You can criticize the Minnesota Vikings all you want for selecting Laquon Treadwell in the first round of the 2016 NFL draft instead of New Orleans Saints superstar Michael Thomas, but at the time, they were far from alone in believing he could be a top-notch NFL receiver.
During his senior season from Ole Miss, Treadwell caught 82 passes for 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns — all while recovering from a horrific leg injury.
NFL.com draft writer Lance Zierlein compared him to Houston Texans star DeAndre Hopkins.
“Like DeAndre Hopkins, both players should be defined by their talent, ball skills and consistency of production over pure speed numbers,” Zierlien wrote.
Things have not turned out that way.
Even if we look at Treadwell’s rookie season as a “red shirt” type year — and it’s plausible to do so considering he was one of that year’s youngest draft picks — there has been little evidence that anything more than a replacement-level receiver is hiding underneath the surface.
Since the beginning of 2017, he has a total of 24 receptions. Of course, catch numbers don’t always tell the story — see Stefon Diggs, a $70 million receiver who hasn’t reached 90 receptions or 1,000 yards, but had a QB rating of 120.4 last season when targeted. But even a deeper look at Treadwell’s targets suggests he’s struggling mightily. Sam Bradford, Case Keenum and Kirk Cousins have combined for a 50.6 quarterback rating when tossing the ball in Treadwell’s direction.
The only flashes have come in training camp.
On August 8, Cousins said of Treadwell:
“I see a guy who comes to work every day, knows the plays, knows the system, has a good sense of the game, has made aggressive, tough catches and has run a variety of routes and really shown up on all of them.”
The Vikings’ new quarterback seemed to gain chemistry on the practice field with the former first-round pick, but in two weeks, Treadwell has nine targets, four catches, four drops, one touchdown and one drop that resulted in a key interception late in the game against the Packers.
Last year, camp confidence also turned sour.
In Week 1 under Pat Shurmur, Treadwell played 55.6 percent of total snaps and 76.9 percent the following week. His snap counts spiked briefly while Stefon Diggs was on the shelf, but then sunk sharply. In the Vikings’ huge NFC matchup with Atlanta on the road in Week 12, he saw just 19 total plays (28.8 percent of total snaps). In the playoffs, the Vikings turned to Jarius Wright more often and Treadwell registered zero catches in two games.
For now there isn’t much the Vikings can do. Veteran offseason signee Kendall Wright was too one-dimensional and 2017 seventh-rounder Stacy Coley rarely showed flashes, so the team moved on from both players. They signed former Cousins teammate Aldrick Robinson, but throwing him into an offense he’s never seen before in short order is a tough ask.
At this moment he has zero trade value and draft picks don’t help a Super Bowl contender and cutting Treadwell would do more harm than good on the cap. The Vikings are in a position where they can only wait and hope.
Getting lots of questions about whether the Vikings would eventually cut Laquon Treadwell. Keep this in mind: Doing it this year would mean an extra $1.15 million hitting the Vikings' 2018 books. Not impossible, but a difficult proposition for a team that's already tight on space
— Ben Goessling (@GoesslingStrib) September 18, 2018
“I think you are supportive,” offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said. “As coaches, we are always looking to get every player better every single day and striving to hold guys accountable and doing the right thing and being in the right spot. I think to me, I went back and reminded Laquon how far he’s come since we’ve started.”
DeFilippo was quick to point out that Treadwell scored his first career touchdown — which could be a good thing or a sign that his career has sputtered — on Sunday against the Packers. One challenge Treadwell has faced is getting on the same page with his quarterback. He notably ran the wrong route depth in a huge Thursday night matchup with the Cowboys in 2016 and appeared to run the wrong route on a third-and-short against the 49ers in Week 1.
DeFilippo said the touchdown catch was a sign of him getting it.
“That was a huge play,” the Vikings’ OC said. “Crossed the corner’s face. It was a great adjustment. Kirk put a great adjustment on the route which I thought was great. Great read by him. It was just a great play all around. I think people now tend to focus on the negative all the time. I try to focus on some of the positives. Without having my head buried in the sand, there is areas of improvement.
“We are staying positive. We are staying positive. Are we happy with what happened with the drop and the interception and those things? No. That can’t happen. The whole world knows that can’t happen. At the same time, the kid did some really good things in the game on Sunday.”
Another slow start for the 23-year-old receiver brings us to two questions: Is there any way the Vikings can better put him in positions to succeed and will he ever become a solid No. 3 receiver?
One issue in Treadwell’s game has been the lack of ability to create separation. Zierlein’s draft profile from 2016 offers a potential solution:
“Treadwell is at his best when he has a clean, two-way go off the line of scrimmage and he could be a challenging size matchup from the slot.”
Of course, Adam Thielen, a star, is the team’s primary slot receiver, but notice on Treadwell’s touchdown catch he is lined up closer to the formation, giving him the “two-way go.” Of 84 snaps this year, Treadwell has lined up in the slot just 12 times, according to Pro Football Focus.
But separation hasn’t been the biggest issue this year. It’s catching the passes thrown his way. If his newest hurdle is getting over a mental block, that could negate the progress he’s made in route running and his understanding of the NFL game.
“He has bought in to having short term memory,” DeFilippo said. “That is something I preach to the offense since the day I got here was that none of us are going to have success in this league if you don’t have short term memory. He has bought in and we’ll see this week. He had a good day of practice yesterday and obviously we’ll see on Sunday.”
Cousins said his approach is to just move on from mistakes quickly.
“I think you just get right back on the practice field, throw him the football, and in a lot of ways, act like nothing happened,” the Vikings’ QB said. “Let’s just go play. We know you can catch the ball, you’ve had a lot of opportunities through the offseason program and through training camp, and we know what you can do. Let’s just get back to work. We don’t need to dwell on it. I think it’s something we can just move on from. We don’t have to dwell on it a whole lot.”
But no matter what supportive words DeFilippo and Cousins provide, patience has to be running thin. In Year 3, the warm fuzzy feeling of potential starts to go cold if a player has not yet produced — and it goes ice cold when that player is a net negative and constantly storyline.
However, two weeks does not a season make. Last year through two weeks, there were questions about whether Trae Waynes should be benched for Tramaine Brock. Against the Saints and Steelers, Waynes struggled mightily, but he turned things around and took the next step toward being a consistent NFL cornerback.
Treadwell has a long way to go. We will find out in the next few weeks based on their usage of Robinson whether the Vikings really believe in him or not. If he does find his training camp form at some point this season, Treadwell could still make some impact on the Vikings’ offense.
That has to happen soon because the Vikings proved with the release of Daniel Carlson that they aren’t going to wait around on potential this year.