With all the hoopla that will be surrounding the first game for the Minnesota Vikings in their new stadium Sunday against the San Diego Chargers, the pomp and circumstance is overshadowing the bigger issue that it will be the third preseason game – the closest thing to a regular season dress rehearsal that the NFL provides.
Part of that process for the Vikings is to finally determine something of a pecking order at wide receiver, making that stratification this week’s in-house matchup to watch.
There isn’t typically a monopoly on playing time for receivers unless you have a clear-cut established starting duo like Atlanta had for years with Roddy White and Julio Jones or the Packers currently have in place with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb.
In Minnesota, it isn’t that way. There isn’t a clear delineation between who is the No. 1, 2 or 3 receiver. They’re looking to find a clearer line between those who will be on the field 80 percent of the plays, 50 percent of plays and 20 percent of plays. They haven’t found that mix yet.
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In the first two years Mike Zimmer and Norv Turner have been in the Vikings organization, General Manager Rick Spielman was going outside to find a No. 1 receiver – signing Greg Jennings as a free agent who was in place before Zimmer and Turner arrived and making a trade to add Mike Wallace in 2015. Neither of them worked out and both are gone, leaving the path wide open for players groomed in the Vikings system to set out their own career paths and playing time.
When Minnesota used its first-round draft pick in the 2016 draft on Laquon Treadwell, it was assumed by many that the line started with No. 11 and everyone else would be behind him, despite Treadwell being a rookie. By season’s end, that may be the case, but Treadwell is currently on the second line of the depth chart.
The Vikings have a revolving door at the top spot and it hasn’t been anything unusual. When Jennings struggled to be a playmaker, Charles Johnson, who came over to the Vikings from the Cleveland practice squad where his path had crossed with Turner, ascended to the No. 1 receiver and entered last season as the starter alongside Wallace.
That didn’t last long. Wallace never fully incorporated into the starting lineup. He was targeted seven or more times in three of the first five games, but never more than six times in any game after that. With Johnson sidelined early in the season, his place was taken by rookie Stefon Diggs, who ended up leading the team in receptions and yards.
The one constant through the last two seasons that hasn’t been a constant this offseason and preseason has been Jarius Wright. He had carved out a role for himself as a slot receiver, but has been sidelined almost all of the preseason and has yet to be able to contribute. While his job isn’t on the line, it has opened the door for other players to make an impression and nobody has done that more than Adam Thielen.
In his first three seasons, Thielen always seemed to be on the roster bubble. He made the team for his ability on special teams, but the feeling always was that, when the Vikings needed to open up a roster spot due to injury or based on necessity, Thielen was a candidate that could be sacrificed. That has all changed.
Thielen came on late in the season as the Vikings were making their playoff run, coming up with big catches when they were needed in the Vikings offense and that has carried over to preseason this year. It seems like Thielen has made the most of every opportunity he has been given and is pressing the coaching staff to see what he can accomplish in an expanded role. The feeling has permeated that if the Vikings were to only keep five wide receivers, Thielen’s job in 2016 isn’t in jeopardy.
The same can’t be said for former first-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson. One of three first-round picks in 2013, the Vikings exercised the fifth-year options on both Xavier Rhodes and Sharrif Floyd, but didn’t with Patterson, making him a free agent at the end of the season.
Last year, Patterson’s role in the offense was so completely diminished that in the last half of the season he was on the field for only a handful plays at best and was used almost exclusively as a kick returner. While the coaches have raved about Patterson during the offseason, the fact remains that his offensive role has diminished to the point of receiver screens and gadget guy. If there was ever a time for Patterson to live up to being a first-round pick, it is this season, which could make him an offensive wild card if he lives up to his immense talent.
While there isn’t much debate who the six wide receivers will be heading into the 2016 season for the Vikings, where they end up in terms of playing time is up to speculation. Will Thielen and Patterson see their roles increase? Will Wright remain the primary slot receiver option? Will Johnson and/or Diggs keep their starting spots? What role will Treadwell play in the process as a rookie?
It’s unlikely any definitive answers will come out of Sunday’s game, but it will go a long way to determining where their internal rank in the passing offense will start from when the bullets start flying, making this the key matchup this week.