It’s probably human nature to devote more attention and headlines to the surprising fall of a star player’s much-anticipated career than appreciate the striking rise of a career belonging to an unknown player on the same team.
Now amplify that human nature for those of us in the media.
We determined last spring that Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson would be at the top or among the top NFL “breakout” candidates in Year 1 of playing for new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. We didn’t have an opinion on Charles Johnson because, well, he was a nobody in Cleveland recovering from ACL surgery the fall before.
Charles Johnson was a seventh-round draft pick of the Packers in 2013. They cut him and Cleveland added him to its practice squad.
The Vikings not only drafted Patterson in the first round in 2013, it cost them extra draft picks to move back into the round to make the pick.
Now, with the 2014 season recently concluded, there isn’t anyone who would say Patterson is Johnson’s equal as a receiver. Not … even … close.
He can still get there. But it’s up to him. He turns 24 on March 17 and, hopefully, there’s a sense of urgency because if he doesn’t apply himself to his trade this offseason, the Vikings’ patience with him will expire at this time next season.
“It’s frustrating for him; it’s frustrating for all of us,” Turner said. “We’ve talked a lot about what we need to do, what he needs to do. But a big part of it for him is understanding how detailed and how hard this is to be a receiver in this league. And then he’s got to put the work in.”
Meanwhile, Johnson turns 26 on Feb. 27 and, unlike the feeling for Patterson, the assumption by the team is Johnson will continue to improve. In just 12 games (six starts) this season, Johnson finished third in receiving yards (475) on 31 catches as he morphed from “who’s that guy?” to “he’s the No. 1 receiver on the team.” Johnson’s two touchdown receptions tied for second on the team, while his 15.3 average per catch was No. 1 among players with more than nine catches.
When the Vikings lost Adrian Peterson after Week 1, they struggled for weeks without an offensive identity. Turner said it wasn’t until after the Nov. 16 Bears game that the Vikings established an identity with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater running a spread-it-out offense over the final six games.
“Part of that was we started playing Charles Johnson, which gave us a different guy on the outside to attack,” Turner said. “It created some differences in how people defended us. I think we became a much more efficient offensive football team and put ourselves in position to win games. We won some and there were some that a year from now, put in the same situation, we’ll be ready to handle it and be ready to win.”
In the six games after the first Bears game, the Vikings averaged 24 points and 342.5 yards per game. That’s about four more points and about 30 yards more than the team’s averages for the entire season.
In December, Bridgewater ranked first in the league in average yards per attempt (9.18), second in completion percentage (72.3) and fourth in passer rating (99.8). Meanwhile, the team ranked 12th in net yards and seventh in net passing in December.
Who knows if Patterson will pan out as a receiver. The Vikings, however, can no longer count on it happening. That increases Greg Jennings’ value, especially since he was establishing a chemistry with Bridgewater in the latter part of the season.
The team also will need to at least look at receiver high in the draft. And then there is the 6-2, 215-pounder who came out of nowhere to help them this season. A 6-2, 215-pounder who thinks he’ll be better a year from now.
“Next year will be my first year to actually get my first full year to play in the NFL and two years in a row of practicing and playing in the same system,” said Johnson, who was with Turner in Cleveland in 2013, but was rehabbing his knee the whole season. “Even Norv said the first season in this system is all right, but the second season is always better.”
Johnson also said he expects to be physically stronger and faster next season. And, remember, this was a guy who ran a 4.39 at his pro day at Grand Valley State.
“I’m going to be a little bit more comfortable because I am coming off ACL surgery,” Johnson said. “I can say that I’m coming off ACL surgery and not fully confident in myself. training this offseason is going to be important for me. I look forward to it.”