Dan Wiederer began covering the Vikings in 2011, enthusiastically delivering insight on the team across the Star Tribune's print and digital products. Prior to joining the Access Vikings team, he spent seven seasons covering ACC basketball at The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer. He also covered the Chicago Bears in 2003 and 2004. Follow him on Twitter @StribDW.
Mark Craig has covered football and the NFL the past 20 years, including the Browns from 1991-95 and the Vikings and the NFL since 2003. Since 2008, Craig has served as one of the 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. He can be followed on Twitter at @markcraignfl.
As the NFL Draft approaches, the Access Vikings team is taking a position-by-position look at what will be available, offering insight and analysis on top draft prospects both through print and via daily “Access Vikings: The Show” videos. In addition, here on the blog, we’ll give you a brief review of how the Vikings are set up at each position heading into the draft.
Today’s snapshot: Wide receivers and tight ends
Current receiver starters: Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright
Reserves under contract: Stephen Burton, Greg Childs, Chris Summers
Current tight end starter: Kyle Rudolph
Reserves under contract: John Carlson, Rhett Ellison, LaMark Brown, Chase Ford
Level of draft need for receivers: High. Even with Jennings now on board, the Vikings owe it to themselves to surround quarterback Christian Ponder with as many weapons as possible if they are to complete his three-year evaluation fairly. Ponder and the offense badly need an outside speed threat. More reliable depth at the position is necessary, too. Nabbing at least two receivers in the draft seems likely.
Level of draft need for tight ends: None. Kyle Rudolph is still ascending, a dangerous red zone weapon who made great strides with his blocking a year ago. In Leslie Frazier’s words, Rhett Ellison still sets the standard as the team’s best blocking tight end, which has earns him a chance to be on the field more in 2013.
Biggest offseason move: The March 11 blockbuster trade that sent Percy Harvin to Seattle in exchange for three draft picks was without question a pivotal moment in Vikings’ history. Replacing Harvin won’t be easy. Despite missing the final seven games last season, Harvin still led the team with 62 catches for 677 yards and three touchdowns. He was also a major threat as a kick returner. And yet whatever unfolded behind the scenes after he suffered that severely sprained left ankle in a Week 9 loss in Seattle permanently fractured Harvin’s relationship with the franchise. Details of the divide have been kept under lock and key. And while various national outlets have taken bold stabs at trying to identify why the Harvin-Vikings divorce had to happen, members of the front office and coaching staff continue to assert the true reasons for Harvin’s departure have not been revealed.
As Leslie Frazier said at last month’s league meetings in Phoenix: “There are a lot of layers to this situation. And one day, when I sit down and write this book, we'll divulge all the layers. But it's complicated.”
Loosely translated: Don’t put full stock in the notion that Harvin’s frustration with Ponder was the wick that made things explode. Said Frazier: “It didn't play the role that most think.”
Also, it should be made clear that contract negotiations weren’t the main cause of the strain either. Instead, it came down to the receiver’s desire to get out of town. For reasons still fully unknown.
As patient as Frazier had always been with Harvin, the mercurial receiver made it clear at the tail end of last season that he wanted out, that he desired to be moved. Rather than engaging in a potentially volatile staring contest, Vikings GM Rick Spielman sought out significant trade compensation for Harvin and came away thrilled when the Seahawks offered the No. 25 pick in this year’s draft plus a seventh-rounder this year and a third-rounder in 2014. At that point, Spielman excitedly pulled the trigger. And even with the wide hole that opened in the Vikings’ receiving corps, there was also a recognition internally that the team finished last season with five wins in the seven games Harvin missed. The Vikings were also a perfect 4-0 to close the regular season immediately after Harvin was put on Injured Reserve.
You should know: Of all the things the Vikings love about Greg Jennings – his versatility, his experience, his crisp route running – they’ve raved most about his positive energy. A few hours after signing the 29-year-old receiver away from Green Bay, Frazier noted the character and professionalism Jennings will infuse into the locker room.
Added Spielman: “You can see the leadership he brings on the field and the enthusiasm he plays with. It’s easy when you watch guys on tape, [you can see] which guys really love to play the game. And there is no question when you watch the tape on Greg Jennings, you know that he loves to play the game.”
