Vikings’ deep pre-camp preview: Receivers

Did the Vikings commit too much money to Greg Jennings, and how does his salary and production compare to the other receivers near the top of the depth chart? We look at the effectiveness of the receivers last year using metrics, their cap implications and more, and name potential breakout players and sleepers.

The players: Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright, Adam Thielen, Kain Colter, Josh Cooper, Erik Lora, Rodney Smith, Kamar Jorden, Donte Foster.

Positional spending: The Vikings have $14.1 million in cap money committed to the position, which ranks 17th in the NFL, according to Half of that is taken up by the sizable investment they made in Jennings last year. His $7 million in cap cost this year ranks fourth on the Vikings and is easily the most of the receivers on their roster.

After him, it is a potpourri of very affordable contracts, thanks to second-year player Cordarrelle Patterson still being on his rookie deal and costing only $1.64 million this year, and questions about Simpson being able to stay away from a league-imposed suspension that likely decreased his value to another one-year, $1 million deal. Wright also remains on his rookie contract and costs less than $700,000 this year, meaning that Jennings is making more than double what the next three receivers on the depth chart are getting combined. That’s the economics of the modern Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Earlier this month, Over The Cap tagged Jennings’ contract as the worst on the Vikings, writing, in part: “Jennings was more or less a non-factor in 2013, averaging around 12 yards per catch and producing about 800 yards on the year. The Vikings structured the contract such that in 2015 he’ll either be on the team at an $11 million cap charge or cost the team $6 million in dead money. Those kind of numbers never should have happened for a player like Jennings.”

That might be true, but when the Vikings signed him as a free agent in 2013 they were in desperate need of a productive veteran receiver. He played over 71 percent of the offensive snaps but didn’t make it to a 1,000-yard receiver in his first season with the Vikings. Part of that blame has to be placed on the team’s erratic play at quarterback, and Jennings has been a valuable veteran resource for young receivers and cornerbacks on the team alike during practice, often dispensing advice to them.

Last year: Further testament to the struggles of the Vikings’ 23rd-ranked passing game in general is that Jennings ended the season as the team’s leader in both receptions (68, which was 20 more than any other Viking) and receiving yards (804), and he tied for the lead with four touchdown receptions.

Simpson provided the most explosive plays, averaging a team-leading 15.1 yards per reception and finishing second in receptions (48) and receiving yards (726). Patterson became more involved as the season progressed, finishing third in receptions (45) and yards (469).

The outlook: The top four spots look secure with Patterson and Simpson providing the speed, and Jennings and Wright providing the elusiveness (which is another Patterson forte). After that, it will be a battle for the final position or two on the 53-man roster and maybe another one or two on the practice squad. Last year, the team ended the season with six receivers on the active roster and Thielen on the practice squad.

Deep stats: While the passing game struggled in general, the receivers represented the offense well overall, as Wright, Patterson, Simpson and Jennings all finished with positive Net Yards over Average (NYoA) numbers, which is a measures the net yardage gained by the team while the player was on the field over a rolling six-year NFL average factoring in field position, down and distance. Wright was best among Vikings receivers at 0.57 NYoA per play, followed by Patterson (0.35), Simpson (0.14) and Jennings (0.03). However, that appears to be more likely a testament to their ability to block in the running as anything, as they all had higher numbers in the running game than passing game in that statistic.

The Vikings’ running game was better by 0.80 yards per rush with Wright on the field than when he wasn’t, 0.37 yards better with Simpson, 0.30 with Patterson and 0.27 better with Jennings – indicating that perhaps the three-receiver sets served the Vikings best in the running game by giving Peterson more room to run with a defense forced to spread more across the field.

Breakout possibility: It’s not hard to imagine the possibilities if Patterson is featured prominently in the offense. While Jennings and Simpson were both used in more than 61 percent of the offensive snaps, Patterson was in on only 41 percent of them, the majority of those coming in the second half of the season. He could—be/should—be a 1,000-yard receiver if healthy and the Vikings have a viable quarterback throwing to him.

Sleeper potential: From Minnesota State to Minnesota’s most popular team, Thielen looks ready for the 53-man roster in a supporting role. He has been working to improve his special teams value and he is starting to look the part of a reliable fourth or fifth receiver.

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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