One of the most historically compelling position battles in training camp since the beginning of the Mike Zimmer era has been at wide receiver. Every year it seems fans hype up certain players, expecting them to fill this annoying pothole that has existed in some capacity for the last six seasons. Yet, every offseason the fanbase ends up wondering who will emerge at that position as if nothing ever changed.
The old saying goes that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. So I thought it would be interesting to look back at some former WRs who didn’t meet expectations and see what the Minnesota Vikings can learn from their previous mistakes.
2015: Mike Wallace
After a 7-9 season in 2014 where Minnesota finished with the league’s 28th-ranked passing offense, the Vikings felt they needed a player who would be a deep threat in Norv Turner’s Air Coryell system and make Teddy Bridgewater’s life a bit easier.
They went out and acquired Mike Wallace and a seventh-round pick in a trade with the Miami Dolphins in exchange for a fifth-round pick that would end up becoming RB Jay Ajayi. This wasn’t the first time the Vikings had shown interest in Wallace, they wanted to sign him when he was a free agent in 2013. Despite Minnesota offering more money than Miami, Wallace signed a five-year, $60 million deal to play with the Dolphins because he liked the warmer weather.
Unfortunately for the Vikings, once they got him, Wallace didn’t complement Teddy at all. Although Bridgewater is capable of throwing the deep ball well enough to find Wallace downfield, Teddy is not the kind of gun-slinging quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is, and Wallace wasn’t the same receiver he was at the beginning of his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Instead, Teddy is a more risk-averse QB who liked throwing short to intermediate routes and calling audibles at the line of scrimmage. Wallace ended the season with 473 yards on 39 receptions with only two touchdowns to show for it. Even worse, Wallace called out Bridgewater after he signed with the Baltimore Ravens the following year.
“When this process started, I knew I wasn’t going back to Minnesota,” Wallace said. “I was like, ‘I need a good quarterback. I need a quarterback who I know is proven, who can get things done,’ and [Joe] Flacco, he’s always been that guy.”
“[It’s] Laughable. … He’s a disgruntled player that’s bounced around. … I think it’s pretty small (of him). The first thing Mike Wallace needs to do is take a look at himself in the mirror. … Basically, he’s been a one-hit wonder.”
Overall, this was a messy break-up that was bound to happen before Wallace even stepped on the field. He did not want to play with Bridgewater and the Vikings, nor did he have the skills to stand out. Yet, he managed to blame someone else for his lack of productivity. Even if what he said was partially true, he should’ve been a bit more introspective about the whole ordeal. Wallace would eventually do some damage control and later walked back his stance.
2016: Laquon Treadwell
After releasing Wallace, the Vikings were in the market for a WR who could complement fifth-round rookie Stefon Diggs. The overlooked rookie out of Maryland quickly made an impact, catching 52 passes for 720 yards and four TDs.
Naturally, they chose a player from Wallace’s alma mater, Ole Miss, to replace him. We’re talking about Laquon Treadwell, ladies and gentlemen. There’s no possible way this would fail. MegaQuon was bound to make plenty of highlight-reel catches and would immediately put the league on notice.
Wait, wait, I thought this guy was supposed to be good! He was a highly sought-after five-star recruit in high school, played well in the most competitive conference in college football, and he drew a comparison to DeAndre Hopkins before getting drafted in the first round. So where did it all go wrong?
For starters, he ran a 4.65 40-yard dash at his pro day, which is not good. Treadwell also struggled against press coverage in both college and the NFL, which should’ve been a deal-breaker for someone who can’t separate with speed. On top of that, he was never much of a precise route runner, which added to his struggles in the NFL.
He saw a lot of teams play off-man and zone coverage in college, leaving him wide open to catch a pass that he didn’t really have to work too hard for. The final nail in the coffin was that the natural catching ability he had in college didn’t translate to the pros. He only caught 60.7% of the passes thrown his way during his four years in Minnesota.
Murphy’s Law very much applies to Laquon Treadwell’s career with the Vikings.
2019: Dillon Mitchell
The most recent entry on the list, Dillon Mitchell was drafted in the seventh round of the 2019 NFL draft, eight picks before Olabisi Johnson, who was selected to compete for the same role. Despite not having the same pedigree an earlier pick would have, there was a lot of hype surrounding Mitchell.
Many pundits thought that Rick Spielman got good value in Mitchell because he was initially projected to be drafted anywhere from Rounds 4-6, depending on who you asked. Mitchell was productive as a starter, tallying 1,701 yards in his final two years at Oregon. He even got an endorsement from former NBA star Penny Hardaway, who called Mitchell “a steal”. There was even a debate as to which seventh-round WR would be the better player and fans were divided; either you were Team Mitchell or Team Bisi.
Mitchell was viewed as a good athlete who had experience in the slot and could also be considered a deep threat. That turned out to be a bit misleading. One of the criticisms he had coming out of college involved route discipline. While he could run routes well enough to get open, he wasn’t great at selling those routes and he also had some issues with uncontested-focus drops.
Those aren’t necessarily red flags, because a player can practice with a JUGS machine and learn the intricacies of route running if they devote enough time to it. But therein lies the problem; Mitchell had character concerns and didn’t want to put in the work in the weight room. That alone killed any chance he had at making the roster. Mitchell was waived after training camp and signed onto the practice squad before joining the Indianapolis Colts, ending his short stint with the Vikings.
Although Wallace, Treadwell, and Mitchell all had different reasons for why they failed, I think there are a few common takeaways.
First of all, players who are limited in their route trees are significantly less likely to succeed in the NFL than players who are very technical with how they run routes. This is why Bisi Johnson is still on the team despite being less athletic than Mitchell.
Secondly, if a player has problems consistently catching the ball, it doesn’t matter how athletic or technically refined they are. That person will be deemed unreliable and find it harder to establish themselves as anything more than a WR3.
Last but not least, character and work ethic concerns outweigh potential in most cases. The most important factor when drafting a prospect who isn’t pro-ready is how much work that person puts in. If they don’t have the right temperament, they are nothing more than a blank slate.