EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings are entering a pivotal third year for Christian Ponder and the determination of whether he has the tools to develop into a franchise quarterback. The next step of the puzzle for Minnesota: putting the proper pieces around Ponder to make a proper decision.
Regardless of how the saga with leading receiver Percy Harvin unfolds this offseason, the Vikings will be looking to upgrade the wideout position. Behind Harvin — who either wants more money heading into the final year of his rookie contract, wants out of Minnesota, wants an increased role in the offense or maybe all of the above depending on the report and the day of the week — the Vikings have little reason to believe they can accurately judge Ponder’s progress.
In 2012, Michael Jenkins was second among receivers on the team with 40 catches, but he carries a $3.92 million cap hit and could be cut. Jarius Wright showed some promise in his rookie season with 22 receptions and 14.1 yards per catch. Jerome Simpson and Devin Aromashodu are free agents, and Stephen Burton has seven catches in two NFL seasons. Greg Childs is still rehabbing after his rookie season was wiped out with patellar tendon tears in both knees.
These are all reasons the Vikings seemed particularly willing to talk about the receiving crop in this year’s draft last week at the NFL Scouting Combine.
“We need an all-encompassing guy, a guy who can run by some people, who can make the hard catch for us if he’s in a contested situation but hopefully also can get us some yards after catch,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said last week. “And he’s a guy who has the smarts to be able to understand game plans from week to week.”
Wide receiver is one of the deepest positions in this year’s draft, a perfect scenario for Minnesota and its nine picks, including its first at No. 23 overall pick in the first round. There isn’t an obvious elite, safe talent at the top of the draft at receiver, but there are several intriguing options in the first few rounds.
Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson has jumped to the top of the pack thanks to his physical attributes and could be gone before the Vikings draft. But there are other options that include Keenan Allen (California), Tavon Austin (West Virginia), Terrance Williams (Baylor), Justin Hunter (Tennessee), DeAndre Hopkins (Clemson), Quinton Patton (Louisiana Tech) and Robert Woods (USC) in the first few rounds.
“There’s a lot of guys that are athletic guys that can stretch the field,” Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman said at a pre-Combine meeting with reporters. “There’s some guys that are smaller but very unique. There’s some guys that are maybe not as fast but have some unique catching skills that make them good players. So there’s a wide variety of guys in this draft.”
Regardless of when and where the Vikings address the position, help can be expected to come through the draft, and Minnesota has one particular attribute in mind for its ideal choice.
“You’re always looking for speed at the receiver position,” Frazier said. “So that’s a criteria. Along with the fact that he has great hands, that’s another part of it. So, being able to get a little yardage after catch, that’s a part of it as well.”
Harvin’s skills as an underneath, run-after-the-catch receiver are nearly unparalleled in the NFL. Austin is considered to be in the same mold, which might not fit the Vikings’ needs if Harvin remains. Instead, Minnesota will be looking to address the type of receiver it’s seemingly been searching for since Randy Moss was traded to the Oakland Raiders in 2005.
Aside from one fantastic season when Sidney Rice developed into that player with Brett Favre at quarterback, the Vikings have needed a tall downfield threat to stretch the field and take pressure away from MVP running back Adrian Peterson.
A tall, speedy receiver could change the look of the offense, and Minnesota appears to be looking for that player.
“When you run the ball as well as we do, if we can get that home run guy outside, we think we’ll just improve our entire offense and our team as well,” Frazier said.