Mike Wallace was supposed to stretch the field, create opportunities for other receivers underneath, and give the Minnesota Vikings their first deep threat since Randy Moss exploded into the NFL 18 years ago. On paper, he was a fit in Minnesota, with the speed to “take the top off a defense” and the production to match — Wallace has 22 career touchdowns of 30 or more yards.
Unfortunately, that pipe dream never materialized for the Vikings, who watched Wallace struggle his way to 39 receptions, 472 yards, and two touchdowns in 2015. Despite general manager Rick Spielman’s insistence that Wallace would mesh well with the Vikings, the wide receiver was clearly a square peg in a round hole.[quote_box_center]”Norv’s system is based on speed and having a vertical threat,” Spielman said after the team traded for Wallace before the 2015 season. “By adding him, and CJ and Cordarrelle and [the] Jarius Wrights of the world, those guys are able to stretch the field. We have a young quarterback who is just going to continue to get better, and you saw that improvement out of him as we went through the season and now you add another weapon to the offensive side.”[/quote_box_center]
If Wallace were a weapon in Minnesota, he would’ve been an unloaded gun.
Blame the struggles of the offensive line or Teddy Bridgewater’s inability to push the ball downfield, but the veteran receiver failed as more than just a deep threat. He dropped countless passes on well-thrown curls and comebacks, often putting the Vikings in second or third-and-long situations. Outside of the speed to threaten safeties, Wallace offered nothing to the Vikings, especially in an offense designed to protect the football and maximize limited big-play opportunities.
In Laquon Treadwell, the Vikings have a player who can succeed in ways that Wallace couldn’t. The team’s 2016 first round pick has a chance to come in and change the face of Minnesota’s passing attack, giving Bridgewater options at every level of the defense, from the red zone to the middle of the field.
Coming out of college, the biggest knock on Treadwell was his lack of speed. While Wallace ran a blazing 4.33-second 40-yard dash at the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine, Treadwell finished the sprint in a disappointing 4.65 seconds. Wallace may be faster, but he’s also two inches shorter and 41 pounds lighter than Treadwell, who moves exceptionally well — if not better than Wallace — for a man his size. He’s a smooth route runner with the body control to dominate at the catch point and the ability to come open, even when he’s blanketed in coverage.
When Spielman made the selection last month, he described what made Treadwell such an enticing option for the Vikings. While he mentioned Treadwell’s slower-than-average 40-yard dash time, Spielman praised the Ole Miss star’s “game speed,” hinting that the team’s newest receiver may get even faster with a full, healthy offseason of training.
In 2014, Treadwell broke his fibula and dislocated his ankle, hindering his play — mentally and physically — in 2015. Now that he’s fully recovered, Treadwell can focus on improving the finer details of his game, including his straight-line speed.
But it wasn’t speed that Spielman coveted in a wide receiver; he had that in Wright, Patterson, and Diggs. No, he wanted the things that Wallace lacked, the things that Bridgewater needed in a receiver to be successful.[quote_box_center]”We feel what he’s going to bring to our offense is just that large catching radius, a guy that’s very physical, maybe the best run blocker that I’ve seen in years coming out, but also can make big-time catches with his large hands and catching radius.”[/quote_box_center]
Running the Routes that Matter
At the Backyard Banter, Matt Harmon analyzes wide receivers, specifically focusing on routes run throughout a season. He’s done multiple Reception Perception studies on a handful of players, including Treadwell. The full post dives deep into Treadwell’s strengths and weaknesses, but for this piece, it’s most important to focus on Treadwell’s repertoire of routes and where he was most successful while at Ole Miss in 2015.
The slideshow above details all of Treadwell’s routes as a junior, when he caught 82 passes for 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns. Harmon found that Treadwell was most successful on four particular routes — slants, curls, outs, and screens. With his size and catch radius, Treadwell can box out defenders and create easy pass-catching opportunities underneath. That’s why, according to Harmon, 69.2 percent of Treadwell’s routes in 2015 were either slants, curls, or nine (“go”) routes. The Ole Miss coaching staff maximized their best player’s strengths, reaping the benefits of an offense tailored to Treadwell’s specific abilities.[quote_center] A lot of the routes that we throw, is exactly what Treadwell does. [/quote_center]
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer was right; Treadwell already runs many of the same routes Minnesota’s current receivers run. Not only does he run the routes, but he does so more efficiently than the departed Wallace. Most importantly, he excels in the short area of the field, an area Wallace couldn’t seem to master in his lone season as a Viking.
Wallace “Out” of Sync
Out routes were the bane of Wallace’s short-lived Minnesota existence. Bridgewater, traditionally a rhythm passer, thrives when he’s releasing the ball at the top of his drop and within the structure of the play call. Doing so ensures the ball is out of his hands when his receiver’s breaking out of the assigned cut. On out routes, for example, the ball is supposed to be thrown as soon as the receiver plants his inside foot, creating natural separation from the guessing cornerback.
