The obvious first: The Minnesota Vikings have to improve their offensive line and they know it. And they have to figure out a way to improve their running game through a combination of upgrading said offensive line and solving the headline-producing question surrounding Adrian Peterson and who will replace him after an expected release.
The not-quite-as-obvious: The wide receiver position might be the next most interesting question of the offseason.
The Vikings finally appear to have a pair of quality starters in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. At least that’s the case if the Vikings hang onto Thielen, as expected. Since he’s a restricted free agent, the Vikings can give him a tender of a first- or second-round pick that would seem to ward off potential suitors, or at least give Minnesota the ability to match any offer he would receive or get a high draft pick in return.
Thielen said he wasn’t sure how the Vikings were going to approach his first limited foray into free agency and wasn’t sure if the team would try to get a long-term deal done before they reach the point of a tender. Either way, he and Diggs should be set for a return in 2017. Along with tight end Kyle Rudolph, that gives the Vikings the return of their first trio of pass catchers since 1983 to each have at least 800 yards receiving.
After that, however, there are plenty of question marks.
Charles Johnson, who entered the 2016 season as a starter, is also scheduled to be a restricted free agent. But, for the second straight year, he wasn’t as impactful as expected. He finished with only 20 catches for 232 yards, despite finishing fourth among receivers in taking almost 40 percent of the offensive snaps.
With him, the Vikings will likely just place a right-of-first-refusal tender and see where the market for him shakes out.
Cordarrelle Patterson will become an unrestricted free agent on March 9 and the plan for him doesn’t seem quite as defined. He appeared to have a resurgent season, used in just over 50 percent of the snaps and catching 52 passes for 453 yards.
Still, the way in which the Vikings used him was a clear indication that he is far from a polished product. His speed and size say he should be able to do much more, but the lack of trust displayed in his route-running and decision-making has been a recurrent theme and indicator that he still hasn’t refined into a mature receiver on the field.
“I don’t know at this point if he’s going to be back or not,” said offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who was hesitant to talk about any pending free agent. “Those are questions for Rick [Spielman, the general manager] and then at that point we’ll see. But he did some good things for us on offense. When he’s got the ball in his hands, he can be a dynamic player.”
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Patterson should be so much more, but one wrong route or misstep and an interception can change the complexion of a game, and with the Vikings’ approach they can’t afford many costly turnovers. The wisest choice with Patterson is to let the market determine his worth and proceed from there. It could mean he leaves, and doomsday and snakebitten Vikings fans seem convinced he might flourish with another team, but so be it. At this point, the trust level should dictate his worth and it seems neither of them are very high after four years in the NFL.
If he leaves, the Vikings also lose a dynamic kickoff return man – really, there is little doubt he is the best in the game at that part-time skill – but that, too, is the price of poker in the free-agent market.
Then there is the curious case of Jarius Wright.
All he does is consistently represent a quality slot receiver for which both offensive coordinators last year – Shurmur and Norv Turner – found very little use. It’s a confounding approach given Wright’s production when he is used in an offense bent on quick-release passes to save a quarterback behind shaky pass protection.
One of the issues is Wright will cost about $3.1 million in 2017 under his contract. If they continue his limited use – he played a staggeringly low 11 percent of the snaps last year – he isn’t worth that kind of money. Yet, because of the contract they signed him to in 2015, when he was still an important piece in the offense, they would only save about $1.5 million against the cap if they release him.
Perhaps if Patterson is gone, Wright is back on track as a legitimate third receiver, and it is possible Shurmur finds a bigger use for him with an offseason searching for plays that suit his style.
Finally, there is 2016 first-round pick Laquon Treadwell. Vikings fans heard far more about him in the offseason and training camp than they did about him during the season. He played amazingly little in his rookie season, in part because he was still working through an ankle injury from college and in part because he wasn’t consistent enough in practices to warrant a big role on game day.
Treadwell played only 80 snaps, or a little over the equivalent of one game, in his rookie year.
Maybe he can begin to live up to first-round billing in 2017, but he doesn’t have much NFL experience to draw upon at this point and there seems to be cautious optimism in the words of Shurmur.
“I think if a guy has had a chance to play a little bit in Year 1 and get out there on Sundays and compete and get a taste of it, even if it’s as a role player, then you see that improvement between Year 1 and Year 2 kick in,” the offensive coordinator said. “Sometimes, a player that may be relegated to practice squad or didn’t get a chance to compete, Year 2 is not quite as significant.”
Last year, the average spending on the receiver position by team was $15.3 million, according to Spotrac. The Vikings were just over half that at $8.4 million.
They are currently 27th in spending at receiver without Patterson, Thielen and Johnson officially counting on their 2017 roster.
But the approach that makes the most sense is ensuring Thielen returns and letting the market dictate the value of the other two. If both Patterson and Johnson leave, it opens the door for Wright to (re)emerge and Treadwell to start gaining some much-needed experience and confidence.
However free agency alters the Vikings’ receiver group, it will likely look somewhat different in 2017, but at least the top two producers should be staying in purple.