Gil Brandt was in his final year working for the Dallas Cowboys, for whom he was one of the architects of a 1970s dynasty and a scouting pioneer, when he pushed the team brass to draft one more Hall of Famer.
Michael Irvin wasn’t the fastest or shiftiest wide receiver in that 1988 draft class, which included top-10 picks in Tim Brown and Sterling Sharpe. But the flamboyant University of Miami star was big, strong and crazy competitive. And Irvin, the 11th overall pick, ended up being the best of the bunch.
“There were a lot of wide receivers over the years I thought were pretty good,” Brandt said. “But the one I was most proud of was Michael Irvin.”
Four years after Brandt left the Cowboys, Irvin played a starring role as Dallas won the first of three Super Bowls in four years. Their play-caller was Norv Turner, who sent Irvin across the middle and through the hearts of defenses on Irvin’s signature “bang eight” route, also known as the skinny post.
Flash forward to 2016, and the Vikings hope to find another Irvin for Turner, their offensive coordinator. His offense lacks a physical receiver with size who can make contested catches for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
After addressing both their porous offensive line and the safety position in free agency, General Manager Rick Spielman and the Vikings, who have gotten up close and personal with the top wide receivers in this draft class, seem poised to draft one of them with their 23rd overall pick Thursday night.
But drafting and developing wide receivers can be a crapshoot for even the NFL’s best — not that anyone needs to tell Spielman and the Vikings. The franchise has been searching for a top-flight wide receiver since the first stint for the mercurial Randy Moss ended too early in 2005.
Since Moss dropped into their laps at pick No. 21 overall back in 1998, the Vikings have selected just five wideouts in the draft’s first three rounds.
In 2003, they drafted Nate Burleson in the third round. He had a 1,000-yard season in 2004 but left as a free agent after three seasons.
Blazing bust Troy Williamson was taken in 2005 with the seventh overall pick, a pick that they acquired when trading Moss to the Oakland Raiders.
Sidney Rice, the 2007 second-round pick who battled injuries throughout his NFL career, had one shining season while snatching passes from Brett Favre.
Percy Harvin, the 22nd overall pick in 2009 who wore out his welcome in 2012, was a multipurpose threat who didn’t pan out as a pass catcher.
Ditto for Cordarrelle Patterson (29th overall in 2013), at least through his first three NFL seasons.
Each player failed to meet lofty expectations for various reasons, which has led to the Vikings having only two 1,000-yard receiving seasons since Moss.
The revolving door at quarterback probably played a role in that, too.
Over the past decade, arguably the two NFL teams with the most success drafting and developing wide receivers are the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both franchises are considered top talent evaluators. It is also no coincidence that they both have perennial Pro Bowl passers.
While the Vikings have whiffed at the receiver position, their bitter border rivals have hit a few home runs, all of them coming after the first round.
Greg Jennings (2006), Jordy Nelson (2008) and Randall Cobb (2011) were all Packers second-round draft picks who made at least one Pro Bowl. James Jones, a 2007 third-rounder, has never been invited to Hawaii, at least not by the NFL. But in 2012 he did lead the league with 14 receiving touchdowns playing alongside quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who replaced Favre in 2008.
“They have a [college scouting] system that has been in place for a long time,” ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, the former director of pro personnel for the Philadelphia Eagles, said of the Packers’ success, before adding, “And any wide receiver that has been able to play in that scheme has quite honestly been able to play for two of the greatest quarterbacks, so that’s a help, too.”
The Vikings hope that Bridgewater, who has so far brought stability to that position, will help them better develop young wideouts going forward.
But a player has to be willing to put in the work to develop into that go-to guy.
Taking a risk
Three years ago, Matt Miller, the lead NFL draft analyst for Bleacher Report, ranked Patterson as his sixth-best prospect overall in the 2013 draft class.
“I was wowed by the potential he brought to the table and didn’t focus as much on what he could do or had done as an actual wide receiver,” he said. “The work ethic and drive of a player is the hardest thing … to evaluate.”
Not long after he was drafted 29th overall in 2013, Patterson confessed that he spent most of his college career as “that guy slacking in the playbook,” adding that “you can go off your ability” at a junior college in Kansas or even in the SEC. But that hasn’t worked in the NFL, despite Patterson’s efforts.
After scoring nine touchdowns as a rookie and garnering buzz nationally as a breakout candidate heading into his second season, Patterson lost the trust of the new coaching staff in 2014 and then lost his starting role. He has not regained it and did not play on offense in the final seven games of 2015. He did not even total 1,000 receiving yards in his first three seasons combined.
“Sometimes you think you’re drafting a guy that’s going to be very good and he never really progresses beyond what you saw in college,” Brandt said.
Brandt, now an analyst for SiriusXM NFL Radio, believes wide receiver is the second-toughest position to scout behind quarterbacks because they “have to decide in a fraction of a second what route they run, and some guys are never able to do to that.” However, he feels the popularity of 7-on-7 youth football and pass-happy college offenses have made draft prospects more pro-ready.
But one of the biggest challenges for scouts, and this applies to all positions, is determining if a prospect has the competitiveness required to be great.
In Irvin’s case, Brandt could tell he had it after watching him run through drills.
“He pushed people aside to be first in line,” Brandt said of the Hall of Famer.
While making his way around the pro-day circuit after February’s scouting combine, Spielman was often among the first talent evaluators on the field before workouts so he could claim prime position for wide receiver drills.
Spielman was front and center at the pro days of Baylor’s Corey Coleman, Texas Christian’s Josh Doctson, Ohio State’s Michael Thomas and Mississippi’s Laquon Treadwell, four of the top five receivers in this class. He did not attend Will Fuller’s because Notre Dame held its pro day the same day as TCU’s.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer joined Spielman on campus at Ohio State and TCU. After TCU’s pro day, the hands-on 59-year-old coach did his best impression of a press cornerback as the Vikings put Doctson through an on-field workout.
Both Doctson and Treadwell were among the prospects the Vikings hosted at Winter Park earlier this month when they held their annual top-30 visit.
Perhaps their public flirtations with the top receiver prospects in this class are a smoke screen. But Spielman, who typically addresses needs in the first round of the draft before settling into a best-player-available approach, seems to be more concerned with being thorough than being secretive.
Well, that is until a reporter pulls out a microphone. Then he is quick to say the Vikings will just take the best remaining player atop their draft board.
“If a receiver is there and he is the best player on our draft board, [we’ll take him],” Spielman said earlier this month. “Say we have another position that people may not think we need, I’m still going to [consider that] because I think we have enough depth now that I can take best player available.”
Recent history suggests Spielman can still get a go-to guy late in the first round, though the Vikings twice failed to do that with Harvin and then Patterson.
Seven of the 10 receivers selected between the 20th and 32nd picks since 2010 produced at least 1,000 receiving yards in a season within their first three years in the NFL, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. Pro Bowl selections Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas and DeAndre Hopkins are among the receivers who were snagged between the 20th and 32nd picks.
And based on their first-round draft position and projections from the top draftniks, the 23rd selection may be a sweet spot for the Vikings where they can get good value while picking the possession receiver they sorely lack.
“With an expected run on receivers in the 20s, the Vikings are in a great spot to get a physical receiver like Doctson, Treadwell or Thomas,” Miller said. “[They can] get a wideout with size and the mentality to attack the ball.”
Those three prospects, who were all measured at 6-foot-2 or taller at the combine, profile as the bigger split-end wide receiver this offense lacks. But is one of them capable of being the next Irvin for Turner and the Vikings?
“If you’re looking for that,” Brandt said, “you’ll look for a long time.”