How Does Laquon Treadwell Fit into the Minnesota Vikings Offense?

With the 23rd pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Minnesota Vikings selected Laquon Treadwell, receiver from Ole Miss. Ranked as the top receiver in the consensus board, and the 11th-best player overall, the Vikings continue their tradition of selecting players that fall according to the consensus and underpaying for players that are highly regarded by insiders and third-party evaluators.

Treadwell is one of the youngest players in the draft, matching the Vikings’ young picks early on for Teddy Bridgewater and Anthony Barr.

That youth is one of the cornerstones of the pick for the Vikings, and general manager Rick Spielman was happy to mention that youth has been a big part of their recent draft strategy.

A player who experienced a precipitous fall because of his poor pro day—one marked not just by a poor 40-yard dash, but beyond subpar metrics in the vertical leap and broad jump—the Vikings seemingly deviated from a tactic they’ve relied on pretty extensively the last few years, which was to take high-level athletes in the early round. To that end, Spielman argued that Treadwell fit the mold of what they do perfectly, and that his 2014 play showcased what they were looking for from that standpoint.

“I know coming out of the ’14 season, probably without the injury, [he] was probably the top rated receiver,” said Spielman. “We felt very strongly that he was one of the top receivers in this draft. I think the 40 time may have knocked him some, but you have to go off what you see on tape, too. And we try to make estimates on speed, on what we see on tape and I felt very strongly that he plays faster than what he ran at his pro day.”

The news that the Vikings create estimates for speed for receivers based off of film is interesting, but not new for NFL teams, who look for players to meet benchmarks they build fairly constantly.

“We felt very strongly that he was one of the top receivers in this draft.”

” I know what I saw in ‘14, and the type of plays he made in ’14,” Spielman reiterated. “I think he’s a tremendous athlete for his size and I think you saw that athleticism coming back as the more confident he got on his leg after that injury, especially toward the second half of the year. I think for 6-2 1/2, 220-pound receiver, he’s a tremendous athlete.”

Those dual mentions of his 2014 tape—over and exceeding the importance of the 2015 film that Treadwell was able to put together—revealed a consistent theme of the Vikings presser, and head coach Mike Zimmer made sure to mention that as well.

“I know there is a lot about his 40 [yard dash] time,” he said. “Some guys play fast on the tape and that is what he does. He was the number one rated receiver coming out of high school. He was the number one receiver in 2014 and then he got hurt. He was a little slow coming out of this year, but I think he is going to help us in a lot of ways.”

With that in mind, there’s a lot of projection at stake with what the Vikings are doing. They’re functionally gambling that the player they’re getting in the first round is the one from over a year ago and before a huge injury. That gamble, in part, is backed up by the improvements Treadwell made over the course of the season and an astounding capstone to the season against Oklahoma State.

“Some guys play fast on the tape and that is what he does. He was the number one rated receiver coming out of high school.”

Their arguments both confirm and rebut my analysis earlier in the year that Treadwell’s 2015 tape was not nearly as good as it had been made out to be by the larger expert community. I don’t think it’s as simple as draft experts “overthinking” the pick; I genuinely think his 2015 work was simply not as impressive as it was made out to be and to some extent, the Vikings agree—which is why the pick carries a degree of risk that you don’t typically see with the consensus #1 receiver.

None of this is to say he was a bad pick—he’s a good player—only that the range of outcomes for a player like him can be fairly wide.

There is also a bit of a catch-22 with all of this: if Treadwell improved over the course of the 2015 season and largely returned to form by the end of it, is it possible his 40 time represents his true speed? If not, what does that say about his overall health and ability to recover?

Former San Diego Chargers team doctor, Dr. David Chao, had this to say on Treadwell:

Fractured fibula and dislocated right ankle in 2014. The injuries are all healed now and he played well in 2015. Treadwell ran a somewhat slow 4.63 in the 40-yard dash which opened up questions on the ankle. It could be because he is a big physical receiver but teams will want to make sure it is not due to sequela of the ankle fracture/dislocation causing the loss of speed where perhaps there is early ankle degenerative changes.

If he was a tremendous athlete in 2014 and has not returned to form, as Chao argues he should have, then there are some lingering concerns.

Still, even if his injury has permanently robbed him of speed, that doesn’t mean he’s capped athletically—he could add speed simply because he’s so young and can physically mature. Last year, I created a hypothetical chart that tracks track athletes against their top speeds, and modified it a bit to fit overall football production curves. This is the result:

Modified - 40 Time by Age

The light blue line is an average athlete. The red line is Laquon Treadwell at his 4.63 speed at 20 years old and the dark blue line is Josh Doctson’s 4.55 at 23 years old. At age 25, Treadwell could be hitting 4.55 while Doctson would be hitting 4.53 or 4.54.

Both are markedly slower than a 21-year-old running a 4.45, but the point remains the same: Treadwell can get faster and much more than older players.

The Vikings have done diligence to manage their risk and if the gamble turns out, they could have landed a Michael Irvin-type receiver with a late first-round pick.

