MANKATO, Minn. — When Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder would look downfield last season for his options in the passing game, naturally he would see Pro Bowl tight end Kyle Rudolph, an emerging threat who has been a friend since the two were rookies.
Ponder, in his second season as a starter and trying to help Minnesota to the playoffs as well as prove himself in the NFL, would then look to the outside at his receivers and see, well, not much.
Mercurial receiver Percy Harvin led the Vikings in receptions last year despite missing the final seven games. In Harvin’s absence, Ponder had the aging Michael Jenkins, rookie Jarius Wright and a less-than-healthy Jerome Simpson as his top receivers. It never seemed further from the days of Cris Carter, Randy Moss and Jake Reed in Minnesota.
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Harvin is gone for good and this year’s receiving corps might not remind anyone of Carter, Moss and Reed, but Ponder will see a dramatic difference when he looks downfield this year. The Vikings addressed their receiving situation this offseason and finally gave Ponder a requisite set of receivers to open up the passing game and truly gauge his readiness as an NFL quarterback.
“There are a lot of guys and that’s a good problem to have,” Ponder said recently of the team’s depth at receiver in training camp. “There’s a ton of guys. We’ve got to figure out who’s going to make this team and I’ve got to do a good job of trying to throw with as many guys as possible and get that chemistry going.”
Ponder and the receivers have worked to become cohesive and the preseason might be as important as ever with the new pieces in place in the passing offense. More than just having new options is the variety and differing skill sets which the new receivers offer to the offense, Ponder and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave.
With free agent Greg Jennings, Minnesota has the No. 1 receiver it’s sought for years. Jennings is a detailed route-runner with good hands and can work the middle of the field as well as the outside. The Vikings drafted the dangerous Cordarrelle Patterson in the first round of the draft, a big receiver (6-foot-3) who is dangerous with the ball in his hands.
Wright, who had 22 catches for 310 yards in seven games last season, is more comfortable and experienced in looking to improve on a strong finish to his rookie season. Simpson, finally healthy, can be a threat down the field after finishing with just 26 catches for 274 yards last season.
“We got a lot of different guys that bring a lot of different things to the game,” Wright said. “That’s what makes a great receiving corps better than a good receiving corps.”
Wright is out to prove he’s more than just a slot receiver. He showed the ability to get behind defenses last year and he believes he can work on the outside.
“It’s funny you watch him run and it doesn’t even look like he’s trying to run fast, but he’s getting downfield and he’s made a lot of plays,” Ponder said Wednesday.
Patterson might be the most intriguing member of the group. He’s still learning in his first training camp and is considered raw with only one season of major college football under his belt. But there’s no denying the talent that the Vikings saw and made them want to leap back in the first round in April’s draft, giving up four picks to make sure they nabbed him.
Bigger than Harvin, Patterson has some similar playmaking ability in his game and Minnesota will try to find ways to get him the ball. He has the speed to get behind defenses, the size and athletic ability to go up one-on-one against cornerbacks and can be used on reverses, too.
“He does a great job with his body control and out-leveraging people,” Ponder said. “He’s still learning the system and the routes and everything, but he does a great job on skinny posts and stuff. He’s got great stick. He can change directions really well for a big guy. On those deeper routes and everything, on posts and stuff, he’s great on those routes. We’ve just got to get the ball in his hands. I’m excited to see when it’s not two-handed touch out there what he’s going to do and how many tackles he’s going to break.”
Friday’s first preseason game won’t be the unveiling of a new-look Minnesota offense. Ponder will likely play sparingly and the Vikings’ offense will still run through MVP running back Adrian Peterson this season. Friday, however, will be the first chance to see how the options have changed dramatically for Ponder in just one offseason.
“We’re talking about, you lose Percy Harvin and you fill some spaces with Greg Jennings, you come back with Cordarrelle Patterson,” receivers coach George Stewart said. “You go back in the first round. Our scouting department, Rick Spielman and his staff, I will say this, there’s no stone unturned.”
Improving the passing game was an offseason priority. With four likely legitimate options, Ponder will have receivers to look for downfield, not to mention Rudolph off his Pro Bowl MVP and John Carlson, who’s first season with the team was a washout in part because of injuries.
Wright, who’s taking more of a leadership role in just his second year because of the changes at receiver, said the Vikings can get production from each member of the group because of the differing skill sets each brings.
“The ceiling’s high,” Ponder said. “A lot of potential, a lot of talent. There’s so much depth too because you have Greg, you have Jerome and Cordarrelle and Jarius and Stephen Burton and there’s a few other guys…It’s got a lot of talent and I’m just excited. It’s a time for us to make plays in the passing game.”