Switch from Mike Wallace to Laquon Treadwell
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

It’s May 17th, 2015, and Mike Wallace is no longer a member of the Minnesota Vikings. Soured by his comments about Teddy Bridgewater and the speedster’s general lack of production with the team, fans are happy to see Wallace walk out the door.

In his place, Laquon Treadwell, a high-profile draft pick with the weight of an immediate return on investment on his shoulders, strolls through the entrance at Winter Park. The Vikings had taken Treadwell 23rd overall in the 2016 NFL Draft with the hopes he’d become the missing piece in Minnesota’s offense.

“We feel that what he’s going to bring to our offense is that large catching radius, a guy that’s very physical, maybe the best run blocker I’ve seen,” general manager Rick Spielman said following the April draft.

Treadwell’s impact never materialized, and with one game remaining in a disappointing 2016 season, the book’s all but closed on his historically quiet rookie season. Many would call the decision to cut Wallace and draft Treadwell a mistake, but it’s too early to label the former Ole Miss star a “bust.”

I’m not here to do that.

On May 17th, 2015, I hit “Publish” on a post that was pretty popular around these parts. It looked at Wallace’s failures, Treadwell’s strengths, and the middle ground between the two — space where Treadwell would make up for Wallace’s shortcomings. Where Wallace was a traditional deep threat with 4.3-speed, Treadwell offered a more well-rounded package; he’s two inches taller, 41 pounds heavier, and generally, a better route-runner than Wallace.

At the time of his drafting, the collective fanbase assumed Treadwell would enjoy a role similar to that currently occupied by Adam Thielen, who’s become Sam Bradford’s go-to target this season. But 15 games in, and Treadwell’s played just 80 snaps on’ offense and caught only one pass. He’s been overshadowed by a surging Thielen, an always-reliable Stefon Diggs, and the recently-revived Cordarrelle Patterson, with the latter being the most surprising usurper.

Even before the draft, the narrative around Treadwell was split. Some, like Pro Football Focus’s Sam Monson, saw a big-bodied receiver who struggled to separate. In the NFL, where cornerback play is far superior to that at the collegiate level, creating separation is an essential skill. It’s also one Treadwell lacked as he entered the NFL, with his deficiencies rearing their ugly head in preseason games against the Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams.

Others, like Dane Brugler of CBS Sports, compared Treadwell to Dez Bryant and saw a player with the intangibles to contribute immediately on any offense. While that narrative may reveal itself in later seasons, it never materialized in Treadwell’s inaugural campaign. Daniel Jeremiah gave the rookie a “D” in his first year, calling Treadwell one of “the most disappointing first-round picks in 2016.”

Here’s where things get tricky: Jeremiah later wrote that, hopefully, Treadwell “would be given more opportunities next fall.” While it’s fair to say opportunities were limited behind what may become Minnesota’s first pair of 1,000-yard receivers since 2000, the onus falls on Treadwell to develop into the receiver the Vikings need him to be — a player worthy of a first-round selection in the NFL Draft.

Head coach Mike Zimmer isn’t the type to “give” players more opportunities. If the team’s going to spend valuable picks on high-profile players, he’s going to put them on the field. Think back to 2015, when Eric Kendricks led the team in tackles, Diggs was the Vikings’ top receiver, and defensive end Danielle Hunter finished second in total sacks. Rookies will play, but only if they’re ready to play.

Treadwell wasn’t ready this season, and Zimmer made that clear early in the year.

“He has to continue to do better in practice,” Zimmer said in September. “I still think he’s thinking about the number of steps to take on each route and things like that, being at the right depth.”

Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur also shared his thoughts on Treadwell, long after Zimmer’s blunt assessment of the rookie receiver.

“Unfortunately, he has been injured and been nagged by injuries, but he is a guy that has a great amount of talent and it’s just going to be a matter of him being able to get out on the field and stay out on the field,” he said late in December.

What is consistent, outside of Treadwell’s inconsistency, is the narrative surrounding Minnesota’s youngest receiver. He is talented, entered the NFL with an impressive résumé from Ole Miss, and has the skills to play professional football. But, he’s not without issues, two of which were most apparent in 2016 — an injury history that continues to hurt Treadwell and a failure to do the little things right.

Those current shortcomings, not the play of Minnesota’s other receivers or Zimmer’s hesitation, are what is keeping Treadwell from fulfilling his pre-draft promises. In the little tape available from his first season with the Vikings, it’s apparent Treadwell isn’t quite ready to replace Wallace as No. 11 in purple and gold.