Given what we know now—something that will have to change as fans and analysts take a serious turn to digest 2014 work—we can take a look at Treadwell’s overall impact on the Vikings offense and his receiving ability in general.

Several times throughout the presser, Mike Zimmer mentioned “routes we like to run” when talking about the kind of things Treadwell can add to the offense. Treadwell has in his time at Ole Miss excelled at underneath routes, and his stopping ability is something I’ve highlighted in the past and is difficult to overstate—he tricks cornerbacks out of their shoes when he turns on a hitch.

Treadwell - stopstart

His ability to win on these underneath routes is reminiscent of Jarvis Landry, who is quite possibly the best receiver in the NFL when it comes to those specific routes. The Vikings did ask Wallace and occasionally Diggs to run their fair share of these routes, but the bigger question is if Treadwell can expand his game in a way that translates to the other common routes in the tree.

Charles Johnson and Mike Wallace ran more comebacks, curls, digs and post routes than the average NFL receiver and two of those routes—the curl and the comeback—are exactly what Treadwell won with in college.

Pro Football Focus had the Vikings running those hitches and comebacks on 17.6% of all their routes, more than any other route combination—and to Renner’s point from above: 21.6% of all targets, though Renner’s argument is about is more about those routes being run 15+ yards, as those underneath 10 yards were popular across all teams.

The Vikings loved this route concept and were very good at it, even with a depleted receiver corps.

While Treadwell had quite a bit of trouble when it came to maintaining separation in dig routes, he did well enough with slant and post routes on college that the skills required of him up the seam could translate. Treadwell’s positioning and approach to the ball on these routes will be a critical part of his transition.

Most scouting reports you’ll read on Treadwell will rave about those two qualities of his, and it’s true that he demonstrates an aggressive approach to attacking the ball throughout his 2015 work, and that he’s shown the ability to win positioning by using his body to shield the ball, but those weren’t consistent traits of his last year. To that end, Treadwell cites his recovery from injury.

Treadwell didn’t get the opportunity to showcase any particular deep speed with his team’s route selection.

“Absolutely,” he said when asked about his early-season struggles. “I was more mentally challenged than physically. I was stronger, I was faster, I was quicker but I couldn’t allow myself to play the way I wanted because I didn’t get hit in the spring of the last season so my first contact was in the game.

“Thinking back to the injury and going back and getting hit was in your first game, it was definitely mental and the game is mostly mental. That’s just your edge and that’s the way you’ve got to play with your mind and tell yourself that you can do this and do that. It was just an overall battle for me the whole season and I got better week-after-week and by Week 5 I took that leap and trusted myself and trusted my body to get hit and take those licks.”

In terms of providing a deep threat, Treadwell didn’t get the opportunity to showcase any particular deep speed with his team’s route selection but he did produce in his limited opportunities. With only ten catchable passes thrown his way downfield on routes over 20 yards, he caught six touchdowns and added 326 yards—with no drops.

Treadwell’s drop rate this last year has been less than ideal, and it’s something he addressed in his presser with the media. Pro Football Focus has it at 9.9 percent, and Matt Harmon at the Backyard Banter has it at 9.5 percent—both figures in the bottom third of his class (and for Harmon, the second-worst in his dataset of 22 players).

If it’s true that Treadwell’s recovery impacted his playing style, we may see evidence in tracking when those drops happened, and I think we do. While I marked an 11.1 percent drop rate, I noted that five of the six drops I have recorded came in the first half of the season, resulting in a split of a 16.1 percent drop rate in the first half of the season and a 4 percent drop rate in the games I watched in the second half of the season (with four games watched in either half).

His contested catch rate in the first half of the season (28.5%) against the second half of the season (60%) also speak to this difference.

Expect Treadwell to be used to move the chains and attack the middle of the field, both because his alignment closer to the middle on short downs will be a huge asset in the run game and because his best receiving assets work well there.

Treadwell’s drop rate this last year has been less than ideal.

He will need to clean up his route-running, as he’s not nearly as advanced a route-running prospect as his advocates claim, but he can provide immediate value regardless because of how phenomenal his releases off the line of scrimmage are and how powerful he can be at times when competing for a ball.

All of this gives Norv Turner the versatility to move deep threat Jarius Wright around and all-around route-runner Stefon Diggs in and out of the slot as the situation demands it.

The Vikings will continue to run hitches to attack the down markers and may increase the number of post routes they run—a classic from previous Norv Turner offenses, though much harder in a modern era where defenses run much more Cover-1 and Cover-3 than in the past—all to allow the Vikings to move the ball through the air until they get to the red zone, where tight end Kyle Rudolph and Treadwell should be unique assets.

The Vikings are gambling on a few different moving parts, but there’s an immediate spot for Treadwell on the roster even if some of those gambles don’t pay off. I think the Minnesota front office is being too optimistic about Treadwell gaining his 2014 form—tape I still haven’t broken down—but the pieces are there in his 2015 to find what you want in a first round receiver.

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