The biggest uncertainty for Vikings fans entering the 2012 season is at Wide Receiver. Knowing that they are thin at linebacker, defensive tackle, and at safety, many fans are unsure of what to think of the Vikings' Wide Receiver situation. Nowhere else are there as many questions and concerns as there are about the playmakers split wide. Now with our most interesting talent subject to contract speculation, it's more critical than ever to understand what we have in our receiving corps. While Ted and Doc Harper did an excellent job covering recent draft picks Wright and Childs, we still don't entirely have a clear picture of what other receivers n our roster can bring.
The Vikings' well-publicized lack of depth at receiver has encouraged them to pursue several options for bolstering their receiving corps. Not only did the Vikings take two receivers in the fourth round of a very deep 2012 draft, they also pursued a receiver in free agency - Jerome Simpson. Simpson has always been physically impressive, garnering a 2nd round pick after running a 4.42 40 with a 37 1/2" vertical leap. He had been touted for his reach and ability to make some impressive catches. After 2 seasons as a nonentity, Simpson posted an additional 2 seasons for the Bengals without much of a splash. The best of these seasons was in 2010, when he posted 725 yards and 4 touchdowns. After his contract expired, our Minnesota Vikings picked him up and gave him a 1 year, 2 million dollar "prove it" deal. Below the jump, we'll take a look to see if we should be optimistic about his ability to prove his worth.
First things first. Let's get this out of the way:
I don't even care if you read the rest of this article. Just enjoy.
Alright. Now that we've got that out of our system, let's talk shop. Jerome Simpson was brought the the Vikings largely to clear up space in the middle, which would make playmakers Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson all the more effective. His ability to stretch the field was lauded in the months leading up to the 2008 draft. While his on-field speed has never compared to his combine speed, his quickness has generally been an asset. Jerome Simpson has suffered, however, from the Bengals' relative depth at his position. In 2008, he had to compete with Houshmandzadeh, Ochocinco, and Andre Caldwell to see snaps. In 2009, Housh was replaced by Laveranues Coles and Simpson only saw the field five more times, for a total of 18 snaps. Of course, many of us remember that a year later, Coles was replaced with Terrell Owens. Simpson once again could not find much time on the field, but did at least bump his snaps up to 153. This was not a bad year for Simpson, who caught 80% of the passes thrown his way. He caught 20 balls for 3 touchdowns and 277 yards while only dropping one pass. Still, Simpson had not shown the type of potential the Bengals drafted him for, and his inability to take targets away from veterans at the tail end of their careers speaks to the type of receiver they saw.
Nevertheless, Simpson has been able to take some advantage of the limited time he does see on the field. His best game was not in fact the career-defining Cardinals matchup, where he ended up with 5 receptions for 42 yards, but a romp against one of the league's best defenses, the Baltimore Ravens. Although perhaps that operates using only one definition of "best game" - Simpson will be featured in highlights for well over a decade with that acrobatic flip. Regardless, we need to focus on what Simpson can bring to the offense on a consistent basis, and the Ravens game provides the best opportunity for Simpson to shine. With AJ Green out of the game nursing a knee injury, Simpson finally was the focus of an otherwise potent Bengals offense.
It seems that the rest of the Bengals, especially Dalton, weren't clued into Simpson's starring role, as he didn't catch a pass until 1:24 was left in the first half (1:06 in the video). Once he did start catching passes, it was a bit difficult for him to stop, including an excellent back-to-back at 3:07 to end the video. Here, Jerome Simpson emphasizes his best qualities, the most prominent of which is excellent body control. His agility is great, and he controls his hips and shoulders well. He is blessed with nearly the full complement of receiver moves, and they help him release into the secondary and avoid presses. He plants and kicks through his routes like a veteran, and can accelerate at the right times in order to fool his coverage. He exhibits body control well beyond merely his hips and shoulders - there are not many receivers that share his ability to get to the ball in traffic, both because of his prodigious leaping ability and his ability to bx out opposing DBs. He can also keep his feet inbounds, and excels at sideline catches. He moves laterally quite well, and if need be, can cut.
Excellent agility, however, is not the most important asset he carries with him - he has incredible focus once the ball is in the air, and adjusts extremely well to the ball. Very often, he'll be in the right place at the right time for the ball and can usually win the battle with DBs to get to the pigskin. His catch radius is rather large, and there are a few components to this: the first of course, is his physical ability. His long arms and legs will allow him to get to most areas that other receivers simply aren't capable of. The second is his quick reaction time. On short and long routes, he'll get a bean on the trajectory of the ball faster than the average player, allowing him the time he needs to place his body. The final component, of course, is his agility and physical awareness. He knows where he needs to be and what his body needs to do in order to come down with the ball. While not amongst the top receivers in the league when it comes to mid-air adjustments, Simpson is still a good bet to save a bad pass.
His final asset is his intuitive route running. Not asked to run a lot of options, Simpson will still employ the tools he has to maintain excellent timing and spacing for his quarterbacks on his routes. He's very familiar with his route tree, and will use effective shifts and twists to get opposing DBs to bite on the wrong routes in off coverage. He knows the function of his routes and can execute them well. He needs to develop effective timing with his QBs, but once it is established, route running is still rarely a problem.
Simpson is not all unadulterated skill, however. He has a lot he needs to improve on. Jerome Simpson, in fact, has probably had more lowlights than highlights in his career with the Bengals. Some of his issues can be worked on, but don't expect much improvement on even the most teachable technical issues after a receiver's fourth year in the NFL. Even worse, some of his other issues are likely to remain problems. Nowhere are these issues clearer than in his game against Denver in Week 2 of the season.
