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Can Laquon Treadwell Make the Leap?

Green Bay Packers v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Since Laquon Treadwell was drafted in the first round, with the #23 overall pick, by the Vikings in 2016, he has failed to deliver on the expectations that go with being drafted that high. There have been a few issues that have accounted for his falling well short of expectations so far, so let’s take a look at them and also his prospects for fulfilling his promise as he enters his third year in the NFL.

Difficult Transition to the NFL

Treadwell was the man at Ole Miss. He is their all-time leading receiver in receptions over his three-year career there, with 202. He also had nearly 2,400 receiving yards, 21 TDs, and nine 100+ yard receiving games during that stretch against SEC competition. He was voted the most popular football player at Ole Miss since 2012 by a wide margin after his last season.

But despite his production, good route running, and especially contested catch and blocking ability, there were some concerns about how well he would do at the next level, and particularly his 40 time, which slowed from 4.4 after high school to 4.65 at his pro day. His other Combine/Pro Day measureables were mediocre among receivers in his draft class, but he was also considered one of the more pro-ready prospects in terms of his technique, and his size, at 6’2”, 220lbs., was also an advantage.

WR Josh Doctson had been mocked to the Vikings by many going into the draft, and some saw him as the better prospect, but the Redskins nabbed him just ahead of the Vikings at #22, so with a seemingly significant need at WR (Mike Wallace gone, CP84 not progressing, and just Jarius Wright, Day 3 picks and a UDFAs beyond that - lol), the Vikings went with Treadwell at #23.

But early on in OTAs and training camp, there were reports that Treadwell’s progress was slow as he transitioned to the Vikings scheme and the NFL game. Following that, Treadwell started missing significant time and reps with ankle/leg injuries that hampered his development and playing/practice time the rest of his rookie year.

The timing of Treadwell’s injury issues, even though they were not of the severe variety, caused him to miss-out on development at a key juncture - transitioning from college to the NFL. That timing can often have outsized negative effects on a player’s career. For many players that miss out on their rookie year off/pre-season, it can really damage their career. WR Kevin White - drafted #7 overall, DE Dante Fowler - drafted #3 overall, and WR Josh Doctson - drafted just ahead of Treadwell, have all struggled to realize their first-round or top 10 draft pick expectations in recent years. There are more examples. There is something about missing time during this crucial period that is simply hard to make-up for. Whether it’s learning the new scheme/NFL game, connecting with teammates, or other mental/psychological issues associated with missing out and falling short of expectations on the big stage, it seems that making up for this lost time later on frequently doesn’t work out as well.

In Treadwell’s case, by the end of his rookie year his frustration and disappointment was readily apparent in his interviews. From the first day of training camp, Treadwell had shown his excellent work ethic - being the first one to practice and the last one to leave. But at the end of his rookie season, he had only one catch for 15 yards to show for it - and building pressure for him to live up to his first-round expectations.

Second Year - Struggles of a Different Kind

Treadwell’s second season last year brought some different struggles as he tried to overcome the difficulties of his rookie year. He had a promising training camp, although not without a couple minor injury issues again, and a flare-up with Antoine Exum shown below, although perhaps that may have been more on Exum not happy getting beat for a TD on a nice play by Treadwell:

Treadwell showed progress in his second training camp - and first with nearly full participation - leading Xavier Rhodes, who worked against him, to believe he would have a break-out year. That didn’t happen, but Treadwell did get a lot more playing time.

Last season Treadwell had over 500 snaps, but still very limited production: 33 targets, 20 receptions for 200 yards. By comparison, that was the same production, on eight more targets, as Jarius Wright last season - who played half the snaps as Treadwell. Treadwell was well down the list of targeted receivers - 5th - and a sharp dropoff after preferred targets Adam Theilen (135), Stefon Diggs (94), Kyle Rudolph (76), and Jerick McKinnon (61).