The Vikings also feel encouraged about the hunger Jennings has brought with him. Remember that three-year stretch from 2008-10 when Jennings averaged 75 catches, 1,223 yards and eight TDs per season? The Vikings feel they can tap into that potential and get similar production going forward. Jennings wants to prove he's still that kind of player.
Jennings has missed 11 games the past two seasons due to injuries – a knee issue cost him three games in 2011 and a core muscle problem held him out for half of last year. And while he was out, the Packers’ offense didn’t miss a beat with Jordy Nelson and James Jones and Randall Cobb all excelling and becoming top-notch playmakers for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Jennings began to feel overshadowed, lost in the shuffle, under-appreciated in that equation. And so as he dove into free agency last month, he was not only looking for an offense he felt he could fit into, he was also looking to feel wanted.
The Vikings, who finished 31st in the NFL in passing offense last season, certainly wanted Jennings. And yes, his production in the coming years should be a part of the subsequent evaluation of the success of the Harvin trade.
In trading Harvin, the Vikings not only received those three draft picks from the Seahawks, they were then able to take a chunk of the money they'd been budgeting for a potential contract extension to Harvin and deliver it to Jennings.
One more thing: While everyone in the Vikings’ organization is rooting for Greg Childs to return from the brutal knee injuries he suffered last August, the team is proceeding with the understanding that Childs may never play a meaningful down in the NFL. It’s not just that the 23-year-old receiver from Arkansas blew out both knees during a training camp scrimmage last summer, tearing his patellar tendons on both sides, it’s that that setback came 22 months after his junior season in college ended with a torn patellar tendon in his right knee.
Childs fought through that rehab and returned to play in eight games as a senior. But he was nowhere near top form, tallying only 21 catches for 240 yards. And while his perseverance and optimism through his more recent rehabilitation stretch has been laudable, it’s hard to look past the notion that he hasn’t had a full season at full strength since 2009.
Frazier was asked about Childs at last month’s league meetings and had this to offer: “It'd be a monumental surprise if Greg Childs somehow, some way came back and was a factor. With his size and his athleticism, that would be a big boon for our wide receiver position. … There's a concern because of the [injury] history, for sure. We just have to kind of wait and see. He'd be making history because nobody's ever come back from that injury. But the way he's working gives you hope.”
As the NFL draft approaches, the Access Vikings team is taking a position-by-position look at what will be available, offering insight and analysis on top prospects both through print and via daily “Access Vikings: The Show” videos. In addition, here on the blog, we’ll give you a brief review of how the Vikings are set up at each position heading into the draft.
Today’s snapshot: Running backs
Current starters: Adrian Peterson, Jerome Felton
Reserves under contract: Toby Gerhart, Matt Asiata, Joe Banyard
Biggest offseason move: The re-signing of Felton was a big deal, even if it didn’t receive much attention or hype outside the Twin Cities. The 26-year-old fullback was superb as a lead blocker in 2012, aiding Adrian Peterson’s MVP season.
Level of draft need: Low. The depth chart seems set and solid for 2013. But Toby Gerhart is also entering the final year of his rookie contract. And if he seeks to hit free agency in 2014 to find greater opportunity elsewhere, the Vikings’ may want to start shopping for potential back-ups for Adrian Peterson.
You should know: Peterson’s vow to follow his extraordinary 2,097-yard eruption in 2012 with a 2,500-yard explosion in 2013 is downright ridiculous. And maybe it’s most preposterous because his teammates and coaches don’t question it.
Here’s what Felton said in January: “I really don’t feel like it’s out of reach. You look at it. It’s what, around 155 yards per game? With him, that’s doable.”
Added Jared Allen: “With that dude? It’s logical. And yeah, that’s crazy. … But I think too, with the way the league is now as such a pass dominant league, you’re seeing smaller fronts. You’re not having that 330-pound nose tackle anymore. You’ve got to have guys there who can rush the passer because of these spread offenses and these check-down systems. So you get a team like us that likes to run the ball with a back like Adrian and smaller [defenders] on the field, 2,500 might not be a stretch.”
And then in March, Leslie Frazier chimed in: “I think it's a good goal to have if you're Adrian Peterson. He's more than capable of getting it accomplished.”
All that said, the Vikings know it’s in their best interest to diversify their offense, to not be so one-dimensional and predictable. And so with an eye on energizing the passing attack, Peterson’s workload and production will almost certainly dip some. That will be by design with the hope that another reliable playmaker emerges. (That means you, Greg Jennings.)
