What a difference a year can make. In a one-year span the Vikings passing game went from 31st in the league (183.0 passing yards per game) in 2015 to 18th in 2016 (239.0 passing yards per game). So, since this is the NFL, something has to change in 2017. Therefore, with the Vikings passing game, changes are in the offing.
The Vikings have struggled to find any kind of passing game in recent years—not since Brett Favre was in town in 2009 have they mustered a passing attack worth writing home about (and they have nothing really long sustained since Daunte Culpepper was around). Last season, the injury to Teddy Bridgewater led to the acquisition of Sam Bradford, and the Vikings passing attack took a definite uptick, with Bradford setting an NFL completion percentage record.
The receiving corps had a rising star in Stephon Diggs, attracting double coverage during the season and heading toward 1,000 yards receiving until he was injured and held out of the final game. They had the improved, attentive and productive Cordarrelle Patterson making plays after the Vikings didn’t pick up his option. They had the breakout season from Adam Thielen, the Division II player from Minnesota State U—Mankato and Detroit Lakes, who employed a thorough knowledge of the passing offense, versatility and speed to make himself an indispensable member of the team. Tight end Kyle Rudolph had the season he, the Vikings and every Purple fan had been hoping for since his Pro Bowl season of 2012 (83 receptions for 840 yards—both career highs—and seven touchdowns in 2016).
That production of this group made it tough for wideout Charles Johnson to get many targets, slot receiver Jarius Wright get on the field and rookie first-rounder Laquan Treadwell to even be noticed on the roster. Where in the past Johnson and Wright were considered important cogs in an underachieving passing attack, they became afterthoughts in 2016. Somewhat of a good problem to have.
But, like we said, this is the NFL, so things don’t stay static very long. Since free agency exists and since the Vikings passing game still wasn’t setting records for touchdowns and yards, things need to change.
The first change to the receiving unit has already taken place, as longtime receivers coach George Stewart has moved on to coordinate special teams for Los Angeles Chargers, and he has recently been replaced by former Purdue head football coach Darrell Hazell. Stewart has been lauded in the past by the players and coaching staff for his work with the receivers (or blamed by fans for this underachieving unit—depending upon your perspective), and this will be Hazell’s first coaching job on the NFL level. So, there will be a learning curve to surmount this spring and summer.
Personnel-wise, the passing game should see some changes, as three of the players are free agents. Patterson is an unrestricted free agent, while Johnson and Thielen are restricted free agents (meaning the Vikings can match the offers that those players receive from other teams).
In addition, Wright’s future is relatively uncertain. Wright played in just seven games in 2016 (starting one), had 11 receptions on just 14 targets and played just 11 percent of the offensive snaps, despite being healthy. According to a report on Scout.com, Wright is looking for some clarity to his situation this coming season—in other words, use me or lose me. Wright is under contract for the next three seasons with a cap hit of nearly $11,700,000 over the three seasons if they keep him and $3,360,000 in dead cap money if they cut him.
Wright’s case is curious because of the lack of playing time last season, but complicated due to his contract status. Meanwhile, since Johnson is a restricted free agent, the Vikings would probably only match an offer he gets if it is reasonable. Neither player was integral to the team’s offense last season, so both are in precarious positions, in regards to this team, anyway.
Diggs is still under his rookie contract for the next two seasons, and as a former fifth-round pick, it is very reasonable. But in 2019 he will be an UFA, so look for the Vikings to start negotiations on a new contract at the end of next season (if all things stay the same in the trajectory for the third-year receiver).
The two wild cards are road-game roommates Patterson and Thielen. Patterson, as we all know, finally took a step forward in his development as a receiver last season. He has all the talent in the world (as both a receiver and a return man), but his reported lack of work ethic and attention to detail resulted in the Vikings not grabbing his fifth-year option last season. It apparently got his attention, as he finally earned the opportunity for more snaps and produced with those plays. So, Patterson should get looks from other teams and it could make it difficult to resign him.
When, just a year ago, a good portion of the fan base was fine with seeing Patterson walk, he now is being viewed a little differently. His Pro Bowl returning skills, which is a big bonus to the special teams, is now being augmented by increased receiving skills—and perhaps even running back skills. Suddenly, losing Patterson could be a bigger blow than ever imagined in 2015.
Finally, there is the case of Thielen, who came to the Vikings undrafted, a player who basically walked across MSU-Mankato campus to join the Vikings in 2014. He worked his way up from a special teams standout to vital cog in the offense with career highs in starts (10), targets (92), receptions (69), yards and touchdowns (5). In 2015, he signed a one-year deal for $510,000 and is surely due for a raise this season. He is the kind of player that head coach Mike Zimmer loves—a hard worker who Zimmer said knows every wideout position in the offense), so the Vikings will look to match what Thielen will find on the open market—if he gets that far.
“Being able to put the film out there and prove I can be a starter in this league, it’s put me in a good situation,” Thielen told the Star Tribune at the Vikings’ WinterFest recently. “I feel I’ve proven it. Hopefully I can stay here long-term and be respected with the way they handle me.”
Thielen, who has signed a one-year deal last season for a small raise is likely looking for a more lucrative deal and longer commitment this season, and as a native Minnesotan, he would like it to come from the Vikings.
“There’s something special about that,” Thielen said. “It’d be great to have a send-off someday like [11-year veteran linebacker Chad] Greenway did. There’s something special about that. It doesn’t happen very often these days.”
The Vikings passing game is going to look different next season, that is something we can count on. What the term certainly can’t do, is spend another high draft pick on a wide receiver (let’s think more Stephon Diggs—a fifth-round pick—than Laquan Treadwell—a first rounder who still has plenty of developing to do). They should take a look at free agency, but there is no need for the mega-million-dollar foray they once did with a Mike Wallace. That money has to go to the offensive line.
The best guess going forward is that Thielen signs a nice extension here; Johnson moves on if Patterson signs (which is still a pick-em at this point); Wright re-negotiates if he stays, but probably leaves; and Treadwell hopefully makes a considerable jump in development in the offseason. Then they backfill with a late-round pick, and perhaps even Moritz Bohringer makes a move off the practice squad. With the accurate Bradford at the helm, and more protection for him (we hope), that sounds like a decent unit to go to camp with.
But one way of the other, changes are coming.