Receiving corps taking shape

Perhaps the most maligned position on the Vikings team coming into this season was wide receiver. But when the dust settles, they might not be the weak link many predicted. A rebound season from Troy Williamson, the addition of a couple veterans and the infusion of a pair of talented rookies could turn things around.

Based on 2006 NFL statistics, the Vikings receiving corps has limited proven productivity.  The cumulative stats for all 11 wide receivers currently on the team’s roster had a combined 107 receptions for 1,335 yards (12.5 avg.) and 5 touchdowns.

The Vikings have historically had individual receivers have better numbers than that in a single season four times – Cris Carter 122-1,256-7 in 1994, Carter 122-1,371-17 in 1995, Randy Moss 106-1,347-7 in 2002, Moss 111-1,632-17 in 2003.

There are certainly no proven commodities like Cris Carter or Randy Moss on the current roster.  Yet there remains reason for optimism here as the likely shape of this group appears to be taking shape at the halfway point of the preseason.

If the Vikings running game proves to be as successful as the coaches hope, a lot of pressure will be taken off first-year starting quarterback Tarvaris Jackson.  And it’s unlikely that any wideout will light up the individual stat sheet this season.  But here’s how things appear to be unfolding:

Troy Williamson – Has had a strong training camp.  He has dropped a few, but he has caught many, many more and still shows phenomenal pure athletic ability and speed.  From a God-given talent standpoint, Williamson is very much a No. 7 overall pick athlete.  As a receiver, he plucks the ball nicely and has breakaway jets after each and every catch if he has a seam.  He still seems to struggle tracking deep balls over his shoulder, but there is no question that the offseason work with the Nike vision experts and the hard work and repetition have vastly improved his confidence and set the stage for a strong rebound season.  Williamson will get his chances in 2007 and he will make his share of plays this season.

Bobby Wade – It seems like he’s been pigeon-holed as strictly a No. 3 or slot receiver, but Wade has shown throughout training camp and early preseason action that he might very well be a legitimate No. 2 receiver.  “I think he has a good feel for coverage,” head coach Brad Childress said.  “I think he is smart.  I think he can beat man-to-man.  I think he is shifty.  I didn't particularly care for the drop the other night [against the Jets], but he had wiggled himself into a good position to get open [for a potential third-down conversion].  I think you saw his niftiness in the first game.  He can play outside; he can play inside.  Not everybody can play inside in that slot and have a feel for working the middle of the field, and I think he has that.”

Sidney Rice – The amount of running receivers do at this level have been an adjustment for Rice, but he’s learning, he’s catching the ball consistently and he’s showing flashes of toughness and playmaking ability.  He might not open the season as the steady No. 3 receiver, but he figures to at least be a situational Red Zone receiver for sure and will likely grow into a more significant role as the season progresses.  “His legs are starting to come back to him and I think you've seen him continue to grow,” Childress said.  “He is a very bright-eyed guy, catches about everything you throw to him, high and low, and he is a tough guy.  You saw him go inside and take a pretty good lick in the nose and you've got to be able to do that as a wideout.”

Robert Ferguson and/or Billy McMullen and/or Martin Nance – It could be than only one of these three will make the 53-man roster.  McMullen and Nance have more reps with the Vikings, but Ferguson has better upside.  If healthy, Ferguson is a solid No. 3 receiver who can make tough catches, runs well after the catch and is an effective downfield blocker.  McMullen and Nance both provide a large target with large, soft, usually reliable hands.  But neither has the separation or run-after-the-catch potential of Ferguson.  Injuries could decide the decision here by default, but Ferguson has the edge if he’s healthy and acclimated to the system.  Ferguson’s kickoff return ability might also give him the edge, but staying healthy is far from a given with him.

Aundrae Allison – Like Rice, he appears to be getting his legs back under him again.  In the early portion of training camp nobody was more impressive or consistent catching the ball than Allison.  However, he still hasn’t seen the ball against preseason competition and might be a little ways off with his routes, recognition and technique.  He did show some flashes on kickoff returns last week, however, and is a lock to make the team.  What kind of role he carves out as a rookie remains to be seen, but there is no question he has a lot of talent and could develop into a very solid starting-caliber wide receiver with the Vikings.

Jason Carter, Cortez Hankton, Chandler Williams, Todd Lowber and Justin Surrency – All would appear to be on the outside looking in for making the opening-day roster.  However, if the team keeps six, Carter could stick once again.  He lacks great burst or flash but has been pretty consistent and is nifty after the catch.  Hankton has been steady but hasn’t done a lot to truly distinguish himself to this point.  Williams has speed and athletic ability but isn’t ready for the complexities of the system.  Lowber has even more raw talent.  He has nice size, good hands and exceptional speed and leaping ability.  But is still a long ways away from being a ready-for-action NFL football player.  He and Williams are strong practice squad candidates.  Surrency is steady and productive, but appears to have far too many players ahead of him.

In the end, five or six should make the 53-man roster with a couple on the practice squad.  Don’t be surprised if the stock and appreciation for Williamson and Wade have gone up significantly a year from now, and all the early signs seem to indicate the Vikings have hit on draft picks Rice and Allison.

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