Monday, July 6, 2015

Training Camp Position Preview: Wide Receivers

Image Courtesy of Pro Football Spot

The wide receiver group will possess one of the best training camp battles in Mankato, but who has the best chance to land the final spot? 

Updated: July 6th, 2015 9:05pm

By: Daniel House

The wide receiver position group might be the most difficult position for the coaching staff to evaluate during training camp. There are so many potential talents among this set of players and all of them will need to take advantage of their practice snaps. The coaches will only be able to keep six or seven wide receivers on the final 53-man roster. The team added Mike Wallace to help bolster their vertical passing game. Charles Johnson is looking to build upon his promising 2014 campaign and Jarius Wright and Adam Thielen will do their best to continue their development. Cordarrelle Patterson was asked to focus on his craft this off-season and the coaches will be searching for improved understanding of Norv Turner's offensive scheme. Stefon Diggs was drafted in the fifth round to add an explosive threat to the offense. He has experience returning punts and could find himself landing this job. If not, he can still provide the offense with a weapon that can be deployed in the slot. With all of that being said, the battle for the final spot will be extremely difficult. The undrafted rookies and second-year players that are left will need to dazzle in training camp and the preseason to have any chance of securing a roster spot. It won't be an easy decision, but having too many options at this position is an excellent problem to have.

Note: Stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Mike Wallace

The Vikings added Mike Wallace via trade in an effort to bolster their vertical explosiveness in the passing game. Wallace has premier speed off of the line of scrimmage and gains separation by blowing cornerbacks away at the point of contact. His time in Miami was shortened due to a high salary and issues among Wallace and the front office. Earlier in Wallace's career in Pittsburgh, 43.7% of his yards and 68.75% of his touchdowns came on passes that travel 20 yards or more. It is estimated by many that Wallace could revive his career by changing scenery. Joining Norv Turner's offensive system and catching passes from young Teddy Bridgewater certainly won't discourage this from happening. Bridgewater might have struggled early in the 2014 season when he threw deep passes, but he still managed to complete 46.3% of those throws as a rookie. These marks ranked him as the 10th-best deep passer in the league last year. Last season, the Vikings never had a pure deep threat for Bridgewater to throw towards. However, Wallace can provide them with a much-needed weapon in 2015.

Charles Johnson

Charles Johnson erupted onto the scene after he was signed in late September. Johnson didn't start playing in games consistently until the middle of October, but it didn't take him long to become an integral part of the Vikings offense. As the team was yearning for a receiver who could get open down the field, Johnson emerged as that guy. He led the Vikings with 47 targets, 25 receptions, and 415 receiving yards once he started playing regular snaps from week 11 through the end of the season. Even with all of his success, he wasn't quite at full strength after recovering from a previous knee surgery. You could definitely see he was cautious about catching footballs at the high point. However, he still managed to flash his route running ability and football instincts on a consistent basis. Johnson will be a solid pairing with Mike Wallace on the edge and can be a threat to gain separation and move the chains.

Cordarrelle Patterson

After exploding onto the scene as a rookie, Cordarrelle Patterson provided more of a sophomore slump than many expected. He couldn't get open and struggled to handle the demands of Norv Turner's offensive scheme. Patterson worked hard this offseason to improve his body by taking part in work outs on beaches out west. Not only that, but he was rumored to be working with former New England Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown this off-season. All indications from the coaches are that Patterson made immense strides to improve his game. It will be necessary in order for Patterson to see playing time. Patterson hauled in just 33 receptions for 384 yards and one touchdown last season. The team is definitely looking for more production than they received last season. With so much raw talent, if Patterson can learn the playbook and become more instinctive as a route runner, he has the tools to be a dominant playmaker in this league. As a whole, Patterson will need to show improvement in a deep group of wide receivers.

Jarius Wright

Jarius Wright quietly produced the best stat line of his three-year career in 2014. He hauled in 42 passes for 588 yards and two touchdowns. Heading into the season last year, I thought Jarius Wright was the most improved player on the Vikings roster. He was getting open in the second level and his instincts took the next step in this offensive system. Wright looked extremely comfortable and Norv Turner factored him into the system more than he had been in years past. He proved he had the ability to make plays and accumulate yards after the catch. Teddy Bridgewater was very comfortable throwing to Wright this season because of the amount of snaps he received with him when he was the second-string quarterback in training camp. According to Pro Football Focus, Bridgewater had a QB rating of 98.5 when throwing the ball to Jarius Wright last season. Wright's role started to maximize as the season evolved and it seems as if he will be continuing to receive more playing time in 2015. However, it's worth noting that Stefon Diggs might limit his time if he has an impressive training camp and preseason.