Consider Peterson’s numbers from the first nine games of last season when Percy Harvin was healthy and adding pop to the offense: an average of 19 carries and 106 yards plus six total touchdowns.
And in the final seven games without Harvin around? Peterson averaged 26 carries and 163 yards with seven TDs.
Balance is a priority and so while Peterson will be aiming for 2,500 yards, Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave are hopeful they won’t have to push at that milestone to be successful.
All that said, the opposite train of thought says that if Peterson was capable of topping 2,000 yards last season while spending the first month working back towards full strength and the last two months as a marked man facing stacked defenses while fighting through a painful sports hernia injury, imagine what he might be able to do if he stays healthy for a full year and the Vikings find a balanced offense that keeps opponents from keying on him.
Yikes. Maybe 2,500 yards isn’t as asinine of a goal as it sounds.
For what it’s worth, six other backs have topped 2,000 yards in a season. Here are their numbers from the following season:
One more thing: When it came to a final vote at the NFL’s annual meetings in March, the Vikings actually voted in favor of the new rule that will now penalize any runner or tackler who “initiates forcible contact by delivering a blow with the top/crown of his helmet.”
But that “Yes” vote was more a reluctant concession than an indication of support. The Vikings simply did not want to appear in opposition of a player safety proposal that already had enough votes to pass.
Only an hour before that vote was taken in Phoenix last month, Frazier repeatedly declared his skepticism.
“We’re not one of those teams who is for it,” he asserted.
His biggest worries? That dynamic backs like Peterson could be neutered if they’re forced to be thinking too much.
“It's such an instinctive position,” Frazier said. “The guys are just reacting most of the time. If you ask Adrian [Peterson] on some of his runs, 'How did you know that guy was coming from the left or the right?' It's just a sense, just a feel sometimes. … As a running back, it's instincts. For me to start thinking now, 'Oh, man, I've got to lower my shoulder or I've got to turn this way' -- I don't know. We'll see.”
We will all see how the new rule is legislated. The league has made it clear that it wants its officials to zero in on only the obvious infractions. But that will still be a judgment call from week to week. And with a back who runs as powerfully as Peterson with the thirst to deliver contact before absorbing it, it’s a rule worth monitoring.
Said Frazier: “Is it going to make the game safer without altering what these guys do for a living and how they play and how they perform? … I just know being around great running backs, whether it be Walter [Payton] or Adrian, they are so instinctual in what they do. They’re not thinking a lot of times about when they’re going to use a stiff arm, how they’re going to use it. They’re not premeditating some of the moves they make. And to make them start thinking about, should I lower my shoulder left or right or spin this way? I just don’t know.”
For the second straight offseason, the Vikings are looking to upgrade their receiving corps to enliven a sputtering passing attack. For perspective, the team’s top three receivers in 2012 – Percy Harvin, Michael Jenkins and Jerome Simpson -- combined for 128 catches, 1,400 yards and five touchdowns. Detroit’s Calvin Johnson alone had 122 grabs, 1,965 yards and five scores.
So just where might the Vikings’ turn this offseason for receiving help? They’ll have options just about everywhere. With that in mind, we’re giving you a look at 12 potential targets.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENCY
Greg Jennings – This is the most popular name suggested by fans. And at first glance, it seems perfectly logical. For the past seven seasons, the Vikings have had to deal with Jennings’ playmaking ability. He’s a proven veteran, consistently productive and, by all accounts, a solid teammate. But … (And you knew the “but” was coming right?) Jennings will turn 30 in September, has missed 11 games the past two seasons due to injury and may ultimately seek a reunion with Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, who was his offensive coordinator in Green Bay for five seasons. Weekend reports indicate that the Packers might consider putting the franchise tag on Jennings. But even if he were to hit free agency, he is likely to command the type of top-dollar contract the Vikings’ are aversive to delivering in free agency. Unless the price tag comes way, way down – it’s probably north of $11 million a year at present – Jennings won’t be a serious Vikings target.
Brandon Gibson – Just to get it on the record: like Jennings, Dwayne Bowe and Mike Wallace also figure to request big pay days in March. And so the Vikings will likely instead turn their attention to that second tier of receivers. Enter Gibson, a rising 25-year-old playmaker who’s coming off a 51-catch, 691-yard, five-TD season in St. Louis. He isn’t a burner. But he runs good routes, has admirable ball skills and could be a bargain overall.
