Over the next two weeks, we will take a position-by-position look at where the Vikings stand heading into the offseason after their 7-9 season in 2014. Today, we’re going to focus on the wide receivers.
How unproductive were the Vikings’ wide receivers this past season? Across the NFL, there were 57 players — including two running backs and nine tight ends — who had more receiving yards than veteran Greg Jennings, who led the team with 742 yards on 59 catches.
Jennings had a salary cap hit of $7 million, and while he did frequent the end zone down the stretch, he didn’t perform like one of the highest-paid wide receivers in the league, which he was.
But Jennings wasn’t the only Vikings wide-out who underwhelmed. Cordarrelle Patterson, a 2013 first-round pick, failed to build on his impressive rookie year. He lost his starting job midway through the season and finished fourth on the team with just 384 receiving yards on 33 receptions.
In the second half of the season, though, the Vikings did get production from a pair of lesser-known wide receivers. Jarius Wright had 588 receiving yards and his 87-yard catch-and-run in OT gave them a thrilling win over the Jets. And Charles Johnson came out of nowhere — aka Cleveland, and the Browns’ practice squad no less — to become rookie QB Teddy Bridgewater’s top target.
Heading into 2015, there are plenty of question marks at wide receiver, a position the Vikings must address this offseason to help Bridgewater take that next step in his development.
ONE REASON FOR OPTIMISM: The Vikings in recent years have spent significant resources at the wide receiver position — big bucks for Jennings and a high pick for Patterson — but it was Johnson, nabbed from the Browns’ practice squad in September, who ended up being the most productive once Patterson’s struggles created an opportunity for him. In the final seven games of the season, Johnson caught 25 passes for 415 yards and two touchdowns. Was Johnson just a flash in the pan? We don’t know. But yes, there is a chance the Vikings found a diamond in the rough with this kid.
ONE REASON FOR CONCERN: After scoring nine total touchdowns as a rookie, Patterson was hyped as a breakout candidate by national websites and publications — including this one — for 2014. In Week 1, that hype seemed well-placed as Patterson scored on a 67-yard run in a win over the Rams. It turned out to be a mirage, as Patterson didn’t appear to make much progress, if any, as a receiver from his first season to his second. Unable to get open in large part due to a lack of attention to detail when running routes, Patterson was benched and couldn’t play his way back into a significant role. Head coach Mike Zimmer says he has an offseason plan for Patterson, which includes working with a mystery man picked by the team, but it’s on Patterson to get his career back on track.
GRADES WITH A GRAIN OF SALT: Since the Vikings (understandably) won’t make their player grades public, we turn to Pro Football Focus, whom some players and coaches have been critical of. For context with these grades, a grade of 0.0 is considered average. Positive grades are good. Negative grades are not. Adam Thielen, who was at the bottom of the depth chart, had the highest grade at plus-1.7 overall (mostly for his run blocking, though). Jennings was merely average at 0.0. And Wright was a negative-1.9, Johnson a negative-2.7 and Patterson a negative-3.5.
STAT THAT STANDS OUT: 46.9 — passer rating for Vikings quarterbacks when throwing to Patterson, which ranked last among 90 qualifying receivers, according to Pro Football Focus. Patterson had just one touchdown catch and quarterbacks threw five picks when targeting him.
POTENTIAL DEPARTURES: All five Vikings wide receivers are under contract for 2015. The only player who could potentially be gone is Jennings, though he will probably be back after scoring four touchdowns in the final six games of the season. Jennings will have a cap number of $11 million in 2015. If the team were to cut or release him, they could free up $5 million in cap space, but they would have to eat $6 million in dead money to do it. The Vikings should at least approach him about restructuring his deal to fall in line with his declining production, but would he be receptive?
OFFSEASON LEVEL OF NEED: High. Jennings’ best days are behind him, and it’s unlikely he will get to the end of that big contract. It’s too early to give up on Patterson, but I also don’t think you can assume he is going to take a big leap forward. Likewise, I don’t think you can assume that Johnson is the real deal, though he certainly could end up having staying power. Look for the Vikings to use a draft pick — potentially one in the first couple days of the draft — to add another receiver for Bridgewater. And if, say, Larry Fitzgerald is cut by the Cardinals, count on his hometown team showing interest.