For the first time in ages, the Vikings head into free agency with very little attention paid to the wideout position. However, the group is full of question marks, and sometimes, question marks equate to surprising moves.
One of those question marks is how new wide receivers coach Darrell Hazel views the group he is inheriting, with the somewhat surprising departure of George Stewart leaving us to wonder what sort of circumstances he is walking into exactly.
We don’t know enough about the inner-workings of Winter Park to know the details of what led to this coaching change, or how the current staff views its players, but we do know the team has a number of situations to address: a first-rounder that barely played football in 2016; a relatively expensive veteran that seemed to be in the dog house in 2016; and a pending free agent whose best value comes on special teams.
In retrospect, the performance of the receiver squad is pretty darn admirable, as they had every excuse in the world had they been terrible. Their quarterback was acquired like five minutes before the season started, the offensive line hampered the offense in just about every way, and their coordinator quit midway through the season.
Instead, however, we got to witness Adam Thielen take his improbable career to the next level, as he led the group with 967 yards and five touchdowns on 69 catches. He looked as athletic, sure-handed, nimble, and tough out there as any top-32 receiver in the NFL.
Stefon Diggs didn’t elevate to Antonio Brown status—an expectation that still exists—but he did battle some injury woes to turn in another excellent season. He led the team with 84 catches, which was good for 903 yards and three scores.
Third on the list was a guy many expected to be invisible within the offense in 2016. Cordarrelle Patterson, previously and currently one of the NFL’s best kick returners, caught 52 passes for 453 yards and two touchdowns. Patterson also ran the ball an inexplicably low seven times on the season, where he added 43 yards (a 6.1-yard average).
Both Patterson and Thielen also made their impact felt on special teams, but Thielen’s impact was not necessarily in the right way (the fumble).
Charles Johnson, despite beginning the season as a starter, only managed a dismal 20 receptions for 232 yards. Perhaps more than any receiver on the team, the absence of Teddy Bridgewater seemed to drag Johnson down, as he looked like he had been developing some nice chemistry with the team’s original Plan A.
Jarius Wright managed to stick to the roster when many thought he wouldn’t in the preseason, but that doesn’t mean he did a whole lot of anything. His apparent fall from grace meant Wright only turned in 11 catches for 67 yards and a touchdown — production that certainly doesn’t match his paycheck.
The biggest disappointment from this group, however, was the total absence of Laquon Treadwell on game days. Treadwell ended his rookie season with only three targets, one catch, and 15 yards to his name. It certainly wasn’t expected to see Rhett Ellison and Ronnie Hillman both out-produce Treadwell in the passing game when they selected him in the first round. Even the mostly-absent Adrian Peterson managed three catches in three games last season.
First off, let me make one thing clear: Yes, Treadwell’s season was highly disappointing for all the reasons mentioned above. However, it is not the time to panic and in no way do I foresee the Vikings giving up on their investment. It wasn’t so long ago, for the kids in the audience, that wideouts were given three years to develop into NFL-ready receivers.
Times have changed, and so have fan expectations, but the 21-year-old Treadwell still possesses all of the traits that had him graded as a first round receiver less than a year ago. Let time be the judge. Treadwell will count just under $2.3 million against the Vikings cap in 2017 and seems highly unlikely to be going anywhere.
Likewise, Diggs remains a steal for the time being, with a cap hit of just $671,928 and every reason to keep performing at a high level, hoping for the possibility of a lucrative second contract next offseason. He will not be going anywhere.
Wright enters this offseason with much less certainty. He is set to cost the Vikings $3.16 million against the cap. That is a high amount for a guy that spent much of 2016 as a healthy scratch. I’m not as down on Wright as many fans, I think he is a solid receiver, but there is no questioning that his production isn’t keeping up with his contract. His contract, which doesn’t expire until after the 2019 season, would cost the Vikings $1.68 million in dead cap hits if they decided to cut him loose prematurely.
The Vikings also hold the rights to wideouts Isaac Fruechte who has a chance to crack the opening day roster, and to Germany’s Moritz Böhringer who probably doesn’t.
That leaves the Vikings to make decisions very soon on the futures of restricted free agents Adam Thielen and Charles Johnson, as well as unrestricted free agent Cordarrelle Patterson. The strategy for dealing with this trio should be interesting to watch play out.
The Vikings would be gambling if they merely tendered Thielen, giving other teams the opportunity to submit offer sheets, but they would have the chance to match any offers, and perhaps, receive compensation if they let him leave. Retaining him shouldn’t be difficult under these circumstances, but the Vikings might be wise to lock him up for the long haul by proactively signing him to a longer extension. Thielen has expressed a desire to be paid for the production he has put on the field, and that isn’t an unreasonable thing for him to say at this juncture.
