As training camp opens, the group that offers the most promise for improvement over 2012- and the most questions- is the newly overhauled receiving corps. Integrating and maximizing the potential of this group is probably the most daunting challenge for the Vikings to accomplish in training camp- and beyond- and also the most critical for the Vikings to take another step forward this year.
If successful, the Vikings could be nearly unstoppable on offense. If not, the failure to capture the potential of this group will put a lot of jobs in doubt. This is really where the Vikings can, and should, make the most improvement on offense, and has likely been the main focus of Rick Spielman, George Stewart, Bill Musgrave and Leslie Frazier- not to mention players like Christian Ponder and Greg Jennings- during the off-season and training camp.
One of the things that I like about this group of receivers is the diversity of skill-sets- and the versatility many of the receivers bring to the table. So, with that in mind, let's look at the pieces, and then see how they can fit together for maximum effect.
Greg Jennings: The Vikings did not acquire Jennings to run bubble screens or reverses. They acquired him primarily as an intermediate-depth, possession-type Z receiver, polished route-runner, and proven veteran. With the acquisition of Cordarrelle Patterson, Jennings has also been asked to provide leadership and coaching to the young receiver group.
More specifically, Jennings should be able to re-introduce the timing route to the Vikings offense, and the skill of route-running, which has been absent the last couple years. Jennings probably isn't the guy to run the top of the route tree (see below) as much anymore, but he should be able to bring solid production running the lower routes (3, 4, 5, 6 routes primarily) with his polished route running and ability to find the open space in coverage. Jennings is able to beat press coverage, and is also able to be effective in blocking assignments as well. At 5'11", 200 lbs, Jennings isn't the ideal for outside routes against (likely) longer CBs, especially having lost a step from his 4.42" 40 time 7 years ago. I wouldn't be surprised if Jennings, along with Rudolph, becomes Ponder's go-to receiver on key third-down conversions and in the red zone. Jennings presence on the field will also help out Kyle Rudolph by drawing coverage away from him at times.
Cordarrelle Patterson: The Vikings coaching staff have said that CP will play the X receiver position, rotating with Jerome Simpson. They have also indicated that they may start by giving him touches in Harvin-esque fashion, via bubble-screen and reverses, with hints that they are looking at other things too. I hope so. While CP's YAC ability warrants a few Harvin-like touches, it is a mistake to make that a focus for him. CP has the speed, length, and athletic ability to be a deep threat, and that should be the focus, raw as he is.
The first order of business in developing CP is beating press coverage. Coming out of college, he had some trouble with press coverage, and it seems likely he will face it until he proves he can beat it. Most rookie WRs have this same issue initially. Unlike most, however, CP has the "lead in his pencil" (as Erin Henderson likes to say) to beat press coverage, provided he improves his technique in that area. Going up against Xavier Rhodes in training camp should be good practice in that regard.
Secondly, Patterson should be able to run at least a few routes well. He doesn't need to learn to run the whole route tree well initially, but there are a few that he should be able to run well by the end of training camp: the #2 slant route (his best in college), and the 7, 8 and 9 routes. To the extent he is able to master these routes, he can move on, but the goal for CP (in addition to knowing the playbook) should be to to a) beat press coverage; and b) run those 4 routes well.
At 6' 2", 216 lbs, 4.33" 40, and 37" vertical, Patterson is the guy you want deep to blow past defenders and/or come down with the contested ball:
"He has very good strength for the position to use his body, box out defenders and make contested grabs, out-muscling defensive backs. Patterson has quick hands and natural adjustment skills to make impressive catches on off-target throws. His coaches rave about his football intelligence and his competitive nature, playing focused and fiery." - Dane Brugler, cbssports.com scouting report
Nobody on the Vikings receiving corps has all of these characteristics and skill sets to be the bona-fide deep threat CP is. That should be his focus. How fast and how well he develops will have a big impact on the Viking passing game.
Jarius Wright: We just had a taste of what Jarius is capable of last year, after taking over as slot receiver for Percy Harvin. At 5'10" 180lbs, 4.42" 40, Wright has speed, quickness and YAC ability borne out by his 17 avg yards/catch over his 4 year college career. A year behind Randall Cobb in NFL experience, he shares a lot of the same traits. It's hard not to see Wright having a similar type of break-out year as Cobb did last year in Green Bay. Wright still needs to improve route-running, but with a strong burst, speed, quickness and elusiveness, Wright can excel at deep routes and crossing patterns. Wright could also be called upon for a bubble screen or reverse with his YAC ability and quick burst.
