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Vikings Receivers: Raising the Floor

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NFL: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

More so than other position groups for the Vikings, the receiver group seems a perennial exercise in speculation into what ifs and projections of how new acquisitions may perform - or not. Often there is little to go on, which leads to a frustratingly wide range of possibilities from poor to truly outstanding.

This year there is a little less speculation among the starting receivers, but beyond that it’s all projection.

Raising the Floor

Last year solidified Stefon Diggs as a reliable and productive receiver for the Vikings. It was also a break-out year for Adam Thielen, whose route-running and pass-catching ability took a substantial leap from previous years. Both of them had over 900 receiving yards last year.

Add to that Kyle Rudolph turning in a career year, and the low end of expectations for the Vikings receiver group looks substantially higher than in previous years.

A big part of the increase in productivity of the receiver group is Sam Bradford, who was able to make the throws despite a decimated offensive line.

But Adam Thielen’s improvement was real, and the comparison with Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson looks a good one. See his highlight reel from 2016:

There is definitely a similar style between Thielen and Nelson, and Thielen’s catch % last year (75%) and yards per reception (14.0) were better than Nelson’s. Both are essentially possession style receivers that occasionally can get open deep not with speed, but with effective route running.

Stefon Diggs is similar in that regard, proving as reliable a target as Thielen with a 75% catch rate as well, but last year a lower average yards per reception (10.8) compared to Thielen- and Diggs’ previous year as a rookie (13.8). Diggs, like Thielen, has acquired the ability to find the open space or gain just enough separation to warrant targets from Bradford, who seems to have a trust in both receivers, especially as their catch rates are high and they only rarely, if ever, give up an interception when targeted. That’s the way to earn a QB’s trust, and both seemingly have done so with Bradford. Here are Diggs’ highlights from last year:

Beyond Diggs and Thielen, Kyle Rudolph has also become a favorite target for Bradford- Rudolph being the most targeted last year with 132- but with a lower catch rate at 62.9% and a consistent yards per catch average at 10.1, identical to 2015.

These three combined have proven a reliable, go-to trio for moving the chains and extending drives, but not as much for their mismatch/deep threat/big-play potential - although they’ve created some of those on occasion.

Still Looking Out for a #1

But the Vikings are still searching for another play-maker and deep threat that safeties need to pay attention to every down.

And that is what has driven the acquisitions to fill out the receiver group recently- the need for more big-play, deep threat receivers to stretch the field vertically. The Vikings gave up on Cordarrelle Patterson and Charles Johnson being able to fill that role this year, which makes space for new acquisitions.

Drafting Stacy Coley and Rodney Adams this year was a stab at finding a deep threat, if not exactly a #1 receiver. Drafting Moritz Boehringer last year was an attempt to get a true #1-type receiver at some point down the road. The Vikings’ signing Michael Floyd is an attempt to find a #1-type receiver who can contribute now.

Drafting Laquon Treadwell in the first-round last year was also an attempt to find another outside receiver with size to work the sideline and stretch the defense.

And Bucky Hodges is yet another attempt to get big, deep threat play-maker, whether he lines up outside or runs a seam route. It’s interesting that Hodges has the same speed/quickness measureables as Treadwell, but is 4 inches taller, 30lbs heavier, and has a 6” higher vertical jump.

A Handful of Wild Cards

But all these receivers are unproven. The Vikings have gone with first-round picks, late-round picks, UFAs, and expensive free-agents over the past few years to try to bolster the strength of their receiver corps- hoping that for a few of them at least the light turns on and they can turn their potential into real production on the field.

So far only Diggs and Thielen (and Rudolph) have been able to do it. Jarius Wright is also a capable slot receiver, though he wasn’t used much last year.

