Will Minnesota Vikings Receivers Be Relevant in 2014?

With new quarterbacks, new coordinators, and new hope, can Minnesota produce real receiving threats?

It’s a fascinating sociological experiment being a Wisconsinite who lives in Minneapolis. For the months between March and August, there is an unbridled, abounding joy that permeates the air. Perhaps it’s the summer breeze rolling across the Mississippi River carrying the hopes from offseason signings and the NFL Draft that this year the Vikings season won’t be terrible. Then, just as quickly as the season changes and snow falls, the months between September and February brings bitter disappointment.

But this year, that summer breeze feels just a little different - as if that hope is just a little sturdier, a little more real.

The offseason hiring of offensive coordinator Norv Turner, the drafting of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the return from injury by tight end Kyle Rudolph - all of these are positives for a Vikings team that ranked a paltry 24th in the league in passing offense according to numberFire metrics in 2013. An invigorated scheme and upgraded signal-caller should do wonders for these receivers’ stat sheets, but what specifically can Minnesota fans look forward to (and other NFC North rivals fear) for the receiving options on this team in 2014?

Greg Jennings

I expect big things for the former Packers receiver this year, primarily due to the quarterback position’s offseason improvement. In 2013, Greg Jennings was largely inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, due to the poor quarterbacking efforts of one Christian Ponder.

Fortunately for Jennings (and Vikings fans), Ponder is now likely the third option on the depth chart for Minnesota signal-callers, and veteran Matt Cassel will go into 2014 training camp as the presumptive starter. To make very clear the difference between Cassel and Ponder, we turn to our signature numberFire metrics. Here we will look at Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points, a defense-adjusted measure of an offense’s effectiveness only on passing plays. In starts by Matt Cassel, the Vikings’ Adjusted Passing NEP totaled 6.09. While this is by no means great, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of Ponder’s -34.92 Adjusted Passing NEP.

In addition, we’ve already seen what the Cassel-to-Jennings combo can achieve, as Jennings hauled in 58 targets for 491 yards (8.47 yards per target) and four touchdowns with Cassel as the starter. This is in stark contrast to his games with Ponder: 48 targets, 313 yards (6.52 yards per target), no touchdowns. Even in the numberFire metric Reception NEP per Target – how much value he generated on a per-play rate – Jennings was very reliable, with a mark of 0.64.

Add in the fact that Greg Jennings ran the 13th-most routes in the NFL out of the slot position, and both Cassel and rookie Teddy Bridgewater – who may receive a few starts late in the year – are highly accurate timing passers who favor the short, quick pass, and this seems to be a great year in the making for Jennings.

Cordarrelle Patterson

My feelings on Cordarrelle Patterson are complex. It’s very clear that he is a freakish athlete and has sky-high potential to be a versatile and potent player in this league. Yet many concerns about him from his college career still remain in the NFL. Primarily, he is still very inconsistent. In 2013, his Reception NEP per target was a dreadful 0.39, good for just 86th out of 90 receivers with 50 or more targets on the year.

But the real reason I’m interested in Patterson’s progression in 2014 is due to offensive coordinator Norv Turner.

If you haven’t already read our own Jeff Miller’s piece on Norv Turner’s fantasy impact for football offenses, do it. Now. The summary of the article is this: passing attack plus Norv equals explosiveness.

The key thing that Turner’s offenses bring to the table is an aggressive downfield passing attack, a scheme that takes full advantage of Patterson’s size-speed skillset. With Cassel driving the deep ball, 4.42 40-yard dash speed, and a huge frame to help him win at the catch point, Patterson is perfectly suited to be the fly route runner in this offense. Also check out our own Phil Alexander’s article on Greg Jennings for more details on Turner’s aggressive approach and how that should impact the Vikings receiving corps. I agree with him: this will be positive, but even more so for Patterson running deep.

Kyle Rudolph

I’ll pub one more of our articles here; our fearless Editor-In-Chief, JJ Zachariason, wrote this piece last season about the effect a Turner-schemed offense would have on Cleveland’s tight ends. I’ll give you a hint as to what he concludes: it’s really good.

Kyle Rudolph, the man affectionately known as “Banana Hands” (almost 11-inch hand size), is another monstrous receiving option like Cleveland’s Jordan Cameron, and San Diego’s Antonio Gates before him. Norv Turner has a history of using the tight end in creative and dangerous ways, making them a multi-level passing weapon. Cameron enjoyed a major breakout last year under Norv’s tutelage, to the tune of 117 targets for 917 yards and 7 touchdowns.

While Rudolph isn't nearly the speedy, athletic tight end that Cameron is, he should still be a great possession option for check downs. He was a solid target in 2012, his most recent fully healthy season, earning a 0.62 Reception NEP per target mark (16th among tight ends with 50 or more targets), so his floor is at least average. If he progresses at all this year, and if Turner uses him as a seam-buster in the next level, Rudolph should take a major step forward in production and add another element to this offense. Remember, too, a rookie quarterback’s best friend is a massive possession receiver; Bridgewater could find himself becoming good friends with Rudolph as a safety valve very quickly.

Everyone Else

In a couple of quick hits, I’m obviously the most interested next in running back Adrian Peterson's upside with the ball being slung around the yard as much as we expect it to be. A fully healthy AP should find a reinvigorated passing game opening up the box for the run much more, but Turner’s lead running backs also tend to garner at least 50 receptions, a mark Peterson has never surpassed. There are big things in the offing for AP this year.

Jarius Wright is a largely unsung name in the Minnesota receivers stable, but he has led the team in Reception NEP per target each of the last two years. He’s a highly effective player when targeted, and perhaps with a more competent passer at the helm, Wright could find himself a miniature breakout as the fourth receiving option for the Vikings.

Keep an eye on rookie running back Jerick McKinnon too, who the team has said may spell the aging Peterson, and will certainly cameo on third-down opportunities too. He’s a raw player, but had the highest marks in most NFL Combine categories among running backs. A physical freak already, sitting behind one of the best backs in the game should benefit and polish his game immensely.