"Wright is a very quick player who understands how to work out of the slot and sit down in the holes of zone defenses. He is tough in traffic and a deep threat who runs good routes. He understands the angling aspect of route running and how to run in a way that he can create separation and be a wide open option for his quarterback. He has quick hands to snag the ball in short throws and the ability to reel it in deep." - scouting report on Wright (which we've seen glimpses of during his rookie year)
Simply having more playing time should see a big burst in production for the young slot receiver.
Kyle Rudolph: Rudolph has proven to be an excellent receiving TE with still a lot of upside. The biggest problem for Rudolph, who has become a popular target for Ponder, is the lack of other big receiving threats, which has allowed opposing defenses to focus on eliminating him as a receiving weapon. This shows up in the relatively low completion percentage Ponder has with Rudolph, despite his being a big target with great hands. Rudolph should benefit this year with Jennings, and also Wright, drawing coverage away from him at times and allowing him to convert more of the passes thrown his way into completions.
While I expect these will be the big four receivers that emerge as the year progresses, a couple others to mention:
Jerome Simpson: Simpson is similar to Wright in that we only saw glimpses of what he can do because of the games he missed, and the injuries that impacted his performance. I would not be surprised to see Simpson's reps decline as the year progresses, but he still has the speed and length to beat a defense over the top. His route running needs to improve, which may have been impacted to some degree by his back injury, but not entirely. In any case, at 6'1", 190lbs, about a 4.5" 40 or so now, he's a lesser version of CP at the X receiver position. While perhaps not as gifted as CP in physical ability, Simpson does have more NFL experience, which, combined with more healthy playing time, should result in some better production over last year.
Joe Webb: While it's not a sure thing that Webb makes the roster at the WR position, I think he has the inside track for the last spot, based on his physical ability, if nothing else. Webb could be fashioned into something of a red-zone specialist outside receiver. At 6' 4", 220lbs, 4.44" 40, 40.5" vertical, he could be very hard to defend in end-zone corner routes going up high for the grab. He could become a good outside receiver in time, but has a boatload of technical work to improve before that could happen. He appears to be making good progress.
Lastly, there is the guy on the other end of the passes:
Christian Ponder: The focus this training camp for Ponder should move generally from himself, his technique, becoming more familiar with the system and NFL, to interacting better with receivers (timing, trust, chemistry, etc.), and his environment (recognizing defenses, match-ups, audibles, progressions). From a receiver standpoint, with new faces to the receiving corps in Jennings and Patterson, and more limited work with Wright last year, there is a lot to accomplish. Additionally, the change in personnel will undoubtedly result in a revised- and expanded- playbook. All of these are positive developments, but they require a lot of work- and time- to integrate and develop. But these sorts of things are not atypical for a QB entering his 3rd season. The addition of Jennings and Patterson, along with the development of Wright, should see a significant increase in longer (10+ yards in the air) passing attempts and completions this year. The improved arsenal at Ponder's disposal should also allow Ponder to take advantage of audibles and favorable match-ups more often than last season, which should help improve his passing stats. I think a realistic and achievable- and challenging- goal for Ponder this year, and one that Bill Musgrave will be familiar with, is the 2nd to 3rd year progress of Matt Ryan.
Both QBs had very similar stats in their 2nd year. Ryan had an 80.9 passer rating, 56.57 QBR, and 2,916 yards passing. Ponder had an 81.2 passer rating, 53.77 QBR, and 2,935 yards passing. Ryan was able to improve to a 91 passer rating, 69.45 QBR, and 3,705 yards passing his 3rd year. Ryan was able to make that jump with about 3 additional pass attempts per game- from 32 to 35- under Bill Musgrave as OC. This should be the benchmark for Ponder this year. It's also the type of numbers the Vikings need to take it to the next level.
PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER
One of the nice benefits of this particular receiver group is both the diverse skill sets and versatility of each of the receivers- undoubtedly something Bill Musgrave will appreciate as he implements his playbook. Expanding the playbook appears to be on the agenda in training camp. Let's look at some of the possibilities.