Running the Routes that Matter

Treadwell’s lone catch of the year came on one of his better snaps. The qualities that made him such an attractive prospect — winning at the line of scrimmage, attacking the intermediate level of the field — were on full display, allowing Treadwell to convert an early first down for the Vikings.

His route, a 12-yard “in”, wasn’t perfect, but Treadwell’s vertical stem and smooth catch make up for the rounded apex at the top of the pattern. As he chops his feet to turn inside, he drifts upfield, bringing himself closer to the closing safety. Had Treadwell cut his route more sharply, he’d likely have had more room to run after the catch — yet another pre-draft strength fans have yet to see from the rookie receiver.

And in Minnesota’s Shurmur-led offense, these long-developing routes are less of a staple than ever before. Receivers are running shorter, quicker routes, and the deep ones they do practice — streaks, posts — are patterns Thielen and Diggs have executed better than Treadwell.

In its current state, the Vikings offense is better-suited to the skill sets of their most-tenured receivers. Treadwell can run slants, quick outs, and curls, but it’s the drag routes and rapid-fire patterns that make Shurmur’s system work.

Right now, Treadwell isn’t refined enough in those areas to steal playing time from Thielen, Diggs, and Co.

Treadwell Out of Sync

Treadwell’s “lows” far outweighed his “highs” — the majority of which came on his single catch. Here, Bradford takes a deep shot to Treadwell, who’s matched up in man-to-man coverage. Unlike his college days, though, Treadwell can’t convert the opportunity into a chunk gain for the Vikings.

The lack of separation — a fatal flaw, according to Monson — costs Treadwell his first highlight play of the year. He can’t disengage from the cornerback, who easily disrupts the play at the catch point along the left sideline. This throw has become a go-to for Bradford, as he has turned similar situations into big gains with Thielen, Diggs, and Charles Johnson on the receiving end.

More apparent is Treadwell’s lack of straight-line speed, which prevents him from reducing the cushion between himself and the corner. He runs right into the coverage, and when the two are even down the field, Treadwell doesn’t have the “next gear” to separate.

Thus, a perfectly-placed ball falls to the ground on a critical third down.

No Contest

As a big-bodied receiver, Treadwell’s bread-and-butter should come on contested catches. That is, when he and a cornerback — almost always a smaller player — are fighting for the ball, Treadwell should conceivably win most matchups.

His “catch radius”, as Spielman noted after the draft, is a major strength. But when Treadwell takes a poor release off the ball, fails to establish position, and allows the throw to hit his chest, he negates everything beneficial about a large catch radius.

Treadwell makes each of these mistakes on this particular rep, telegraphing his route and giving the cornerback an easy break to the football. He immediately pops up out of his stance and performs a half-hearted stutter step. The cornerback, privy to such moves, sits inside and allows Treadwell to make his break after a few unnecessary head fakes.

When the pass does arrive, Treadwell doesn’t snatch it out of the air but instead allows it into his body where throws almost always bounce off the pads. It does, falling into the arms of a nearby defender and nearly flipping the game in favor of the Lions. Fortunately for the Vikings, defensive pass interference was called on the play, and Treadwell was given a mulligan for the snap.

There was no defensive pass interference; Treadwell’s inconsistent route-running and assertiveness were masked by a phantom penalty.

What “Tread” Zone Threat?

When he was drafted, Treadwell was supposed to be the Vikings’ premier red-zone threat. Obviously, no player has become that for the Vikings, but Treadwell never put himself into a position to be successful.

Here, on yet another critical third down, he runs the wrong route and throws away another precious rep. Chris Collinsworth noted the rookie’s mental mistake during the broadcast, and this play is the perfect microcosm of Treadwell’s unspectacular season.

In any profession, an employee is responsible for their own actions. In the NFL, where the game of football is a deadly-serious business, accountability is necessary to survive. And in Mike Zimmer’s locker room, where rookies are held accountable from the moment they join the team, excuses don’t exist.

As soon as he was drafted, Treadwell was labeled Minnesota’s newest weapon, the team’s missing piece. Treadwell’s failure to own these labels falls squarely on his shoulders, not those of his teammates who won the depth chart battle or those of his coach, who has rarely shown hesitation in playing rookies.

Treadwell has the talent to be a successful receiver in the NFL, but he’s been far too inconsistent to show fans what makes him a special player, yet.