The Minnesota Vikings are a far cry from 2011, when receiver was a position of weakness. Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson headline an exciting group that also includes Jarius Wright and Jerome Simpson—all four of whom figure to take significant snaps.
But with NFL teams carrying five, six or sometimes seven receivers on the roster, the position is by no means settled. Though Norv Turner’s Browns only carried four receivers on the roster, his Chargers squads carried six in 2012 and seven in 2011. On average, squads he’s coached or coordinated in the past ten years have had 5.9 receivers on their roster and the median has been 5.5.
For the most part, that’s a reasonable expectation for the Vikings as well, though the built-in ability for the Vikings to run the ball will likely bias Turner in favor of a fullback (maybe two) and tight ends (perhaps three or four).
The fact that Rhett Ellison, Jerome Felton, Zach Line, Kyle Rudolph and Chase Ford all seem to have a shot at making the roster puts pressure on the fringe receivers and not a lot of promise that they’ll field a well-populated receiver corps.
And it is entirely possible for Norv Turner to field five TE/FBs. In Cleveland, the Browns had five tight ends and fullbacks, and the same is true in San Diego—though sometimes a “true” fullback like Mike Tolbert would be listed as a halfback.
Given that the Vikings would likely feel more comfortable with three running backs instead of two as a result of Jerick McKinnon’s rawness, it’s relatively safe to say that the number of receivers will likely stay around five unless they skimp on a defense that badly needs depth or an offensive line looks paper-thin. It is possible, however, that Minnesota fields six like they did last year simply so they have more options in case one of their younger players doesn’t develop as much as they’d hope.
The primary candidates for the fifth receiver position are free agent Lestar Jean, incumbent Rodney Smith, practice squad signee Adam Thielen, former practice squad player Kamar Jorden, and the UDFAs: Erik Lora, Kain Colter and Donte Foster.
Like any menu of backup players, it doesn’t inspire envy. Nevertheless, there are some potential gems on the roster worth exploring.
Jean comes to Minnesota by way of Houston, and amassed only ten career receptions there. He has an ideal frame at 6’3” and 215 pounds, but is by no means a prototypical prospect. Despite a good vertical leap (37.5”), he had a bad 40-yard dash (4.61), a worrisome short shuttle (4.43) and a terrible three-cone (7.45). In addition, his broad jump (9’5”) undercuts his explosive ability.
His short time on the field has borne this out, with slow acceleration out of cuts and a surprisingly poor release off the line. His bad blocking doesn’t help. Jean’s poor production isn’t just a relic of opportunity, either. For some time, Houston has had issues at receiver that have disallowed Jean from getting on the field, but his 0.54 receiving yards per route run (per Pro Football Focus) would have ranked dead last out of all 94 receivers who grabbed 40 or more targets.
Rodney Smith is in much the same mold as Jean. At 6’5” and 225 pounds, he’s even more of an NFL standout frame, and has better measureable ability, with acceptable 40-times and a very good short shuttle, along with acceptable scores everywhere else.
Unfortunately, his time at Florida State was unproductive and marked with bad play. Along with limited on-field acceleration and burst out of cuts, Smith was not a very good route-runner, nor reacted well to contact. That is, he wasn’t “soft” so much as didn’t have the ability to power through defenders after the catch, hold on to the ball after being hit or get off of jams at the line of scrimmage. Further, he didn’t block defenders very well on the perimeter.
The differing priorities of the new coaching staff may put his previous incumbent spot on the roster at risk, especially with their emphasis on a quick learning curve (something draft picks Anthony Barr, Teddy Bridgewater and Jerick McKinnon all displayed over their careers or in the postseason process). The fact that Smith played receiver in high school and four years in college while still displaying questionable technical skills doesn’t look good.
On the other hand, Turner has more often than not found ways to prioritize big-body receivers with an ability to box out defensive backs—Michael Irvin comes to mind, but so do Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd. Still, Smith is more “athlete” than “player” and his development with the Vikings may not be enough to give him roster space.
Adam Thielen was a fan favorite last year, and he was also a fast riser in the eyes of the Vikings. Not even offered a contract as an undrafted free agent, Thielen pushed out a signed receiver (Nicholas Edwards) as a tryout player and ended up making the practice squad over other interesting receiver prospects.
