lot of money to grab someone like Jeffery, they could turn the offense into an all-out passing attack like those days you are referring to. The O-line is definitely the first priority, but considering they didn’t get much out of Treadwell, going after one of the big fish receivers isn’t a crazy idea

  • pzebich

    Diggs and Thielen, the rest are expendable. Sure, we’d all like to see Patterson back but at what price? Somehow I see CP84 going to the Patriots and having one of those years.

    • Matt Coller

      Haha, that wouldn’t be a surprise. I think there will be quite a few teams interested because of his big-play ability.

      • pzebich

        Belichick has a way of turning average players into superstars.

  • Topgunn

    Great article! And I can’t wait to see the O-Line one. I like what we have in Theilen and Diggs. I think CP84 has earned a spot (although cost WILL be a factor). While I like Robert Woods, I kind of agree with the idea that if they go for a FA WR maybe they should go big for a guy like Jeffrey. I still believe Treadwell will be O.K. and there is the possibility that Jeffrey would further stunt his growth. Larry Fitzgerald would be IDEAL. Great leader, still productive toward the end of his career. Hometown guy. Could mentor Treadwell…etc… I see no need to bring Charles Johnson back. We’ve invested in Treadwell, send Johnson packing. Wright could be an interesting trade chip for a low round draft choice. I know this is premature before the O-Line piece comes out, but I would still like to explore the possibility of bring in Joe Thomas. The Browns are going nowhere and with Peterson’s $$$ off the book, we should be able to find a way to fit Thomas under the cap.

  • Gerald

    “Draft and develop” their own players. Make better draft decisions at the # 1 pick, Patterson, Floyd, Waynes, Treadwell and I think that Kalil was also a pick of Rick Spielman. Spielman brought on Alex Boone, Andre Smith, Jake Long. How did that go for this team along with Norv Turner. Slowly but surely this team seems to be going not where Viking fans want to see it go. A switch at GM perhaps is what it needs to “Draft and develop” !!!

  • I think the Vikes should re-sign Patterson, and play him out of the backfieldfish lime the Pack are using Ty Montgomery, in this game at the Giants.

  • AJ

    We need to resign Patterson and Thielen. Let Johnson walk. If we can trade Wright for a late draft pick or project Oline do it. There’s no way Fitz is leaving AZ and I think that Jeffery will cost too much. I would check in on Jackson if we can trade Wright.

  • Jason Wisneski

    Brandon Marshall will probably get cut by the Jets. If they don’t re-sign CP they should draft a KR and sign someone like Marshall. That would really help in the red zone.

  • The Cowboys

    I believe CP has a upside. He is finally coming along. I don’t think you should beak the bank for him. The Vikings need a lot of cap space to fix their running game and offensive line. I believe they will trade up in the draft for the Browns mid round pick. They will get the best running back that is there. A lot of hard decisions but a lot of opportunity to cut the fat and keep the cream of the crop.

  • Tim Greene

    If they let Patterson get away and cut Floyd (which isn’t a stretch, based on some Zimmer comments)… that means Rick went 1 for 3 on that triple 1st round night. That would be flat out embarrassing. To miss 2 out of the 3 1st round picks you took in one night. Inexcusable, really.

    • Travis Miller

      That is true but I have been very disappointed in the development of young talent in general by this coaching staff. Seems like they are at 50% across the board. I dont know if that’s all on rick. Floyd is talented, i wouldnt call that a miss. He just cant stay on the field to deserve 6.7 mill

  • brian199511

    Patterson is also the best KR in the NFL, like forever. He is worth a roster spot. With a new OC he could be more effectively incorporated into the offense.





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