EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Jerome Simpson came to the Minnesota Vikings last season as a breath of fresh air.
The former Cincinnati Bengals receiver was excitable, always smiling and he connected with quarterback Christian Ponder on a few big plays during minicamp. He was going to be the deep-threat receiver Minnesota had been looking for.
Then he served his three-game suspension for drug-related charges at the start of the season, slowing the momentum he had built with his new team. He returned in Week 4 and had four catches for 50 yards and drew two big pass-interference penalties. It turned out to be his best game of the season.
Simpson suffered a mysterious back injury that caused issues with his legs. The explosiveness that was seen in highlight films a year earlier when Simpson did a flip into the end zone over a defender to score a touchdown was gone. Simpson couldn’t push off with his legs, his burst to get away from defenders was gone.
“It was just one of those freak things; L5 lower back,” Simpson said two weeks ago while participating in the Vikings’ offseason conditioning program, now fully healthy. “I guess the nerve, it just pinched a nerve. It was nothing that we could find really conclusive about it, the reason that caused it or whatever. I don’t know. I can’t really put my finger on it.”
Simpson ended his first season in Minnesota with 26 catches for 274 yards. The smiling, happy Simpson seemed to be gone after the injury too. He didn’t want to talk about his injury, and he was short with the media. Speaking two weeks ago to reporters was the most in-depth he’d been regarding his injury.
Simpson, 27, is back for another season with the Vikings, intent on finally making the impact he and the team expected last season. As an unrestricted free agent, he signed another one-year deal with Minnesota this offseason. In the process, Simpson even received a raise.
Because of the drug charges, Minnesota gave Simpson a one-year, $2 million contract last offseason in a make-good deal. This season, despite the struggles last year, he signed a one-year $2.1 million deal and returned to the team that gave him a second chance — and now a third — following the drug charges that could have derailed his career.
“Just be the best, productive receiver that I can for this team and do whatever I can,” Simpson said of his expectations for this season. “I want to be the best I can for these guys because I felt like I let myself down and them down a little bit last year. It was something I couldn’t really control. I’m going to go my hardest I can this year and hopefully I can get a long-term contract this year.”
Simpson knows what he can do extra this year and reward the Vikings’ faith.
“Catch the ball,” Simpson said. “Catch the ball, run better routes, just be more productive so I can get a long-term contract.”
Simpson said he had other offers this offseason but wanted to return to Minnesota. He believes the familiarity with the system, the coaches and Ponder will be a benefit. Coaches wanted him back too.
“That meant a lot because it meant that hopefully I would have a place to come back to and said that I would still be playing this year coming up,” Simpson said. “That just helped my offseason go a lot better without having to stress and worry about where I would have to be.”
Simpson said he wanted to stay loyal to Minnesota. With his home for next season set, he worked on getting his back fully healthy. He said a new mattress that he bought during last season helped immensely and his back started to improve in December — he did have 11 catches in the final three games of the regular season.
He never had surgery. He was prescribed rest, and he says he’s 100 percent now.
“That’s what they told me, just to rest,” Simpson said. “Don’t do anything, don’t play any basketball or do anything physical, just basically rest and it was kind of hard for me to do that. I followed doctors’ orders and I came back good.”
Simpson was told to stay off his feet for over a month, not an easy thing for the high-strung receiver.
“I hated, but I had to do what was best for me and what was going to get me back up to 100 percent,” Simpson said.
But now he’s healthy, back in Minnesota, and hoping to recapture the excitement he showed last summer in his first go-round with the Vikings.