Thielen’s development had some huge holes at Minnesota State-Mankato, as he played against a lot of cushion and is relatively raw as a route-runner. Thielen is an excellent special-teamer but was somewhat inconsistent as an offensive player at training camp. The Minnesota native has a tendency to make highlight-type catches, but dropped some easy balls at camp.
For all of his developmental concerns, Thielen does have an ability to get open and proved throughout camp and the preseason that he could learn the positions quickly, and that should appeal to the Zimmer-Turner staff.
Kamar Jorden was difficult to look at throughout Vikings camp because of injury, but early on last year showed an ability to get open deep on several different days—frequently showing up with acrobatic catches downfield in camp situations and missing the roster in part due to that injury—one that likely won’t repeat itself (a broken hand).
His lone year in the Arena League with the Spokane Shock was very good, grabbing 1000 yards in the most efficient offense in the AFL. It is perhaps concerning that despite a high-octane offense, even by AFL standards, he was neither the team’s leading receiver nor a top-ten receiver in the league—further, he couldn’t stick in the CFL. Despite all that, he signed a reserve contract because his previous training camp showing was promising if raw.
Jorden doesn’t have extraordinary measureables (6’1,” 200 pounds, 4.54 40-yard dash, 4.34 short shuttle, 10’2” broad jump, 34” vertical and eight bench reps), but his knack for getting open deep prevails over test numbers and may be his best chance of getting on the roster.
Kain Colter may best be known as the leader of the Northwester football team’s fight to unionize, but he may end up making more of an impact on the practice field than in the court room (or NLRB meeting room as the case may be)—though that’s doubtful.
Despite his experience at receiver while at NU, switching roles between quarterback and receiver with the Wildcats stunted his development—particularly worrisome for a receiver that will likely take slot roles and will need an intuition for space.
Colter did well on the all-star circuit in this regard, and showed soft hands with smart route-running. He will need to add precision to his routes as he will not likely be winning battles with long speed (an abysmal 4.71 40-yard dash at his pro day coupled with a 5’10” frame makes his deep threat ability a major question), but he has the short-area quickness to get around that. The brief time the media had watching rookie minicamp revealed a player that seemed further along in his development than one would expect.
Despite being an undrafted free agent, Erik Lora may actually have the best chance of making the roster. In a deep receiver class like this one, there is always a chance that a receiver that fell out of the draft has a “true talent” closer to a mid-round pick than a seventh-round pick, and Lora may be one of those cases.
Lora is one of the best in the class (the entire receiver class) at getting separation off the line of scrimmage and has a surprising amount of route-running savvy for a player from the FCS. He shows excellent receiving habits, making sure to adjust to the ball in the air and catching away from the body. There is a good chance he would have been drafted had he not suffered through multiple injuries in college, one season-ending.
Minor details like handwork at the line of scrimmage and sinking his hips through the break are what hold him back, though being 5’10” doesn’t help. Reasonably fast (4.48 40-yard dash, with a 1.56 ten-yard split) and fairly quick (4.18 shuttle and 6.72 three-cone), Lora doesn’t have the physical upside of others, but has consistently demonstrated the technique that wins at the next level.
Unlike the other two undrafted receivers, Donte Foster is likely more of a possession receiver than a slot player. Long-armed and with an impressive vertical leap (42”), Foster plays taller than he is (6’1”), and he could be the kind of player quarterbacks love to have as a safety valve underneath plays as the third or fourth progression.
While at Ohio, Foster showed excellent hands and an intuition for positioning against defensive backs. Paired with a decent arsenal of fakes, he was able to get consistently open. His explosiveness is good, but there are serious concerns about his size (he played at 188 while at Ohio, but measured in at 193 in the super regional combine).
He also needs to prove he can reliably get off the line of scrimmage, as he was vulnerable to being jammed and needs to improve his route running both in terms of precision and technique. His versatility may give him a small edge against Lora and Colter, but it may not be enough to overcome their other advantages.
As it stands, it looks like Lora, Smith and Thielen are the most probable candidates for the fifth (or sixth) spot. All three have learned quickly at times (Smith and Thielen proved their adeptness at camp, while Lora did at Eastern Illinois) and have a certain degree of flexibility. That said, the competition is wide open, especially for a staff as committed to competition as this one.