Stefon Diggs

The Vikings selected Stefon Diggs in the fifth round of this year's draft. Diggs, a product of Maryland University brings with him a plethora of skill-sets. He ran a 4.46 40-yard dash time at the NFL scouting combine and flashed his athleticism in the on-field workouts. From watching his film, he has the ability to run after the catch, stay on his feet with control, and he can high-point the ball in traffic. Not to mention, he was extremely successful on special teams and could push for the punt return job on this team. In fact, it would allow the Vikings to keep an extra wide receiver if they went with Diggs as the punt returner over Marcus Sherels. The main concern with Diggs entering the NFL draft was his durability. During his final two seasons at Maryland, he suffered a broken leg and lacerated kidney. He measures in at 6 feet, 195 pounds and you have to wonder how he will stack up against larger defensive backs. Nonetheless, his athleticism, versatility, and special teams experience will leave him with the chance to translate to the next level.

Adam Thielen

Mr. Mankato is back and ready to continue his quest on the Minnesota Vikings roster. Last year, Adam Thielen put together an excellent training camp and proved to the coaches he had the versatility to be helpful on the 53-man roster. Thielen entered training camp and flashed his improved route running and physical condition immediately. He was playing a major role in the special teams rotation and that type of versatility is what landed him a roster spot. Thielen blocked a punt during the season and was making tackles on the coverage team on a consistent basis. In the final game of the season, he got involved in the passing game and hauled in a 44-yard touchdown pass. Thielen has continually grown during his time in the NFL. This year, the wide receiver group is more crowded and Thielen will need to show that he is making more strides as a pass catcher. He has the special teams ability and that is definitely huge when you are trying to make the final 53-man roster in this league.

Donte Foster

Donte Foster spent time on the Vikings practice squad last season and will get another chance to compete in training camp. Foster has a huge catch radius and was one of the best wide receivers in program history at the University of Ohio. I got the chance to talk to Foster before he joined the Vikings for training camp last year. I really was impressed with his ability to high-point the football in tight coverage. The Vikings liked him enough to stash him on the practice squad last season. This year, the wide receiver group is stacked with talent and it will take an impressive showing from Foster to crack a spot on this team. Nonetheless, he could be a practice squad option again this season.

Isaac Fruechte

Isaac Fruechte was a player that was talked about frequently during the Vikings' mini-camp practices. The Vikings brought the former University of Minnesota product in for a tryout and were impressed enough to sign him to a contract. Many on the team are intrigued with his work ethic and ability to improve his game every day. From a playing standpoint, his blend of size and speed allowed him to be a go-to target in the the red zone for the Gophers. At the University of Minnesota, he didn't see many passes with the type of offense they ran, but flashed his ability in the limited passes he did receive. Fruechte is a player to watch in training camp that could find his way onto the practice squad in late August.

Jordan Leslie

Jordan Leslie is a name to keep an eye on as the Vikings take the field for practice in Mankato. He has extremely smooth hips, speed, and size for a wide receiver that measures in at 6' 2". More importantly, it is noted by many about how his work ethic has shaped him into the player he is today. After watching film, it is hard to believe Leslie wasn't selected at some point of this draft. He has soft hands and a top-tier catch radius, which allows him to haul in difficult passes in traffic. Finally, I came away most impressed with his ability to block downfield and play physical. A hard worker like Leslie could find himself competing for a practice squad spot in a crowded wide receiver group.

DaVaris Daniels

Despite two academic suspensions at Notre Dame, DaVaris Daniels was quickly developing into a playmaker in the passing game. Daniels has good length and his ability to catch the ball is in no way questioned. He snatches passes without breaking stride and you can see that his hands are extremely strong. Daniels fights for extra yardage and isn't afraid to lower his head and pick up the first down. He needs to improve his route running by finishing his routes on a more consistent basis. Daniels is a good fit for Norv Turner's system, but does he have the intelligence to handle the playbook and scheme? In a deep battle at the wide receiver position, he will need to show he can handle the progressions of being a wide receiver at the next level.

Gavin Lutman

The Vikings signed Gavin Lutman to an undrafted contract following the completion of the NFL draft. Lutman played college football at Pittsburg State and led the team as a senior with 70 catches for 1,196 yards and 13 touchdowns. He is a big bodied receiver, measuring in at 6' 4", 211 pounds. It is worth noting that John Brown put up almost the exact same numbers in 2013 at Pittsburg State with 1,198 yards and 14 touchdowns. Brown was a third round selection for the Cardinals last season and had a very good rookie year, ending up with 696 yards and 5 touchdowns. Lutman isn't expected to be that caliber of a player, but has the physical tools to develop into a talented wide receiver. After watching him play against MSU-Mankato last season, I can tell you he is a very natural pass catcher with the ability to develop if given the time.

In closing, it is safe to say heading into training camp that the Vikings might have one of the most deep and talented wide receiver groups they've had in some time. The battle for the final wide receiver spot will be full of excitement and the player who puts together the best training camp and preseason will likely be the one who makes the final 53-man roster. Even with that being said, there are plenty of candidates for practice squad players out of this group. Those types of players need to show they can handle playing wide receiver, but will also need to have the necessary skill-set to play special teams and adequately contribute in that avenue. Having too many players to choose from at this position is an excellent problem to have, but it won't make roster decisions easy for the coaching staff in late August. 

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