Coming into the 2015 season, there were three over-arching story lines regarding the wide receivers on the Minnesota Vikings.
The first one was the potential renaissance of 2013 first round pick Cordarrelle Patterson. Patterson finished 2013 with a flair, leading the NFL in receptions over the last month of the season, and flashed enough big play potential to make you think he was going to be a long time fixture in the Vikings offense. A subpar 2014 made 2015 a prove it year for him, both the player and coaches said all the right things in the off-season, and there was a fair amount of anticipation to see which Patterson the Vikings were dealing with.
The second was the trade for Mike Wallace, the deep speedster who was going to take the top off of defenses, open up the running game, and give QB Teddy Bridgewater a legitimate deep threat. He was immediately installed at the #1 WR on the depth chart once Greg Jennings was released, and has stayed that way through training camp and the first quarter of the season.
The third was the continued emergence of Jarius Wright and Charles Johnson, young guys with a lot of untapped talent. Wright was the second leading receiver in terms of yardage for the Vikings last year, and Johnson came out of nowhere to become the Vikings most reliable target towards the end of the season. As a refresher, let's take a look at their stats from 2014:
Obviously, Wallace's numbers were with the Dolphins, and he was their top wideout in terms of receiving yards and TD receptions. Heading into yesterday's game at Denver, the stats of the three guys behind Wallace looked like this (I haven't included him because I'm presuming he'll be entrenched as the #1 WR all season, barring injury or something off the field):
Not anything that sets the world on fire, but the Vikings had been a run heavy offense early on, and it had gotten them to a 2-1 record. Against the Broncos, Johnson was deactivated because of a rib injury, and Wright was hampered by a hand injury. He suited up, but I don't remember him being on the field. If he was, he wasn't targeted by Teddy Bridgewater, so he was a non-factor. One of the complaints I've had about the Vikes receivers so far is an inability to get consistently open, and you felt that the Vikings were going to have difficulty throwing the ball against the Broncos, one of the best defenses in the NFL.
And when Denver loaded the box to take away Adrian Peterson and the running game, Bridgewater was forced to take to the air, throwing 41 times. With two of his primary receivers out, he had to rely on two guys that haven't been used much, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, a rookie who was activated for the first time against the Broncos.
But when Denver took away Minnesota's run game yesterday, the 'big three' became Wallace, Thielen, and Diggs:
Oh, and Patterson? He had one catch, for nine yards. A couple things have jumped out at me when looking at these stats:
In one game, Diggs has more receiving yards than Wright and Johnson on an individual basis, and has only three less receptions than they have combined. Thielen has more receptions than Wright, and as many as Johnson. He also has more receiving yards than Johnson, who many people thought was going to be a breakout player for the Vikings. He only has two less than Wright. Diggs is averaging twice as many yards as Johnson in terms of average yards per catch, and Thielen is four yards per catch better.
One of the things that was becoming somewhat concerning for me was how little separation it seemed the receivers were getting coming into yesterday. Bridgewater seemed to be throwing into a lot of tight windows, or simply checking down. Yesterday, Teddy stretched the field quite a bit, and when he threw to his receivers, there seemed to be a decent amount of separation between them and the defender.
Facts are a stubborn thing, as John Adams would say. And the facts are simply this: The wide receivers looked better yesterday with Wallace, Diggs, and Thielen getting a majority of the targets than any wide receiver combination Minnesota had used up at any point in the season.
Wallace isn't going anywhere, and Johnson is a big guy, ideal for the outside opposite Wallace. And no one should lose their job due to an injury.
If you make me rank the depth chart for the wide receivers right now, I'm going, from top to bottom:
Wallace is still your number one guy and top deep threat. Thielen can be a classic possession/move the chains receiver, and Diggs is electric working from the slot, or motioning out wide, which is why I have them slotted the way I do, although I think Diggs is the better overall player. Wright and Johnson can fight it out for the fourth and fifth spot, but I like Wright more, to be honest.
And Patterson? Wow, I don't know what's going on there. I really thought he would have a big game yesterday, yet he was completely invisible. For a first round pick that had an encouraging rookie season, this has got to be close to rock bottom. And now, the Vikings have to ask themselves a couple of serious questions about Patterson moving forward:
1. Is it worth keeping him active to essentially return one, maybe two, kickoffs a game?
2. If not, is there a viable replacement for kickoff returns?
3. If not, are you keeping him active simply because of where he was drafted?
4. If you do activate him, why is he not more involved?
5. Would he be worth anything in the trade market?
My personal opinion is that the Vikings, as a team, don't want to look like they completely whiffed on Patterson in the first round, which looks more and more likely. So they have the conundrum of either deactivating or trading him, and getting little or nothing in return. And the thing of it is that Patterson has first round talent, which makes this all the more frustrating. Still, in terms of on field performance, he's has been passed by every other receiver on the roster, and how they handle the former first rounder coming out of the bye will be eye opening, either way.
But where a guy was drafted aside, none of that matters right now. I saw more chemistry between Teddy and Wallce, Diggs, and Thielen than any other three receivers this year, and I can't see the Vikings Diggs deactivating again, unless it's due to injury.
But we'll see. Stranger things have happened.