The Vikings didn’t break the bank, but they ran an efficient open-market signing period by adding an upgraded starter in guard Alex Boone and legitimate starting competition at weakside linebacker with Emmanuel Lamu, at safety with Michael Griffin and at right tackle with Andre Smith. And they still got all but one (Chad Greenway) of their important free agents re-signed, hanging onto Terence Newman, Rhett Ellison, Mike Harris and Andrew Sendejo – all potential starters again.
But after re-signing 12 of their own free agents and adding five outside free agents, the one position of need that remains is wide receiver. Hello, early draft pick.
The Vikings made some overtures at the agents of receivers during the negotiating period, but ultimately their only move at the position was to release Mike Wallace, who had an undeniably unjustifiable $11.5 million salary scheduled for each of the next two years. Instead, he accepted half that with the Baltimore Ravens.
With or without Wallace, the Vikings needed to upgrade at receiver and still haven’t.
“I think we need to get better everywhere. I don’t know that we necessarily know if we have to, but I would like to,” head coach Mike Zimmer said last month when asked if there is a need at receiver, especially when it comes to the draft. “If there’s a good one there when we’re ready to pick, then I have no problem taking a wide receiver. The more playmakers you get, the better chance you have of increasing big plays and points and things like that, and I do think that’s important.”
If the Vikings want Teddy Bridgewater to “open it up” a bit more, as they claim, there has to be a high-end element on the receiving end of his deep passes. Wallace was supposed to be that guy but really wasn’t – he didn’t get many opportunities but also didn’t present them often enough. Charles Johnson proved in 2014 that he could be an outside threat, but he’s not a speedster either. Stefon Diggs was the team’s best receiver in 2015, but his production faded at the end and he isn’t a big-bodied deep threat.
There is a need for a No. 1, deep-threat receiver and the Vikings know it, but finding the right combination of size, speed and consistency will be their draft task.
“We’ve talked about that a lot, about speed versus size and size versus speed. And I really think it comes down to the player, because there are big guys that don’t get off of bump-and-run very good and we see a lot of bump-and-run,” Zimmer said. “There’s smaller guys that have big catch radiuses. I think you just look at the most dynamic guy. He might not be as fast, but he has great size. He might not have great size, but he gets exceptional quickness in and out of breaks and he’s got the toughness and the demeanor.”
Most observers look at height and speed as the keys to an intriguing No. 1 receiver. But, according to general manager Rick Spielman, there are other ways to create separation.
“There are big receivers who play small to their size. It’s just, you know, you don’t just look at ‘Well, that guy’s 6-2 so he’s a size guy.’ Some guys 5-10 play bigger than that guy who is 6-2,” he said. “So that’s where you have to base it off your evaluation. One guy in particular has longer arms and bigger hands than a guy who is three inches taller than him. So he plays bigger. What’s his catching radius? How does he make plays? There are some big guys who can’t make plays over (defensive backs) down the field. There are some small guys who can make plays. I don’t think you ever box yourself into big guys, little guys. You box them into what they are as football players.”
Of the top-ranked receivers in the draft, Ole Miss’s Laquon Treadwell has an impressive mix of height (6-foot-2) and size with his catching tools (9½-inch hands, 33-3/8-inch arms and 80½-inch wing span).
Ohio State’s Michael Thomas was almost there, too – nearly 6-foot-3 with 10½-inch hands, 32-1/8 inch arms and 78¼-inch wing span.
TCU’s Josh Doctson was behind both of them in hand, arm and wing span measurements, but not by much.
If it’s simply measurables you want, Clemson’s Charone Peake is one to consider. He was a quarter-inch behind Treadwell in hand size, but had him beat by about a half inch in arm length and a full inch in wing span.
“I think we have size at wide receiver,” Spielman said. “We have a couple small guys, we have a couple big guys. We’re never going to box us into we need a big receiver (or) we need a small receiver in this draft. There are different flavors. There are small receivers who can really fly, who can make big plays down the field and play bigger than their size.”
But that didn’t really translate with Wallace. Size does matter and there are several receivers expected to go in the first two or three rounds that have it. They are the ones the Vikings need … so long as they also have a trait that isn’t measured at the NFL Scouting Combine.
“The best receiver I’ve ever been around was Michael Irvin. And Michael was the most competitive guy that I’ve ever seen,” Zimmer said. “He was a great leader. He was like the bell cow of those teams in Dallas. He worked extremely hard. I wouldn’t say he was the fastest guy I’ve ever saw, but he was probably the most competitive guy. They just come in all different shapes and sizes.”