Each wild card receiver has their pros and cons:

  • Treadwell is the best route-runner and pass-catcher, faced the toughest competition, is a big receiver, but speed and vertical measures not as good.
  • Boehringer has the best combination of height/weight/speed/vertical jump, but is also the most raw
  • Hodges also has an excellent height/weight/speed/vertical combination, but some issues with drops and perhaps route running at the NFL level
  • Coley and Adams are both slightly undersized speedsters (4.4” 40s) that need to improve their route running, learn how to beat press coverage
  • Michael Floyd, if acquired, has good size and 5 years of experience, but also off-field issues and a low career catch rate of just 53%. His red-zone catch rate is even lower.

The 3rd One is the Charm

Starting with two very capable receivers in Diggs and Thielen, along with Rudolph at TE, makes for a pretty solid receiver group, especially now that the Vikings have Dalvin Cook out of the backfield as well. But getting one more big WR to ‘get it’ when it comes to route running and catching at the NFL level, can pay out-sized dividends. Here’s why:

Obviously the depth of a WR group challenges the depth of the opposing team’s defensive backs. With two good receivers, a team with one solid CB can usually cover one of them, and another, lesser CB can cover the other with some help from a safety. That can be effective many times and force check-downs, throw-aways or allow the defensive front to get to the QB.

But in a 3-WR set, where all three WRs are very capable and the outside receivers have size, it exposes any weakness in DB depth. Very few teams have three very capable CBs (the Vikings were one of them last year), and safeties can’t help cover all the receivers. That leaves at least one favorable match-up for the QB to exploit, or a zone coverage.

A 3rd big receiver running a seam route could exploit both. But there are several other ways having a capable 3rd wide receiver- particularly a big one given that Diggs is a little undersized- could help stretch a defense and create more space for receivers to exploit.

  • Running an outside route down the field, occupying a CB or S, perhaps both, freeing up more room for underneath and crossing routes.
  • As a blocker, opening up bubble-screens, wheel routes, pitches and sweeps. Having Dalvin Cook in the backfield could turn these simple plays into big ones.
  • In the red-zone, a big receiver who can win jump balls can help improve red-zone efficiency

Most Likely to Succeed

The addition of Michael Floyd adds him to the list of receivers most likely to succeed in becoming the big #1-type receiver the Vikings need to complement Diggs and Thielen. But there are others that could fill that role too. Having more candidates leads to a greater likelihood that at least one will be successful. Let’s take a look at each of the leading candidates.

Michael Floyd

Floyd is a former first-round draft pick (#13 overall) of the Cardinals back in 2012. He proved to be something of a disappointment, and eventually was eclipsed in the depth chart by other receivers, then cut after being arrested for an extreme-DUI. From his draft profile here, many of the issues (and strengths) of Floyd proved true over his 5-year career so far. Floyd’s experience and production makes him a leading candidate, but he shouldn’t be seen as a shoe-in either. A couple issues about Floyd:

  • Alcoholism. Obviously he’s gotta be sober. Floyd had 3 alcohol-related arrests while at Notre Dame, and his more recent extreme-DUI means he hasn’t kicked the habit. Obviously that is an on-field as well as an off-field issue, as having a drinking problem effects your body and physical performance negatively, and is bad for the locker room too. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a big reason he was cut so suddenly after the DUI in Arizona.
  • Catch-rate. Floyd’s career catch rate (receptions/targets) is only 53%. Last year it was only 49%. Floyd’s catch rate in the red-zone has been as low as 42%. One reason for the low catch-rate was that Floyd was typically targeted on deeper routes than most receivers, which have a lower chance of success. But even factoring that in, Floyd’s catch rate is below average and is a concern. Last year Floyd’s drop rate was 5.3%. By contrast, Thielen and Rudolph’s was 2.3%, and Diggs’ was only 0.9%. So, dropping over twice as many passes as the two former receivers, and over 5x as many as Diggs is not likely to make him a go-to receiver for the Vikings. Floyd typically does not always gain a lot of separation as well, which perhaps leads to a lower catch rate as more of those targets can be broken up.
  • Both of these issues are correctable, but both of them were also mentioned as issues in his pre-draft profile 5 years ago. Floyd is on a one-year deal, so if he doesn’t fix them both, his stint as a Viking may be a short one.
  • The positives in Floyd’s draft profile have also shown up in his NFL tape too. Notably the ability to make some difficult catches, good use of his body to make contested catches, ability to block and be physical generally, and his ability to get off the line of scrimmage and beat press coverage.

