EAGAN — The Minnesota Vikings brought in a small village to compete for their depth receiver spots.
Instead of devoting significant financial resources to a pricey free agent, they brought back a handful of in-house options, took a flier on an injury-prone free agent and supplemented the position with four rookies in their draft and UDFA classes.
As Week 1 of training camp comes to a close, there seems to be a clear divide between the vets and the rooks. Mike Zimmer went out of his way Sunday to put the “young receivers” on alert.
“If they don’t know what to do, if they don’t know where to lineup, if they’re running the wrong route or moving their feet when the ball is snapped, we’ll keep looking for somebody else,” Zimmer said. “They have not been precise enough in these first couple days, these young receivers. They need to get their rear-end in gear.”
That group likely includes seventh-round picks Dillon Mitchell and Bisi Johnson along with UDFAs Alexander Hollins and Davion Davis. It surely didn’t help their cause that Mitchell, Hollins and Davis all dropped catchable passes the afternoon following Zimmer’s pointed remarks.
Meanwhile, Chad Beebe and Jordan Taylor have taken the clear lead in the race for the team’s third wide receiver spot, and Brandon Zylstra may soon join them after being activated from the physically unable to perform list (hamstring) on Monday. Only fourth-year receiver Laquon Treadwell seems to be falling behind based on practice rotations throughout the week.
“We’re all helping each other trying to get better,” said Zylstra, the former CFL star. “As much as it’s competition for us, we’re all there for each other, helping each other study.”
Zylstra aims to make the 53-man roster for the second straight year, while Beebe is looking to not only make the team but make a sizable impact. He took the bulk of the first-team reps in three-WR sets in the team’s first padded practice and has yet to have an injury hiccup this offseason. If not for a pair of injuries in 2018, Beebe might have had an even bigger role in the offense.
“I would call him a receiver that, when he runs his routes, he never slows down,” said Zimmer. “Most players, when they’re running a route they get to the top of the route, they slow down to make a break, and he doesn’t have to do that. He never changes his stride length. His issue has been his health, quite honestly. He needs to stay healthy and prove that he can stay healthy.”
The missing piece?
Beebe followed the Adam Thielen path of making the team after rookie tryouts, earning a place on the practice squad and eventually getting promoted to the 53-man roster. During spring practices, Beebe received high praise from offensive advisor Gary Kubiak, who said Beebe had one of the best offseasons of any player on the team.
Not even Thielen rose up the ranks as quickly as Beebe, who saw the field in Week 9 of his rookie year and made three catches in a win against Detroit. It took Thielen until his fourth season to find a regular niche in the receiving corps.
But Beebe, of course, has a long way to go to catch the Vikings’ best-rookie-tryout story. He could start the climb by turning into a reliable third-down option.
For the last two seasons Thielen has been the Vikings’ go-to receiver when it comes to moving the chains on third down. As a team, however, the Vikings regressed from third in 2017 to 26th last year in third-down offense — in no small part because they lacked a consistent third receiving threat following the departure of Jarius Wright in free agency.
Analytics website Sharp Football tracks Successful Play Rate for each personnel grouping. When the Vikings lined up with three wide receivers in “11” personnel last season, they had a 42 percent success rate, tied for the fifth-lowest in the NFL. On third down in “11” personnel, specifically, their success rate plummeted to 27 percent, the third-worst in the league.
Compare that to 2017 when their third-down success out of “11” personnel was a gaudy 45 percent, second-best only to the Pittsburgh Steelers (46 percent).
Beebe’s knack for inside-breaking routes — and his ability to break without slowing — makes him a compelling option.
“I think my strengths just revolve around my quick twitch,” Beebe said. “I’m not the biggest guy, I’m not the fastest straight-line guy, but side to side I can move pretty well. The slot is always my home base, but I’m going to do whatever they want me to do.”
The comeback might be that Stefon Diggs and Thielen are already proficient in those type of routes, ranking 11th and 17th, respectively, out of the slot a year ago. The counter argument would then be: If defenses are already doubling Diggs and Thielen on third down, so why not send them deeper in hopes of clearing out the middle of the field?
Beebe fits the third-down slot-receiver role that Wright filled admirably for several years. But then there’s Jordan Taylor, who brings another skillset entirely.
‘All shapes and sizes’
In a receiving group consisting primarily of players between 5-foot-10 and 6-foot-2, Taylor’s 6-foot-5 frame stands out, though he weighs about what you’d expect from a cornerback at 195 pounds.
Kubiak got to know his skillset in 2016-17 when Taylor caught 29 passes and scored two touchdowns for the Denver Broncos before hip surgeries cost him 2018. Like Beebe, health may be the key for Taylor. But that’s where the comparisons end between the Vikings’ two leading candidates for the third receiver position.
Taylor rarely lined up in the slot during his two seasons with Denver. His size betrays surprisingly good speed, however. He clocked a 4.5-second 40-yard dash at the 2015 NFL Combine — better than Beebe’s 4.68. It’s unclear what he’d clock today, though, after recovering from hip ailments.
The Vikings have been impressed so far with Taylor’s catch radius, which may make him a threat along the boundaries or in traffic. Both of his career touchdowns were contested grabs along the end zone sideline.
“What I appreciate about him is he gets out here and he’s assignment sound,” said offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. “As you know, his body is different than some of our other guys. He’s taller, he’s got long arms. You can see in some of the reps he has out here in practice, where physically he has the ability to go make some plays outside the framework of his body.”
‘Assignment sound’ stands in contrast to what Zimmer stated about the young receivers. Remember, the Vikings also reduced Cordarrelle Patterson’s role in 2014-15 because of his lack of attention to detail. Zimmer and Co. clearly value attention to detail and are willing to play receivers that value precision over players with potentially higher upside. That’s where the 27-year-old Taylor could benefit.
Because the Vikings have the luxury of placing Diggs and Thielen inside or outside, they can choose whether they value Taylor’s length or Beebe’s quick-twitch in a certain situation.
It’s conceivable the WR3 label is overblown, considering the Vikings may dress five receivers on gameday and use them situationally. That leaves plenty of room for both Beebe, Taylor and perhaps Zylstra to find a niche in the gameplan.
At this point, it’s hard to see which rookie might join them.