On the other end of the spectrum is Johnson, who the Vikings very well may choose to let walk and not offer a tender to at all, especially if they believe Treadwell will be ready to contribute more by September. However, a low ball bid for a guy like Johnson provides some adequate insurance for the front office if they can’t land any new talent in the NFL Draft, or in the event of some unforeseen preseason injuries (ahem, those happen).
The most dramatic situation lies with Patterson, who has gone from rookie phenom to awesome returner to awesome returner that might have what it takes to become a reliable wideout. Last January, I argued that Patterson’s return skills alone made him well worth his $2.3 million price tag for 2016, and I still think every point made is valid after the fact.
Patterson is highly unlikely to break anyone’s bank in free agency this offseason and having one of the best return men in the game today should not be an easily dismissed value. Plus, he’s a threat in the open field, meaning he is an asset to Pat Shurmur’s offense as a receiver and as a runner.
If Shurmur can find a way to further turn Patterson’s “gadget player” label into “receiver that excels at gadget plays,” then it’ll be another step forward for the former first-rounder and the Vikings offense. Whether or not Patterson is content to remain with the Vikings if the money is there, however, remains to be seen.
[Note: All credit for the cap numbers can be attributed to the fine folks over at Spotrac.]
POTENTIAL FREE AGENTS
The following list of free agent wideouts is courtesy of Spotrac.
|Player||Age||Team||Salary Average (2016)|
|Ted Ginn Jr.||31||CAR||$2,100,000|
ALSHON JEFFERY: The belle of this year’s ball is certainly going to be Jeffery. Positionally, the Vikings have hardly any cap space invested at the wideout position, so in that regard, it could be a possibility they try to make a splash. More likely, though, they will bank that money for extending their guys down the road and mostly spend this offseason’s surplus cap space elsewhere. I’ll just be content to see Jeffery head to another division… hopefully.
VINCENT JACKSON: At age 34 and with a downward spiral of production, Jackson makes almost no sense at all for Minnesota. But it is worth noting that Spielman once tried to chase Jackson via trade.
PIERRE GARCON: If the Vikings let Patterson leave due to route running concerns, then it might make sense that they pursue one of the best technicians in the game. Garcon is possibly getting his last crack at a substantial contract, however, and may want to go to a team where he’s more likely to be an undisputed starter.
DESEAN JACKSON: I just don’t see what value, other than name value, he would bring to the Vikings at this point in his career.
KENNY STILLS: Capable of the big plays (and the big drops), Stills makes for an attractive free agent option at just 25 years old. I wouldn’t be all that mad if Spielman swung for the upside fences and threw some money at a guy like Stills, who could very well still develop into a fantastic NFL receiver.
ROBERT WOODS: Again with the “only 25 years old” aspect, an age that seems to appeal to Spielman in free agency, Woods could be a steal for some team looking for an upgrade over someone like, say, Charles Johnson.
JOSH GORDON: He isn’t in the Spotrac list, but he also isn’t going to be going back to Cleveland. I’m just going to drop his name here, and I’ll see you all in the comments section below.
I think it is safe to assume Diggs and Treadwell will be back, all without a doubt. I also believe it is safe to assume that the Vikings will retain Thielen in some fashion, and I imagine they’ll initially tender him as a restricted free agent and then angle for an extension while they still hold most of the cards.
I also think there is a very real possibility the Vikings release Wright at some point over the next year, but I don’t believe it will happen before free agency, as the team just isn’t cap-needy enough to justify letting their most proven insurance policy at the position walk out the door.
If there is sense to be made of retaining Charles Johnson, it is simply as further protection against injury. I’m not sure he is worth it to be perfectly blunt about it, but the cost isn’t going to make it a big risk if they decide to tender him.
Patterson should get attention from the Vikings front office. I’d be shocked if they didn’t at least make their Pro Bowl returner a competitive offer in the coming days.
As far as new talent, in free agency or the NFL Draft, this is my most wishy-washy “moving forward” conclusion I’ve written to-date, simply because there are so many question marks facing the position before free agency kicks off. If pressed, however, I would predict that Thielen is retained, Patterson is re-signed, and Johnson is allowed to walk.
That would leave the door open to bring in two or three new guys before training camp, including an upside free agent like Kenny Stills and a rookie or two.
But, your guess is as good as mine right now, so let’s discuss this further in the comments section below.