Donnie Avery – Avery’s best game of 2012 came against the Vikings. In a 23-20 Colts win in September, he delivered nine catches for 111 yards including a key 20-yard grab on Indianapolis’ game-winning drive in the final minute. Overall, Avery had 60 receptions for 781 yards with three TDs last season. He also has the one thing the Vikings currently lack – an ability to consistently get open deep. Yes, Avery has issues with bad drops at times. But he may also be available for relatively cheap.
NFL DRAFT: FIRST OR SECOND ROUND
Keenan Allen – If the Vikings want to take a receiver with the No. 23 pick and Allen is still on the board, this may be a no-brainer. Don’t be scared off by his modest 2012 stats (61 catches, 737 yards, six TDs). The Cal offense and inconsistency of quarterback Zach Maynard (Allen’s brother) played a big role in that. Allen is a proven playmaker with a good combination of quickness and body control and a knack for making the contested catch. As we mentioned the other day, the comparisons to Anquan Boldin may have validity.
Terrance Williams – In 2011, Williams contributed 957 yards and 11 touchdowns to Robert Griffin III’s Heisman Trophy campaign at Baylor. And after RG3’s exit, Williams productivity skyrocketed as he posted an NCAA-best 1,832 receiving yards last fall. Williams is a deep threat and a guy who can also be a go-to playmaker in the red zone.
Quinton Patton – A second-team All-American at Louisiana Tech, Patton averaged nine catches and 116 receiving yards per game with 13 touchdowns last season. He’s quick and he’s smooth. He’s competitive and he’s a high character kid as well. Patton may not be an impact guy as a rookie. But he has a bright future. His competitive edge stood out last month during practices at the Senior Bowl. And if you want proof of his ability to break open a game? Well, take a look at this box score from a loss to Texas A&M last October: 21 catches, 233 yards, four touchdowns.
Justin Hunter – Hunter’s 2011 season was cut short by an ACL tear. And while his comeback from that injury wasn’t quite Peterson-esque, he did post 73 catches, 1,083 yards and nine touchdowns last fall in an offense that also featured fellow draft prospect Cordarelle Patterson. Hunter can flat out run. And he has an ability to make acrobatic catches as well.
DeAndre Hopkins – Want evidence of Hopkins’ flash? Cue up highlights of Clemson’s Chick-fil-A Bowl win over LSU. In that contest, Hopkins had 13 catches, 191 yards and two scores, completing a breakthrough season in which he showcased his terrific hands and run-after-catch ability. Hopkins’ 4.57-second time in the 40-yard dash Sunday could push him back into the second round, where he'd be a great value pick for the Vikings.
Robert Woods – When you weight the possibility that guys like Hopkins and Woods could still be in play on the draft’s second day, you can understand why the Vikings might opt to address another big need in the first round and then take their chances with a deep receiving pool. Woods was prolific during his three-year career at Southern Cal. He was a starter since his freshman year and posted career totals of 250 catches, 2,933 yards and 32 receiving TDs. Folks in Minnesota may remember the 11-catch, 115-yard, three-TD explosion he had in the first half of the Trojans’ 19-17 win over the Golden Gophers in 2011.
MIDDLE TO LATE ROUNDS
Aaron Mellette – Yes, he played at Elon, a Football Championship Subdivision program that plays in the Southern Conference. So that smaller school stigma will exist. But as a senior Mellette had 97 catches, 1,408 yards and 18 TDs, enough to earn him invitations to the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine. At the former, against strong competition, he excelled all week. “Hopefully I answered some questions with that,” he said. Mellette also said he wanted “to open some eyes” with his speed in the 40-yard dash this weekend. But on Sunday, he posted a time of 4.54 seconds. Still, speed shouldn’t be the tell-all on Mellette’s ability as a receiver. Overall, his technique is solid and his confidence is there.
Josh Boyce – Five receivers posted times below 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash on Sunday. Boyce was one of them, clocking in at 4.38 seconds. He also delivered 22 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press, the second best total among receivers. It’s that blend of speed and strength that could prove intriguing. Boyce has good hands, good quickness and is versatile enough to work outside or out of the slot.
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