Vikings training camp preview: Receivers
Jul 10, 2014 at 6:00a ET
This is the fourth in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Minnesota Vikings' July 25 start of camp.
TODAY'S POSITION: RECEIVERS
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 7
Projected starters: Greg Jennings (ninth year) and Cordarrelle Patterson (second year)
The breakdown: This position group has come a long way in the past 16 months for Minnesota and includes some intriguing roster decisions in training camp. No position on offense has gone through as much turnover as this one for the Vikings since the team traded Percy Harvin to Seattle and signed Jennings in the offseason last year. And for good reason; the team never developed any consistent contributors besides Harvin.
The makeover started with Harvin's departure and continued with signing Jennings and drafting Patterson. The two give Minnesota its best set of starting receivers since Randy Moss and Cris Carter were together. Even in Moss' later years, the team didn't have a capable threat on the other side.
Jennings is a solid pro who led the team with 68 catches for 804 yards and four touchdowns last year. Like most of the other receivers and tight ends, Jennings did his best work when Matt Cassel was at quarterback. Jennings might not be the top receiver he was in his early days with Green Bay, but he brings consistency and is a good route-runner with good hands.
Patterson has star potential. He demonstrated exactly why the Vikings traded four draft picks to jump back in the first round and select Patterson out of Tennessee. He was raw, as advertised, but also a versatile, unique talent which many thought. His game -- and participation in the offense -- slowly took root last season and he ended up with touchdowns in each of the last five games.
A big, fast target, Patterson can be used in a variety of ways and he has good hands. Teammates have mentioned his improvement as a route-runner this summer, and he's in line to be a full-time starter. After his slow start last year, Patterson ended up third on the team with 45 catches going for 469 yards and four touchdowns. He added 158 yards and three touchdowns out of the backfield.
Minnesota also has depth at the position. Jerome Simpson returned for a third season with the Vikings, taking another one-year contract. He showed again his flair for the dramatic on the field, making several important and highlight catches. He ended up second on the team last year with 48 catches and 726 yards receiving. More off-field issues were a problem, though.
Jarius Wright has also shown a knack for big plays, averaging 15.5 yards per catch in his two seasons after being a fourth-round draft pick. Wright probably deserves to see more time, but with Simpson back he'll be battling for a spot as the third receiver again. He played in all 16 games last year and set career highs with 26 catches for 434 yards and three touchdowns. He has five catches in his career of more than 35 yards.
Best position battle: With Jennings, Patterson, Simpson and Wright, Minnesota can be confident in its top four receivers. The team will likely keep one more receiver on the active roster and possibly try to pass another on to the practice squad. That leaves potentially two spots available for a young group with some interesting backgrounds or abilities.
Over the past two years, the Vikings have cycled through tryouts of several players to see if any undrafted players can stick. Thielen, undrafted last year out of Minnesota State, might have a chance to break through to the active roster this year. Thielen flashes on the practice field, with good hands and speed and he's 6-foot-2. He stood out in training camp last season and was kept on the practice squad all season. In training camp this year, returning to Mankato again where he went to school, Thielen could stick on the active roster this time.
Smith earned the first nod of the group last year by being promoted to the active roster midseason after starting on the practice squad with Thielen. Smith, undrafted out of Florida State, has the height, at 6-5, and played in four games last year. Smith is still a bit raw. He didn't have a catch last season, but he has the tools teams look for.
Colter is a college quarterback making the transition to receiver after going undrafted out of Northwestern. Colter is quick and showed some good hands during the summer workouts. His move to receiver could stick and keep him in the NFL. Minnesota recently signed Josh Cooper, who was with Norv Turner in Cleveland last year. Cooper has been a special teams player, always a way to stick on the roster.
Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Bears; 2. Lions; 3. Packers; 4. Vikings. This shows the strength of the entire division. Despite the improvements made by Minnesota, it still lags behind the other teams in the North, who have strong receiving options to go with strong-armed quarterbacks.
Chicago features, maybe, the best duo in the league with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Both ranked in the top-10 in catches last season as Jeffery finally showed the promise that made him a second-round draft pick in 2012. Marshall and Jeffery combined for more catches than any two teammates.
Marshall has been one of the league's better receivers ever since he and Jay Cutler were in Denver. Marshall was fifth in the league with 100 catches last season, accounting for 1,295 yards and 12 touchdowns, tied for the fifth-most receiving touchdowns. Jeffery even started the season slow before finishing with 89 catches for 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns. Both were named to the Pro Bowl. The Bears are hoping Marquess Wilson or Josh Morgan can add another complementary receiver.
Detroit features the league's best receiver in Calvin Johnson, a good starting point for any team. The Lions also wanted to find a complementary piece and signed Golden Tate in free agency. Tate led Seattle with 64 catches for 898 yards and five touchdowns and might be the best receiver on the other side Johnson has played with. The Lions are hopeful Ryan Broyles, a 2012 second-round draft pick, can get and stay healthy.
But it all begins with Johnson. Limited to 14 games, Johnson was 17th in the NFL with 84 catches. Yet, he was third in the league with 1,492 receiving yards and third with an average of 17.8 yards per catch. The ultimate size, speed, hands receiver who is a nightmare matchup, Johnson had 12 touchdowns, too.
Green Bay didn't seem to really miss Jennings last year. Of course, the Packers have been deep for years and Jennings' departure allowed others to step forward. Jordy Nelson tied for 14th in the league with 85 catches and was 10th with 1,314 receiving yards, and he added eight touchdowns. Randall Cobb is a versatile player with game-breaking talent. Injuries limited Cobb to six games and he had 31 catches for 433 yards and four touchdowns.
In Cobb's absence, Jarrett Boykin stepped up and finished third on the team with 49 catches for 681 yards. Green Bay will need Boykin and the depth will be tested again, after James Jones departed in free agency, signing with Oakland. The Packers tried to restock, as well. They drafted Fresno State's Davante Adams in the second round, Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis in the fifth round and Jeff Janis in the seventh round out of Saginaw Valley.
Follow Brian Hall on Twitter