These are not new concepts by any means, but rather plays that haven't been used much- nor successfully- based on personnel and other considerations last year.
First, let's look at the Flat-7 below. This is a classic Cover-2 beater- a scheme both Detroit and Chicago will likely be using week 1 and 2- and is also often used against man coverage/pressure front situations too. This type of play can be run out of multiple personnel groupings, so don't get too focused on the position specifics shown. We really didn't have the personnel last year to make this type of play successful very often last year. This year, one could imagine Patterson (or Simpson) and Jennings (or Webb) running the outside corner (#7) routes, which are the most difficult for safeties in Cover-2 to defend, particularly with play-action. Jennings and Wright or Rudolph could be effective running the underneath out routes. This play forces the safeties to cover a lot of ground to defend the corner routes after the CBs release them to defend the out routes underneath.
For this play to work, you need receivers that can run good routes and get to their breaks quickly in a 4-wide set. This concept could also be run from a balanced 2 TE formation, say on 1st or 2nd down, hoping to draw a safety in a bit and hold with play-action. Rudolph and Carlson or Ellison could run the out routes, and any pair of outside receivers (Jennings, Patterson, Simpson, Webb) running the corner routes, with AP in the play-action / outlet role.
Next, let's look at the Spot. This is a great short to medium 3rd down conversion play, but could be used very effectively on 1st or 2nd down too, that challenges discipline in a variety of defensive schemes. This is a play that could be used more, and more effectively this year. In the pro formation, nothing is given away initially, and the run threat need be honored, particularly in the right down/distance situation. You have AP and Felton in the backfield, Jennings at the Z, Rudolph TE, and Simpson/Patterson running the slant route at the X. As the play unfolds, with Felton advancing as if a lead-blocker and the fake hand-off to AP, LBs will be drawn to the run initially, allowing Jennings to slip behind them in the seam. At the same time, Rudolph heading down field to the corner route creates a problem for a LB that bites on the run fake, forcing a safety to cover a lot of ground and a potentially poor match-up against the 6' 6" Rudolph on the corner route. A first look to Patterson/Simpson on the slant route opposite would freeze the DBs on that side for a moment, creating a better YAC opportunity for Jennings on the curl route, with Felton running the outlet route to keep the CB busy, or get the completion and turn up field if the CB chases Jennings.
This play, while fairly simple, is very difficult to defend considering how often (and successfully) the Vikings actually run the ball out of this formation, and the nearly ideal skill personnel to run it. Great compliment to the run game and use of personnel. Don't forget the threat of CP or Simpson running the backside slant route either.
Next, let's look at the Dagger. This is a great play to get CP or Jennings open down field in space.
Working from play-action to AP, the slot and Z receiver simply run go routes to clear out the safeties, creating a great opportunity for the X receiver in space. This is the type of play for a CP highlight reel- and he had a couple of these at Tennessee. One can imagine Wright and Jennings running the go routes, and CP the deep dig route. AP with the play-action and Rudolph the drag across the middle. An easy throw for Ponder down the middle- something he had very few of last year.
Obviously there are a number of plays that could be added here to better utilize the receiver corps, and Bill Musgrave is knowledgeable enough to put them together. But it's also not just about new plays. It's also about having a better overall receiving group to execute existing plays as well. The Smash-7 red-zone concept was used successfully a few times last year, with big catches by Kyle Rudolph. That success can continue to improve. Using 2 or 3 TE sets and the standard pro set with Felton at FB to create deception for defenses geared for the Vikings smash-mouth power game (like the Spot concept) will go a long way toward creating balance in the Vikings offense, while keeping opposing defenses off-balance. But there is a big difference in how effective the passing game can be with a gimpy Jerome Simpson and Michael Jenkins out there as deep threats, vs. Jennings, Wright and CP this year. Defenses will react differently. They may even begin to scheme differently too. But with the revamped receiving personnel, there will be more opportunities to exploit favorable match-ups down the field than last year. Employing a hurry-up offense (remember that?) can also help in that regard.
Bottomline, the opportunities to excel in the passing game are increasing. Going big early, and a bit more often, is just what the doctor ordered to cure a 31st ranked passing game. Lots of work ahead to get there, but there is definitely light beyond the tunnel screen.