Position analysis: Wide receivers

Greg Jennings is the old man of the mostly young receiving corps, but their production was tied to the performance of the quarterback position. We take a player-by-player look at the Vikings receivers for 2014.

Greg Jennings
Jennings just finished his ninth year in the NFL, and his second with the Minnesota Vikings. Before his time as a Viking, Jennings was with the division rival Green Bay Packers. The Packers drafted him in the second round of the 2006 draft out of Western Michigan – he was the fourth receiver selected in the draft.

In 2014, Jennings led the Vikings in receptions (59), receiving yards (742), and receiving touchdowns (6). This past season was his eighth consecutive season with at least four receiving touchdowns. He also caught his 500th career pass in Week 2 against the New England Patriots, and his 60th career touchdown in Week 12 against the Packers.

Jennings was the highest rated Vikings receiver, according to Pro Football Focus, with a 0.0 rating. Making him tied for the 48th best receiver in the NFL out of 110. Jennings did not start out the year well, as three of his first six games he was rated with a score of -2.0 or lower, but some of that could be attributed to rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater taking over the team for the first time – and third-string quarterback Christian Ponder filling in for a game. He was able to turn it around towards the end of the season and finish much better than he started.

When the Vikings first brought Jennings over in free agency the hope was that he would be a No. 1 receiver that improved the play of his quarterback, and they paid him as such. In his first two years with the Vikings Jennings has not lived up to his contract that averages $9 million per season, but he showed a lot of improvement in his production as Bridgewater continued to develop.

Moving forward, Jennings could be a valuable player for the Vikings who have a young quarterback, and a young group of receivers. His nine years experience makes him the most veteran receiver on the team (next closest is Jarius Wright with three years of experience) and that means there are many things for him to teach Bridgewater and the rest of the receivers.

Charles Johnson
Johnson just finished up his second year in the NFL, his first with the Vikings. He was originally selected by the Packers in the seventh round of the 2013 draft, but after training camp was signed to their practice squad. He was later signed to the Cleveland Browns active roster, but was placed on reserve/non-football injury with a torn ACL. He went to the Browns’ training camp to start the 2014 season but was signed to the Vikings roster on Sept. 20.

By the end of the season, Johnson had played 440 total snaps, which was by far the most he had ever played in the NFL, and he did not get his first appearance until Week 5. At first he was used primarily as a deep threat receiver to stretch the field, but as the season moved along he eventually found himself as the starting X receiver for the Vikings.

Johnson worked hard in practice and seemed to have a good connection with Bridgewater, which helped him get that starting spot. But what helped him even more was that Cordarrelle Patterson continued to struggle in the starting spot. So the Vikings opted to make a change over to Johnson for the Week 12 game against the Packers, when Johnson played in all but two offensive snaps.

Throughout the season Johnson performed on a very level basis. He did not have very many lows, and he did not have very many highs. He was just a solid contributor week in and week out. But at the end of the season PFF still gave him a -2.7 rating, which was primarily because of the Week 17 game against the Bears. In that game he was targeted four times, but was only able to come down with two catches for 22 yards. He also had one run for minus-11 yards.

There were a lot of questions surrounding Johnson when he first started to receive playing time for the Vikings, but by the end of the season he proved that he could play in the NFL. Johnson could remain one of the starting receivers in 2015, but it is likely that the Vikings will bring in more receivers this offseason, either through the draft or free agency. If that is the case, it could cut into the amount of playing time that Johnson receives.

Cordarrelle Patterson
Patterson finished his second year in the NFL after being drafted by the Vikings in the first round of the 2013 draft. The Vikings traded back up into the end of the first round to get Patterson, and by doing so invested a lot into him.

Patterson was known to be an extremely young wide receiver as he had only one year experience in a Division I program, but there were high expectations for him at the beginning of the 2014 season. Experts across the league were expecting him to have a breakout year, but things never panned out that way for the young receiver.

The season started out on the right track for Patterson, as he racked up 128 total offensive yards and a touchdown Week 1 against the St. Louis Rams, but 102 of those yards came running the ball. After that he failed to come even close to those numbers again. By the end of the season, PFF had him at a -3.5 rating, and there were only two games in which he was rated above a 1.0 – one of which was Week 1.

This offseason is going to be an important one for Patterson if he hopes to live up to the expectations that have been set on him as a first-round draft choice. Plenty of people are saying they want to work with him and help him out – Jennings, Bridgewater and head coach Mike Zimmer, but it’s up to Patterson to follow through.

He has all the talent necessary, but there are times when his work ethic has been in question. If he can get things squared away he has the ability to be a threat in the passing and rushing game, which will be a nice addition to his already-dangerous kickoff return game.

Adam Thielen
Thielen just finished his first season in the NFL after spending a year on the Vikings’ practice squad in 2013. He was able to make an impact on both offense and special teams during the preseason, which earned him a spot on the Vikings’ 53-man roster.

Throughout the course of the year, Thielen had a limited role on the offense – totaling just 151 offensive snaps. Through those snaps he was only able to gather eight receptions for 137 yards and a touchdown, which was the first offensive touchdown of his career.

Thielen’s biggest impact during the 2014 season was on special teams. He had 10 total tackles and a blocked punt he returned for a touchdown. PFF had him rated as the 11th-best special teams player in the NFL with a 7.5 rating.

Even though Thielen was not able to make a large impact on the offensive side of the ball, he emerged as one of the young leaders on the special teams unit. If he continues to work hard to improve through the offseason, he should be back next year playing for the Vikings.

Jarius Wright
Wright just finished up his third year in the NFL after the Vikings drafted him in the fourth round out of Arkansas in 2012. The season started out slow for Wright, but things picked up for him, especially once Bridgewater took over as the starting quarterback.

Both Bridgewater and Wright spent time on the second team at the beginning of the year, so the two worked together plenty in practice. This meant that the two had an instant connection once Bridgewater was thrust into the starting role, and Wright reaped the benefits.

He set career highs for receptions in a game (8) and most receiving yards in a game (132) in the Vikings Week 4 game against the Atlanta Falcons – Bridgewater’s first start. Wright also had the second-most offensive snaps on the Vikings during the 2014 season among wide receivers (513), second only to Jennings.

Through the year, Wright was consistently the No. 3 receiver on the team, but was second in most receiving categories. He finished the year with 42 receptions for 588 yards and two touchdowns – one of which was an 87-yard screen play to beat the New York Jets in overtime. PFF ranked Wright with a -0.9 rating at the end of the year – second among Vikings wide receivers.

The 2015 season will be a contract year for Wright, and he has been showing improvement each year of his career so far. If he can remain healthy – he struggled with a back injury toward the end of the 2014 season – he should be able to have one of the best years in his career so far.

Wide Receivers Overview
The Vikings had solid performances from multiple receivers over the course of the 2014 season, but still lack a true No. 1 receiver on their roster. Johnson emerged and proved he can play in the NFL, Jennings’ game improved, and Patterson showed he still needed to develop.

If the Vikings can bring in a top-tier receiver this offseason to help out Bridgewater, they could have a very dangerous offense in 2015. The only problem with that is they then have to decide who to keep and who to let go or move to the practice squad.

There has been speculation of releasing Jennings because of the large contract he was given, but with the amount of young players the Vikings have at the receiver position it may be better to try to restructure his contract. That way they can still have an experienced veteran to help teach the younger receivers on the team, and one that can also help out Bridgewater as he continues to learn the quarterback position.

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