Sunday slant: Route-running will define Webb

Joe Webb (Ed Szczepanski/USA TODAY)

Perhaps no roster-bubble player has garnered the attention of fans like Joe Webb. He's on the bubble again, maybe more than ever, but this time it's at receiver, where he will be evaluated differently but has a lot of catching up to do.

Sometimes the backup quarterback needs to stay the backup to remain the most popular athlete in town. Once Joe Webb became the starting quarterback against a playoff team, his performance lacked enough promise to spur a position switch.

Webb is still wearing a No. 14 jersey, but the red jersey to keep quarterbacks safe in practices is no longer part of his apparel. He is running with the position group that includes Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson, Cordarrelle Patterson and a complementary crew that makes the receiver corps deeper than it was last year.

But so is the quarterback position after the Vikings made the decision that Webb was no longer worthy to be a backup there and decided his best chance was at receiver. That might be the case, but it will take a lot of quick adjustments to get him to stick on the roster this year.

Two years ago, the inside skinny on Webb as a receiver prospect was that he couldn't consistently catch – bringing to mind the Brad Childress axiom that receivers, by definition, need to receive. As memory serves, Chilly-ism was used most often in reference to Troy Williamson, but that's another receiver in another time.

Last week, the dropped passes weren't a problem for Webb – at least during one practice that was open to the media. He not only caught most of the passes thrown his way, he caught everything within reach.

"One of the most important things was to try to work on my hand-eye coordination, make sure I'm catching the ball well and running good routes, getting in and out of breaks. So that's one of the main things I've been focusing on," Webb said last week.

"I didn't have a drop – thank God for that – so I'm continuing to get better in that area."

That at least gives him a fighting chance, but the route-running will be his key. Although Webb's long stride makes him a threat once he gets moving, it can also be a deterrent to getting in and out of breaks quickly.

"One of the toughest parts of the transition is just the route-running part," head coach Leslie Frazier said. "He has very good hands, he knows the offense very well. He's actually helping some of the young guys in where to line up at. Just that he'll be able to grasp the route-running part of it fast enough to give himself the best chance to go out and really have a chance to make the transition smoothly when we get to training camp."

Last year, the Vikings were about as thin as it can get at receiver in the second half of the season when Percy Harvin was out with an ankle injury and Jerome Simpson still wasn't much of a factor coming off his back injury.

This year, the situation at receiver is different. The top three spots would seem to be wrapped up with Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson and Simpson. After that, Jarius Wright has a place on the roster and Greg Childs, if he can get back to full health, should compete with another 2012 holdover, Stephen Burton. That's six receivers already … at a position where the Vikings kept five last year. And that doesn't include promising youngsters like Chris Summers and Rodney Smith, who could challenge Burton and Childs.

All of those players have been working as receivers for years while Webb has spent the previous three seasons as a quarterback in two different offensive systems with the Vikings.

Before that, Webb was recruited out of high school as a receiver, quarterback, even a safety, allowing him to "go with the flow" in this situation.

"We've seen him put on a highlight show in some ballgames when he's gotten in games," Frazier said. "One of his strengths is the ball being in his hand and carrying the football, and the way our offense is constructed it doesn't lend itself to being that type of player only, so we wanted to get him on the field rather than on Sundays having him stand on the sideline with me as a third quarterback or not dressed with the addition of Matt (Cassel) and Christian (Ponder) being our starter. This is a way to utilize his gifts so we wanted to take a look at it. To his credit, his attitude was great when I approached the subject with him."

The Vikings are committed to working Webb as a receiver throughout the summer, including training camp, but his evaluation will require more patience.

"It would be unfair to evaluate him as a receiver like I evaluate the rest of them because they've been receivers all their lives. Joe's been a quarterback," receivers coach George Stewart said. "It's kind of like me trying to be a chef. It's not going to work. I've got to burn some stuff up. But Joe's going to help us. … We will evaluate him differently until he has a chance to get his feet underneath him and has a chance to get better as a receiver."

After a solid showing catching the ball, it appears the route-running will be the toughest transition.

He has an impressive skill set, but Webb could be like the high school "athlete" that is recruited without a specific position. In college, coaches have three years to figure out how to best use a player before his final season. Webb has spent the last three with the Vikings at quarterback and now the "athlete" is trying his hand at another position.

His 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame is an asset. So is his leaping ability, which could become especially useful in the red zone.

Fortunately for Webb, his attitude has been unselfish and his personality easy-going. It makes him a player you want to succeed.

"I can even remember as a rookie, and I used to see the guys gravitate to Joe and I couldn't understand it. As time went on I realized he's just one of those guys you pull for," Frazier said. "Sitting in my office a few days ago it came to be as well: This guy is one of those guys you want to see succeed because of his attitude and how humble he is in his approach to the game. He's a great athlete but a tremendous person as well."


Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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