For decades the Packers have been defined by long-lasting Hall of Fame quarterbacks who produced four Super Bowl victories, and the Vikings for fearsome defensive linemen and talented receivers who have not been able to elevate their teams in the biggest games.
Sunday, when the best rivalry in Minnesota plays for the first time at U.S. Bank Stadium, the Vikings will find themselves in a predicament that once would have been unthinkable but now is the norm. They keep striking out on receivers, meaning the franchise of Ahmad Rashad, Anthony Carter, Jake Reed, Cris Carter and Randy Moss is remarkably dependent on a fifth-round draft pick in his second season who spent his first three NFL games on the inactive list.
Stefon Diggs quickly became the Vikings’ go-to receiver last season and was clearly their top receiver in their opening victory at Tennessee, which is strange, given the resources the team has spent trying to land someone with a more impressive pedigree.
In the past five years, the Vikings have:
• Signed Greg Jennings away from the Packers to give Christian Ponder a quality receiver. That didn’t work out well for Jennings, Ponder or the Vikings, while the Packers easily replaced Jennings.
• Traded for Miami’s Mike Wallace to give Teddy Bridgewater a deep threat. The threat remained idle as Wallace and Bridgewater missed connections on a dozen deep passes in 2015.
• Traded into the first round to draft raw Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who has caught three passes in his past 17 games.
• Signed former fourth-round pick Jarius Wright to a four-year, $14.8 million contract extension, believing they had found their slot receiver. Wright was a healthy scratch Sunday as undrafted free agent Adam Thielen turned into the Vikings’ second-most effective receiver.
If Diggs hadn’t turned into a quality player in short order, the Vikings would be in deeper trouble at the position. Even with Diggs producing, the Vikings’ real-world pecking order is worrisome.
Diggs is their best receiver, and has a chance to become the first Viking to reach 1,000 receiving yards in a season since Sidney Rice in 2009.
Thielen, too often dismissed as a special-teams player who can play a little receiver, might be their second-best option. He looked impressive Sunday and runs sharp routes.
In a league that favors three-receiver sets, the Vikings do not have a third wideout who inspires confidence.
Patterson is unreliable.
Wright has either fallen out of favor with the coaching staff or has simply been beaten out by the more versatile Thielen, even though Wright’s reputation as a worker and contributor always has been exemplary.
Charles Johnson looked to be Bridgewater’s favorite receiver at the end of the 2014 season and in the summer of 2015.
A rib injury has been used to excuse his invisibility in 2015, but Sunday he once again struggled to get open.
Laquon Treadwell, not Thielen, was supposed to become a complement or superior to Diggs in the starting lineup, but Treadwell did not have a good training camp and did not run an offensive play on Sunday. Perhaps he’s a project who will mature into a good player, but the Vikings’ recent history at the position begs skepticism. If Treadwell couldn’t crack this lineup, he is raw as sushi.
The 32 NFL teams produced only two 100-yard rushers in Week 1. The NFL is and will be a passing league. No. 1 receivers are vital because they either produce big numbers, command extra coverage, or both. Without Diggs, the Vikings would have no one close to qualifying for the job.
Aaron Rodgers might be the league’s best all-around quarterback. Last year, robbed of Jordy Nelson, he posted the worst quarterback rating of his career as a starter. Randall Cobb didn’t handle Nelson’s role well, and Davante Adams made the Packers regret passing on Jacksonville’s spectacular Allen Robinson.
Lead receivers are vital. Only Diggs’ surprising ascension has given the Vikings a receiver they can nominate for the position.