One of the focuses of Minnesota Vikings fans this offseason - and rightly so - has been what general manager Rick Spielman would do to improve a sorry wide receiving unit. It's expected the Vikings will pick one of these guys in April's college draft, and the team recently signed ex-Packer Greg Jennings (but also waved bye-bye to Percy Harvin) during free agency.
Another way production can be increased is by improvement coming from one or more of the WRs already on the Vikings roster.
This brings me to second-year WR Jarius Wright. Looking at the other players the Vikings have under contract for the 2013 season - Jerome Simpson, Stephen Burton, Chris Summers and Greg Childs - I hold out the most hope that Wright can make a substantial leap next season that could help improve production from the Vikings WR position.
Wright's stats were pretty modest in 2012 with just 22 catches, 310 yards and two touchdowns. That was over seven games, however, and when you pro-rate his game averages in catches, yardage and touchdowns over 16 games you get approximately 50 catches, 708 yards and 5 touchdowns. That would be pretty good production from any rookie WR picked in the fourth round.
Can Wright better those pro-rated numbers in 2013? I think he can - although that is just one blogger's opinion. For one, Wright will be getting significant snaps in all 16 games next season and I've written before about how WRs rarely wow the league in their rookie campaigns. There's no reason to expect Wright to be anything but an improved player after a second year in the NFL where he's got a better feel for the Vikings offense, better chemistry with starting quarterback Christian Ponder and another year to work on his route running and understanding how cornerbacks will play him.
He also has a pedigree during his college days at Arkansas of improving each year. During his four seasons as a Razorback, here are his receiving stats:
Freshman: 19 catches; 348 yards; 2 TDs
Sophomore: 41 catches; 681 yards; 5 TDs
Junior: 42 catches; 788 yards; 5 TDs
Senior: 66 catches; 1,117 yards; 12 TDs
It's dangerous to read a whole lot into college statistics. But what Wright's numbers show me is a guy who was consistently productive, and improved that production each year as he got older and gained more experience. By the way, he did this playing at a major college program in the best conference in college football - the SEC.
I am also encouraged by one thing Wright was able to do in the seven games he played in last season. Wright showed he could get open deep despite being only 5'10 or so. In his seven regular season games he caught a 54-yard pass against Detroit and then a 65-yard pass against the Packers in the final game (He also caught a 59-yard TD pass from McLeod Bethel-Thompson in the preseason finale against Houston - yeah it was against 2nd and 3rd stringers. Just sayin.') Harvin is a great player, but he's yet to establish himself as a guy who is a deep threat. His longest catch in 2012 was 45 yards. His longest catch so far in his career is 53 yards. In one season, Wright already has two catches longer than that. Wright may well be a lesser player than Harvin in many areas, yet he might be better than Harvin as a deep threat. That's something the Vikings desperately need.
It's also important to understand the things Wright probably cannot do as he heads into his second season viewed as Harvin's replacement. Wright and Harvin are both slot receivers but they don't have the same kind of game. Wright isn't as thickly built as Harvin and I don't see him being a player you throw screens to at or behind the line of scrimmage, and then let him run with it for first downs. He's not going to be able to run over defenders or break tackles like Harvin can and he won't be able to take that kind of pounding. Wright also isn't a player like Harvin who you can line up in the backfield and expect him to be taken seriously. Wright never carried the ball much at Arkansas (two times in four seasons) and he's not going to carry it much with Minnesota. He's not big or physical enough to do that kind of work. The Vikings did line Wright up in the backfield from time-to-time last season and had him leak out into the flat (see his touchdown catch against the Packers for an example.) I expect the Vikings will continue to do this. Vikings offensive co-ordinator Bill Musgrave likes that kind of shit. I don't expect it to be successful as teams catch on to it though.
However, if Wright proves to be able to consistently get open and make plays on deep throws and if he proves to be a more sophisticated route runner than Harvin is, he could end up being almost as valuable - just in a different way - than Sir Percy. And if Wright can post a 55-60 catch season in 2013, and Jerome Simpson stays healthy and ups his statistics (I don't think he could be any worse than he was last season) and Jennings catches the 60-70 passes he's capable of, the Vikings WR corps will be much better in 2013 than they were in 2012. The Vikings might even turn out to be a better team than they were in 2012 as a result. Wouldn't that be something.