While Wallace didn’t struggle getting to the correct spot on the field, he had trouble transitioning from cut to catch. Whether it was tight coverage from the closing defender or a lack of concentration, Wallace turned far too many easy catches into missed opportunities. The four plays above, all potential first down competitions, either bounce off of Wallace’s hands or fall straight to the ground. Winning at the catch point and “bodying” cornerbacks just isn’t Wallace’s game; he’s a burner who needs room in front of him to succeed.
Treadwell, on the other hand, made these plays look routine. Though he only ran 22 out routes his final year at Ole Miss, he was successful on 100 percent of such passes thrown his way. His catch radius, combined with his natural body positioning, gave Treadwell an immediate advantage over smaller cornerbacks often lined up off the line of scrimmage. That was also the case on curls and comebacks, where Treadwell was almost always wide open when the quarterback released the football.
Attacking the Football
Don’t play off coverage against Treadwell; it usually doesn’t work. In the five examples above, Treadwell lines up wide outside, with cornerbacks playing anywhere from two to 12 yards off of their man. It’s a dangerous idea, mostly because Treadwell is so good at selling particular routes to the defense. While a corner may think he’s running deep, Treadwell will stop on a dime — a spectacular feat for a man that tall and heavy — and turn back to his quarterback, creating even more separation than when before the ball was snapped.
It’s his “stem,” or the first three steps of any route, that help Treadwell create leverage at the beginning of a play. Whether it was a curl, a comeback, a nine, or a slant, the former Rebels wide receiver made every route look as similar as possible, at least in those initial three steps. That consistency, combined with a few nasty head fakes and shoulder dips, helped Treadwell negate his lack of speed and outmaneuver quicker, twitchier defensive backs.
On top of his prowess as a route runner, Treadwell doesn’t allow the football to get into his body. He snatches it out of the air, attacking every pass with the certainty that it’s his and his alone to catch. His strong hands and assertive play with the ball in the air gave Treadwell a 75 percent contested catch conversion rate, the second best among the prospects charted for Harmon’s Reception Perception.
Even as an NFL veteran, Wallace is arguably a worse route runner than Treadwell. His curl routes require far too many steps, allowing cornerbacks to eat up the cushion he should have created with his vertical speed. That’s why in the two examples above, the defenders are right in Wallace’s face, ready to break up the pass. He doesn’t sell the idea of a nine route or any other deep route, allowing the cornerbacks to plant their feet, wait for Wallace to stop, and jump his route.
“Tread” Zone Threat
Surprisingly, Wallace caught nine red zone touchdowns in 2014. His speed and elusiveness made him a sneaky threat inside the 20-yard line, and the Miami Dolphins knew how to exploit mismatches in the condensed area of the field. Norv Turner, for all of his pedigree as an offensive coordinator, couldn’t get the same results out of Wallace in Minnesota.
Wallace isn’t Treadwell, and he isn’t going to jump in the air and beat cornerbacks in 50/50 situations. Regardless, Turner forced Wallace into that role, making life difficult for the old No. 11. But the new No. 11, Treadwell, was extremely successful in similar situations at Ole Miss.
A combination of well-timed jumps and excellent hand-eye coordination make Treadwell’s work in the red zone and down the field look easy. He’s not a deep threat in the traditional sense, but Treadwell can win one-on-one battles with ease. He’s a smooth, silky mover who makes every catch look natural, even with defenders draped on his back or in his line of sight. Knowing this, Bridgewater can potentially chuck the ball in Treadwell’s general direction, knowing his receiver is going to fight for the pass, and in most cases, come down with the catch.
Out with the old, in with the new
Maybe Treadwell wasn’t the highest-graded receiver in the 2016 NFL Draft. But in terms of fit, he’ll be a natural with the Vikings. Treadwell has the size to thrive in the red zone, the route running experience to get open and move the chains on third down, and the run-after-catch ability to turn short screens into big gains.
Where Wallace failed — as a true “X” — Treadwell will thrive. He’s run many of the same routes that the Vikings employ, and he’s done so successfully against some of the best competition the NCAA has to offer. The transition may take some time, especially when cornerbacks begin to play press coverage, but Treadwell projects to catch at least 10 touchdowns with the Vikings this season.
Wallace and Treadwell may share the same purple and gold No. 11, but the two players couldn’t be more different. One, an undersized, lighting-quick decoy, couldn’t evolve his game to become an every-down receiver for the Vikings. The other, a physically imposing pass catcher, has all of the tools to become a top wide receiver in the NFL. And in 2016, fans are lucky enough to call the second option their own.