A decade worth of waiting and searching might finally yield the results sought ever since the Minnesota Vikings got rid of Randy Moss (the first time).
They have tried many combinations. In the Brad Childress era, he signed Marcus Robinson, Travis Taylor and Bobby Wade, among others. Bernard Berrian was the big expenditure in the Childress era, but Berrian turned into a classic speed receiver that appeared more interested in fast cars and fashion than working to turn his promise into high-end production.
The Leslie Frazier years provided plenty of promise with Percy Harvin, but his injuries mounted as the patience of the organization waned with his sometimes-surly attitude. And then came another NFC North retread. Like Berrian, Jennings was the team’s leading receiver for at least one year but offered nothing truly special. He fashioned himself a leader and spokesman, but never seemed to truly garner the respect of the entire locker room, or organization.
For nearly a decade, it seemed the Vikings were willing to spend the occasionally wild money on a receiver as the savior of the offense. The real problem, however, for most of that time was the person throwing the ball to those receivers. During the Childress ear, it was Brad Johnson, Tarvaris Jackson, Gus Frerotte and then Brett Favre, who certainly wasn’t a problem in 2009 until he was in early 2010 when he threw away the Vikings’ best chance at a Super Bowl appearance since 1998. During the Frazier era, it was Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel, neither of which could even strive for the “average” section among NFL quarterbacks.
With Mike Zimmer’s first year in operation, it finally looked like the Vikings might have found their main man at quarterback by drafting Teddy Bridgewater. When bad luck and a rare non-contact practice injury last August robbed Zimmer of riding a young quarterback into the future, the team made a heady move to trade for Sam Bradford.
Last year, he endured a disastrous effort from the front five on the line and adjusted with what was necessary by switching to a short passing game and setting the NFL record for completion percentage. He wasn’t firing the ball long often because he didn’t have the time to consistently set up and accomplish that.
But Bradford and Adam Thielen combined for the highest passer rating between QB and receiver in the NFL at 122.9. Bradford also had the highest adjusted completion percentage (80.9), according to Pro Football Focus, a stat that accounts for receiver drops, spikes, hit-as-thrown and throwaways.
Two years earlier, according to PFF, Bridgewater had the highest adjusted accuracy percentage (78.3) among the rookie quarterback class that included Derek Carr, Zach Mettenberger and Blake Bortles.
Whether Bridgewater can return to action after his dislocated left knee and torn ligaments is a question for the future, but Bradford will enter the season as the starter, meaning quarterback is no longer the position holding back the offense.
The Vikings invested plenty of free-agent and draft equity on the offensive line this season, too, signing Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers as the expected starting tackles and drafted Pat Elflein and Danny Isidora as potential starting interior linemen.
If half or more of them panned out as hoped, the offensive line inconsistencies should dissipate quickly.
But the Vikings have also overhauled the receiving corps underneath starters Stefon Diggs and Thielen and the early expectations are that position could break into the top half of the league among their position peers.
Last year, both Diggs and Thielen had great opportunities to become the first Vikings receivers to reach 1,000 yards since Sidney Rice in 2009, who was the only homegrown legitimate threat the Vikings have had in the last 10 years. Instead, along with tight end Kyle Rudolph, Diggs and Thielen combined to become the first trio of Vikings receivers to each have at least 800 yards in the same season since 1981.
Secure that they had two quality receivers in Thielen and Diggs and a solid, if underutilized, slot receiver in Jarius Wright, the Vikings were willing to let Cordarrelle Patterson walk in free agency. What Patterson had in athletic talent, he lacked in drive to become much more than a receiver used around the line of scrimmage to limit his route-running mistakes. With his size and speed, he should have become much more, but patience lasts only so long and the Vikings didn’t see enough value to make anywhere near a competitive free-agent run at Patterson.
It would appear to be the right move, given the additions and progressions on display at organized team activities. Michael Floyd may be a risk given his December arrest for DUI when with the Arizona Cardinals, but signing him to a low-end contract filled with incentives was the perfect move.
Like Patterson, he is full of talent. Unlike Patterson, he has already shown how that can translate on the field.
“He’s done a good job with understanding routes and things like that,” Zimmer said after reviewing the video on Floyd. “He’s catching up a little bit because he missed some of the workouts and things like that in Phase 2 when you get to go out there and run routes. … He can add some dimensions to our offense.”
Last year, Thielen became the primary downfield threat, even though Patterson has the traits to do that as well. Floyd adds even more experience doing that. Last year, he was eighth in the NFL in depth of target at 15.8 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. Last week, he also showed an impressive ability to adjust to misguided throws and haul them in.
In addition to Floyd, if 2016 first-round pick Laquon Treadwell continues to advance as it appeared he had during the only open-access practice last week, it could mean very good things ahead for Vikings receivers, in 2017 and beyond. Treadwell looked much more explosive in and out of his routes, more sure of himself and more consistent catching the ball.
“I think he looks good stopping and starting, some of the routes he’s been running as far as when he has to come back,” Zimmer said. “I thought he’s done really good. He’s running some routes, accelerating over the middle on inside-breaking routes. You obviously saw him catch the deep ball the other day. I think his game is expanding. I think he just feels so much more comfortable now than he did a year ago.”
If that continues and Floyd becomes what he has already proven to be once in his career – a 1,000-yard receiver – the Vikings finally have quality in whatever they want. Diggs is an explosive, elusive short and intermediate route runner, as is Thielen. Thielen can also stretch the field, as can Floyd. Floyd is a big body that can also overpower a defensive back, as can Treadwell. And Wright remains an experienced hand in the slot.
It just might be the best batch of receivers the Vikings have had in over a decade.