That leads one to believe Treadwell just wasn’t getting open. And while that was often the case, there were also times when he was open, but Case Keenum was focused on Thielen or Diggs or Rudolph- whether they were open or not. It was obvious Keenum often looked for only Thielen on many occasions, or less often Diggs or Rudolph, and never looked to Treadwell. Below are some examples of Treadwell open, but untargeted on passes that were incompletions.

Treadwell never really developed the trust and rapport with Keenum that the other receivers had, which led to fewer targets. Treadwell had only one drop, and one interception that was somewhat his fault when targeted (the other happened on a tipped ball). But on the remaining 6 targets that didn’t result in a reception, most of them were uncatchable - overthrows by Keenum.

In terms of contested catches, looking at all of Treadwell’s targets last year, I counted a total of five contested catch opportunities. One against Green Bay (his one hand, highlight reel grab), one against the Ravens (deep go route intercepted at the 2 yard line), two against the Lions into double coverage, and two against the Steelers. He went 2/5 on those opportunities, or 40%. That doesn’t compare well to Diggs’ 64% contested catch rate, or Thielen’s 55%, but it is also a small sample size. Of the three he missed, accuracy was questionable in all of them, and watching them you don’t come away thinking Treadwell should have caught that - they were not good opportunities. On the interception against Baltimore, you could find fault perhaps for not preventing the INT, but it was also something of a lucky play (and you could make a good case for pass interference), and perhaps a ball Keenum should not have thrown - although taking endzone shots in single man coverage isn’t a bad thing from time to time, and it gives a receiver a chance to show what he can do.

The other thing that is apparent watching Treadwell’s targets is that he drew a fair amount of off- and zone coverage. I suspect that was due to the quality of the cornerbacks involved, and represents an opportunity going forward with Thielen and Diggs likely to draw opponent’s best defenders. Treadwell was good taking what the defense gave him most of the time, and could have been targeted more in those situations. He also showed the ability to beat press-man coverage at times, but seldom was targeted - even when open.

Often when Treadwell was targeted, it was late in the progression or as the play was breaking down. These targets often had a dump-off quality to them - short throws over the middle - that were a hasty last option for Keenum after finding Thielen, Diggs or Rudolph not open. They typically went for a short gain or the throw was inaccurate. A couple times Treadwell altered his route to get open as the play broke down, but the throw and route at that point didn’t allow for much, if any, YAC.

By contrast, when Treadwell was targeted early in the play/progression, the results were good for the most part. But these were few. Below is all of Treadwell’s target last year.

The other thing worth mentioning is that after watching Keenum’s TD passes in the red zone last year, most of the time (80 - 90% or so) Treadwell was not on the field. Pat Shurmur often went with 2 TE sets and/or replaced Treadwell with Jarius Wright in those situations (leaving Diggs and Thielen on the field of course). Hence the lack of TD receptions for Treadwell. Clearly Treadwell did not enjoy the confidence of either Keenum or Shurmur in red zone passing situations - an area where he enjoyed some success in college. His ability to win contested catches on corner/fade/back shoulder routes in the red zone - or any other route for that matter - clearly did not sufficiently impress or he would have been on the field more often in the red zone in those situations. On a couple occasions where he was on the field, he was open but simply overlooked by Keenum in favor of a more tightly covered Thielen, Diggs or Rudolph. The play worked out, and Treadwell did his job - but nothing to show for it.

Bottom line, in terms of being ‘let down,’ Treadwell was more often let down by Keenum in 2017 by inaccurate throws and going untargeted when open, than his letting Keenum down by dropping passes or failing to deliver when targeted.

Looking Ahead to 2018-19

Treadwell has been working with the starters so far in OTAs, which is promising as he gets a chance to build some rapport with Kirk Cousins. But he was also noticeably absent when Diggs and Thielen went to workout with him in Georgia during the off-season.

Developing that rapport with Cousins will be key for Treadwell to take a leap in production this year - along with gaining the confidence of new OC John DeFilippo. ‘Flip’ likes two TE sets as well, so we’ll see what happens.