Laquon Treadwell

Treadwell and Floyd have many similar physical traits and play-style. They both go around 6’2-3” and 220lbs, so they are both larger receivers, but neither have great speed. Floyd ran a 4.47” 40 five years ago, and Treadwell ran a 4.63” 40 at his pro day.

Obviously Treadwell having only one catch his rookie year is a concern, which was due mostly to having a foot injury that took him out of a lot of the off-season and training camp activities, delaying his development. He may have had more difficulty picking up the offensive and routes as well. But last week it was reported:

According to Mike Zimmer, people who wrote off wide receiver Laquon Treadwell will find the Vikings’ top draft choice of a year ago is really standing out in offseason workouts and will be counted on to be a lot better player than he was last season.

Treadwell has a lot of similar characteristics as Floyd in terms of his style as a receiver- physical, good blocker, uses his body well, makes the contested catches, can beat press coverage, but doesn’t have a speed advantage. Nevertheless, he has the ball skills and route running skills to be more of a vertical threat than an underneath, possession-type receiver one analyst said. See Treadwell’s draft profile here.

Given that Treadwell was not a raw receiver out of college, and now is healthy and able to participate in the off-season workouts and training camp, I expect he may earn a lot more reps this year and a chance to prove himself.

Bucky Hodges

Obviously Hodges has the mismatch characteristics that coaches want to exploit on the field- and could make him a big playmaker- but he’ll still need to ‘get-it’ at the NFL level first.

Hodges had three very productive years at Virginia Tech- playing effectively wide receiver rather than TE - see my recent write-up on him here. But he’ll need to learn to block, beat press coverage and improve his route-running to be most effective on the field. It’s all doable of course, even as a rookie- and Hodges has his size to help with the first two- but so often with receivers it can take time to develop these skills. So, we’ll just have to wait and see. Mike Zimmer indicated that Hodges would be playing H-back- not TE or WR or RB - but something of a hybrid - most likely a more receiving oriented one, although Hodges did run some sweeps in college too.

Moritz Boehringer

MoBo is clearly the most raw of all the big receiver options, and my guess is that if he sees the field this year, it would be very limited, and perhaps contingent on his being able to play a role on special teams as well - perhaps a gunner. But there are no reports of what sort of progress Boehringer has made since being drafted, nor any indication that he may be ready to contribute. A good sign would be if the Vikings promote him from the practice squad, but we won’t know that until the end of training camp. It would also be a positive to see him get some reps in pre-season, but beyond that we’ll just have to wait and see.

For now, MoBo is more of a future possibility than a candidate to see much playing time this year.

Upgrade Likely

At the end of the day, the likelihood of at least one of these four candidates being an upgrade to either Charles Johnson or Cordarrelle Patterson last year seems pretty high, as both were essentially non-factors in the Vikings passing game. Just how big of an upgrade remains to be seen.

Last year, the Vikings- despite losing their starting QB, having the worst rushing game in the league and arguably the worst offensive line- still managed to go from 31st in the league in passing offense to 17th - a pretty big jump even without the impediments they faced. That was largely due to Bradford playing as well as he did, and the emergence of Thielen alongside Diggs.

Looking ahead, barring injury, the prospect of moving still higher up the pass offense rankings seems likely too. Upgrading the offensive line, a chance for Bradford and the receivers to work together in the off-season and training camp, and the prospect of another big, capable receiver having a positive impact are all reasons for optimism.

Poll

Which new receiver will be the most productive for the Vikings this year?

This poll is closed

  • 48%
    Laquon Treadwell
    (1394 votes)
  • 30%
    Michael Floyd
    (883 votes)
  • 12%
    Bucky Hodges
    (349 votes)
  • 8%
    Someone Else
    (246 votes)
2872 votes total Vote Now