When the Minnesota Vikings signed Kirk Cousins and Sheldon Richardson on back-to-back days during the first wave of free agency, something had to give elsewhere on the roster in order to create necessary salary cap room.
Last Thursday, running back Latavius Murray agreed to restructure his contract, dropping his base salary for 2018 from $5.15 million to $3.65 million, which created $1.15 million in cap space. About an hour after announcing Richardson’s signing on Friday, the Vikings cut veteran wide receiver Jarius Wright.
That move freed up $2.64 million in cap space, but came with a cost of $2.12 million in dead money. With a cap number of $4.76 million in 2018, it was inevitable that Wright would be released if a restructure, which the WR already did ahead of last season, could not be agreed upon.
The Vikings’ trusty third-down threat saw his time in Minnesota draw to a close after his role decreased considerably over the past two seasons. In 2017, the receiver played 23 percent of snaps and caught 18 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns; 13 of those 18 catches came on third down.
Wright always made the most of his limited opportunities and because of that, the Vikings are interested in bringing him back. It’s a move, however, that would come with a considerable pay cut. How much interest Wright draws from teams looking to bolster their roster with a veteran slot receiver and how much his role would increase will determine if he accepts a dip in salary based on the opportunity presented for him in Minnesota’s offense.
The No. 3 receiver was a position the Vikings struggled to solidify in 2017. Last August, it appeared the role was going to be assumed by Michael Floyd after he outperformed everyone else in the running, including first-round pick Laquon Treadwell, in training camp.
With Floyd suspended the first four games of 2017, Wright emerged as the de facto No. 3 receiver behind Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, as tight end Kyle Rudolph and running back Jerick McKinnon (now with the 49ers) accounted for a considerable amount of production in the passing game. Dalvin Cook would have been among the receiving leaders had he not torn his ACL in Week 4.
The drop-off in numbers behind Thielen and Diggs was jarring. Along with Wright’s 198 yards (fourth most of all Vikings wide receivers), Treadwell notched 20 catches for 200 yards along with Floyd’s 10 receptions for 78 yards.
If Wright returns, he’ll have a chance to lock down the No. 3 role in more commanding fashion. If he gets a better offer elsewhere this offseason, that job will be up for grabs.
The good news? With Cousins in the fold, the ball should be spread around more. Cousins is one of four quarterbacks to throw to at least five touchdowns to eight different receivers since 2015, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Last season, the top three pass-catching threats in Philadelphia (new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo’s former team) had similar outputs, in tight end Zach Ertz (72 catches, 824 yards, 8 TDs), wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (57 catches, 789 yards, 9 TDs) and wide receiver Nelson Agholor (62 catches, 768 yards, 8 TDs).
Treadwell certainly will get every opportunity to claim the No. 3 role this offseason. Entering his third year in the NFL, the Ole Miss product hopes to shake his rough start, when he struggled to create separation from defenders and saw his deep-speed deficit catch up to him.
“I think the big thing is Laquon needs to get out of his own way,” coach Mike Zimmer said at the combine. “He’s a guy that works extremely hard, probably doesn’t do things the right way all the time. We’ll be in training camp and he’ll run the stadium steps at night, which is not helping for practice the next day. But he thinks he’s trying to get better; he’s trying to get better. He’s just going about it the wrong way. He needs to get out of his own way and let this thing play out.”
Additional candidates for the No. 3 spot are Stacy Coley, who had one kickoff return for 19 yards and two fair catches on punts, and Cayleb Jones, who spent last season on the practice squad. Coley was pushed way down the depth chart last year among the top-heavy group of receivers and versatile pass-catching backs, so little of his ability was on display publicly. Zimmer did praise the soon-to-be second-year receiver for the flexibility he presents in being lined up outside or in the slot. He showed off deep, elusive speed during his college career at Miami and can adjust well on underthrown balls.
Another option? Minnesota can turn to the draft to find something it doesn’t already have on its roster: a true vertical threat. That’s no disrespect to Thielen or Diggs. But finding someone whose main role would be to stretch the field and open up West Coast passing patterns even more could further flesh out the role of that No. 3 spot.
“Finding someone who can run a 4.3, 4.4 (40-yard dash) would open things up even more for Cousins,” ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen said. “Now you’re making deeper inside throws that are 20-plus yards inside because the safety has to get out of there or you’re going to throw the ball over his head. In terms of personnel, it makes it tougher to defend.”
It may turn out Minnesota already has its next No. 3 receiver on the roster as it explores its options through free agency and into draft, but without Wright (and Floyd expected to signed elsewhere as a free agent) filling that role becomes an important priority over the next few months.