But given that both Diggs and Thielen have become elite or near-elite receivers, a 1,000 yard receiving season for Treadwell seems a long shot at best. He had 200 yards last season, and I think around 500 - 700 yards would be a more realistic ‘big leap’ for Treadwell this season. But a lot has to go right for Treadwell to get there.

First, he needs to maintain the #3 WR spot. There is a lot of competition, but Treadwell should be able to beat out the rookies and 2nd year guys. Having Treadwell play outside - allowing Thielen or Diggs to play in the slot where they have often been more effective - makes sense, particularly given Treadwell’s size.

Secondly, Treadwell needs develop rapport and confidence with Kirk Cousins and John DeFilippo. This is the biggest key. He’s not gonna get targeted much if he doesn’t have that. He was good last year in catching the catchable balls thrown his way, but he needs to keep proving he’s worth being targeted - and improve his YAC.

Lastly, Treadwell needs to continue to improve his route running, and in particular improve the use of his body, footwork and hand use to gain advantage over smaller cornerbacks - and most of them are smaller. Improving in these areas could really benefit Treadwell in a variety of ways, and help him gain confidence and more targets. But looking at last year’s tape, he was open enough to have gotten more targets.

Treadwell doesn’t have the speed or quickness to gain separation against most NFL corners. But he can use his body, footwork and route running to gain some separation and advantage over defenders. He has this ability and has shown it in college- and occasionally with the Vikings. But he needs to get better at it, and more confident.

Improving his technique in more possession-type routes (slants, hitches, comebacks, back-shoulder routes) may also lead to defenders focusing on those and getting fooled into allowing some separation on deeper routes on occasion too. He has the ability, and he may have benefited from the 500-snap experience last year to the point where if he begins to get some targets, his confidence and production will take a big leap.

Seldom will Treadwell draw an opponent’s top cornerback with Thielen and Diggs on the field. That could lead to more zone coverage (which he has done well against), or better opportunities in man coverage (where he needs to improve). It seemed Treadwell lacked some urgency at times in his route running, which likely set in after not being targeted much, and when the play was designed to go elsewhere.

But last year Thielen and Diggs basically had half of Keenum’s targets. While that’s understandable, it also led to teams gameplanning to limit their production. There were also a number of occasions where they were targeted, the pass went incomplete, and Treadwell was open. A more potent and difficult to defend passing game would spread the ball around more - something Kirk Cousins has been able to do in the past. Treadwell needs to earn the snaps and targets, but if he’s able to build the trust and rapport with Cousins, he may be in better position this year to break out into the 500-700 receiving yard range- and become an effective third receiver. Some of that will depend also on how John DeFilippo uses Treadwell - and I expect he could be used more effectively than he was under Pat Shurmur last year if he improves his technique. But if Cousins remains as focused on Thielen and Diggs as Keenum was, it will be difficult for Treadwell to get much more production.

Bottom line, with Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen occupying the top two receiver spots, it’s difficult to see how Treadwell gets to 1,000 yards receiving, unless DeFilippo leans more toward the pass than has been the case in the past. It’s possible, but not that likely with Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray in the backfield, and a likely weakness in OL pass protection. Even so, Treadwell would need triple the targets of last year to have a realistic chance at 1,000 receiving yards, and that seems very unlikely barring injury to Diggs or Thielen. That wouldn’t seem to be the team goal, either. Getting to over 500 receiving yards for Treadwell, and becoming a more viable target in any situation would be a realistic team goal for Treadwell, which would likely have outsized effects for the offense overall.

Making that leap is doable this season for Treadwell, but getting there starts with a productive training camp and pre-season. Without that, he simply may not get the targets later on.

Treadwell has been working with the starters in OTAs, and the few reports out there so far have been positive, and that he is not as hard on himself mentally and better at just going out and playing. That should be helpful going forward.