As the Minnesota Vikings get ready to watch the crop of college wide receivers work out at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, they’re doing so with plenty of questions swirling around at the position.
Is Mike Wallace coming back? Will he accept the seemingly inevitable pay cut that needs to be made for him to stay? Can Stefon Diggs be a go-to receiver after leading the team in receptions last year? What happened to Charles Johnson?
But perhaps the biggest question on the Vikings plate is whether they will dip into the first round of this year’s draft to select a wide receiver? The last time the Vikings did that they ended up with Cordarrelle Patterson.
While Patterson has led the league in kickoff returns in two of his three seasons, he wasn’t drafted to be a Devin Hester-like return specialist. He was intended to develop into a go-to receiver and clearly that hasn’t happened.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said that the process of coming to an organizational decision concerning Patterson has been a significant part of the offseason discussion of how the Vikings view themselves moving forward. Spielman said he spoke with Patterson and his representatives and the time is now for him to make an impact or 2016 may well be his last in Minnesota.
“I’ve talked to Cordarrelle and I’ve talked to his agents,” Spielman said. “We’ve had our meetings. Cordarrelle has to come in, I think his mindset is he knows he has to become a better receiver, a little bit more consistent receiver on just the nuances part of the game.”
What is so frustrating for the Vikings coaches is that there is little questioning Patterson’s natural ability. He has the size. He has the speed. He has all the component parts physically to be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL.
The question has become how much is Patterson willing to sacrifice to improve as a player and become a dominant force. There are plenty of young NFL players who enjoy the paycheck, the notoriety and the fame that comes with being in the NFL, but unless they earn the paycheck, the second NFL contract isn’t guaranteed.
There is no way the Vikings are going to exercise their fifth-year option on Patterson. At this point, he needs to earn his spot as if he was a rookie himself because nothing is guaranteed beyond this season.
“There’s no question about what type of athlete that he is,” Spielman said. “There’s no question about the explosive playmaking ability he has with the ball in his hand. It’s just a matter of if he is going to be able to take that next step or not. I know just what he’s been doing this offseason, he’s really focusing and honing in on becoming the player he wants to become and we all think he can become.”
The issue with Patterson has become that his role in the offense has been all but eliminated. In more games than not, Patterson was on the field for five offensive snaps or fewer. Even if he could make an impact, his limited opportunities typically resulted in more attention being paid him by the opponent’s defensive coordinator than his own offensive coordinator.
The Vikings have one more season to see if that will change and Spielman believes that you leave decisions like that up to the coaching staff, not forcing edicts down from above.
“Could the coaching staff had done more with Patterson?” Spielman said. “I leave that up to the coaches, that’s their decision. I don’t think there’s any question about Cordarrelle as an athlete and what he does with the ball in his hands, but those are decisions that the coaching staff has to make. They get paid to put the best guys out there on the field that gives us the best opportunity to win, and I trust them 100 percent when they make those decisions on what we need to win on game days.”
Neither Spielman nor head coach Mike Zimmer was willing to tip his hand as to whether or not the Vikings will be looking to draft a wide receiver with their first pick two months from now. But they were willing to discuss the qualities they’re looking for in the event they do take a receiver early in the draft.
In many ways, what they’re looking for are the things that have been missing from Patterson’s development as a wide receiver – a rapport and trust level with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
“I’d say other positions than receiver take time to develop,” Zimmer said. “I think a receiver comes in, if he understands that the biggest thing for receivers is, does the quarterback trust him? Is he going to be in the right place and on time? So he’s not running a 7 route and the guy is throwing a 9 route, or whatever. The trust for a quarterback, being in the right place, is huge. And understanding the system and all the different complexities with it. ‘OK, I got a rolled-up corner, now I’m running a fade. Or it’s a post and I’m running it regardless of the coverage.’ So trying to figure out the different coverages in the NFL – those things – and against bump and run, because you get a lot more of that now than you do in college. I think receivers can go quicker than three years.”
Randy Moss was a pro-ready player who changed the game from the moment he stepped on the field. Patterson has been just the opposite – lowered production and expectations in each of his three seasons.
In many ways, drafting a wide receiver in the first round would be an indictment of the current wide receiver situation, which, at best, can be viewed as pedestrian by NFL standards.
The Vikings may well draw that line in the sand and make the pick that defines a position for the future, much in the same way the selection of Chad Greenway, Adrian Peterson, Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith, Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes, Anthony Barr and Bridgewater have done for their respective first-round selections.
If the Vikings are going to select a wide receiver with their first pick, in many ways they will be starting over – crossing their organizational fingers in hopes that they have done their draft due diligence and that they’re the smartest guys in the room.
The problem is that the hit-miss ratio on first-round wide receivers has always been a sketchy proposition. For every Moss, there are five Troy Williamsons. It is what it is. The hit rate on impact wide receivers has been hot the last couple of years, so in a league of replication, this may be a year to roll the dice on a wide receiver. Too many teams have hit to project misses early on.
Spielman pointed out the type of receiver he is looking for – whether in the first round, Day Two or Day Three. It’s pretty specific.
“It depends what system they come out of,” Spielman said. “I think they have to get used to the style of defenses here, the precision of the routes because of defensive backs and how skilled they are. The timing as far as the quarterback may throw you the ball and you’re not going to be as open as you were in college. Also, depending on what offense they came out of, how much knowledge they just have on an overall scheme. Some schemes are watered down but very productive. Other schemes are more complicated. But I think it’s just the nuance of learning what it is to play receiver at this level because they probably aren’t going to have that experience coming out of college.”
When the Vikings moved back into the first round in 2013 to select Patterson, they were convinced that he would be the answer to the post-Moss prayers. That prayer has yet to be answered.