While choosing this game as his "worst of 2011" may seem odd, given some fantastic gains (one at 0:54 and 1:46) I figured that it was more appropriate to choose a game that best displayed his flaws, and not necessarily the game where he performed the worst. You'll notice that while he displays a fantastic ability to shed blocks, some of his other receiver skills are lacking. Take a look:
You think this is a good game, but it's a disguise
The first thing that needs to be said is that Andy Dalton's performance has a lot to do with Simpson's production in this game. Still, Jerome Simpson recorded 3 drops in a game where he could have had well over 200 yards. His 136 yards are impressive, yes, but Simpson played against a defense that not only had not quite gelled yet, but also had difficulty recognizing the simplest plays. You can see even on his more successful routes where some of his problems are.
While doing a pretty great job using his body to trick defensive backs and occasionally linebackers, Simpson never runs a precise route. He'll round off corners or misplace his feet. He's usually asked to run relatively simple routes despite his ability to read his coverage for two reasons: 1) Andy Dalton was still developing as a quarterback, 2) his route running was not precise enough to draw up plays that encouraged more complex routes. So while he's an intuitive route runner - he can knows the function of his route and how to adapt it to coverage - he'll lose focus on his route in order to refocus his attention on the ball. A good example of this is on his second play (0:09). He displays excellent agility and tricks his CB into thinking he's running a fade route, but his steps are sloppy on the curl. A smarter and more ambitious DB would have easily sniped the ball, because Simpson doesn't efficiently turn back to the ball with enough time to run up to it.
This also hurts his timing with the quarterback. There are a number of problems where Simpson puts himself into a position where he has to adjust to the ball much more than he should have had to because his route running has caused some problems for his quarterback. You won't see a lot of those plays in this game (I'm a little conflicted about whether or not 2:42 is an example - Dalton throws it behind Simpson, and given his normal accuracy and the lack of coverage, I'm inclined to believe it was because of an unnecessarily hurried route than anything else), but there are a couple of instances where an underthrow or an overthrow might actually be an issue of receiver timing than QB ball placement - not that one shouldn't expect quarterbacks to also make this adjustment, but they share the blame. This is a particular issue in a west coast system or one that relies heavily on timed routes.
You'll also find that Simpson doesn't possess a lot of strength. While his burst off of the line is great, his release against press coverage could use work. Not only does he have issues with his handwork off the snap (these issues are relatively minor - if he consistently starts the snap with his hands up against presses, 85% of these problems go away), he gets thrown off of his route easily - we don't see much of this at all because Denver played a zone coverage instead of a lot of man. Mind you, this helped Simpson more than anything - his excellent read of coverage will allow him to take advantage of zones. He gets pushed around and thrown off of routes and this causes obvious problems. The first play and the conversion attempt at 1:34 are both examples of this - the first more than the second because he literally gets pushed off of his route. In the conversion example, it seems as if his fear of contact pulls him out of the route and also makes him drop the ball.
Incidentally, he has a lot of drops. He had 3 against Denver, and 9 over the course of the season. He in fact had the 3rd worst drop rate in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus, with 15.25% of "catchable passes" dropped. His ability to adjust to the ball and focus does not extend to making sure he pulls in the catch - this is the result of several problems: The first is that he simply has worse hands than most elite receivers in the NFL. The second is that he'll find himself in positions where he has to adjust more to the ball than the typical receiver, due to his shoddy footwork while routerunning or inability to shake press coverage. His reaction time is pretty fantastic, but he forces himself to waste it working to make sure his body is in sync, and less on working to make sure the ball is caught in a way that reduces DB interference. Finally, he has an issue with protecting the ball once he pulls the ball in - check out the play at 0:26. That play is also a slightly more complex route, and my read on that play is that he also falters running this route. There are also some issues with his arm extension, although I personally find those to be a bit overblown.
His functional speed and combine speed are distinct, and he has some difficulty sustaining this speed. Still, his burst off the line is quick, and if he gets a good release off of his coverage, he'll fly by most CBs in the league. Nevertheless, his speed is not as high as initially advertised coming out of Coastal Carolina. As an athlete, he's relatively elite, but he can't translate all of it onto the field.
He's a bad run blocker. DBs can shed his blocks and he is more likely to get pushed around then push others around. This is less a result of poor blocking technique (although he understandably has spent little time developing it) and more from his poor strength. While his frame is well suited to shedding tackles, his elusiveness is not because of his ability to power past tackles, but instead a result of the wiggle he can have on the run, maintaining fluid hips and twisting shoulders when necessary. He has compensated for his low strength pretty well in his receiving duties, but cannot perform at a high level for other jobs that require brute force. My feeling is that he also shies away from contact (this seems to be a relatively universal feeling) and that this is related to his low strength, but the Bengals did a good job making sure that he went outside and into the secondary - he didn't run into too much traffic in the games that I saw, so I don't have a lot of hard evidence for this assertion.
I don't like his shoulders before the snap - I don't think they're low enough and I think that contributes to his less than ideal release off of receivers. Not only that, he needs to do a better job placing his hands before and after the snap. The rest of his moves are fine, excellent, even, but I do find issues with some of his pre-snap technique. There are several DBs in the league, including a few in our division (Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson come to mind) that will take advantage of that.
To me, Simpson is a one-note receiver who can perform his job at an average level. I don't expect a 1,000 yard season, and wouldn't be surprised if Greg Childs takes a lot of his snaps, particularly later in the season. Given how receivers usually progress, I don't have a lot of optimism for his ability to overcome some of his technical deficiencies. He has all the physical tools to be an elite receiver, and some of the mental and technical skills, but he is not the full package.
Oh, and one more thing:
There's always a reason to be optimistic