Devin Aromashodu (Bruce Kluckhohn/US Presswire)
The Vikings believe Jerome Simpson will be a legitimate deep threat when he returns from suspension, but the fourth preseason game will be a big test for other receivers looking for an early contributing role.
Down to their final preseason game, the Minnesota Vikings are still searching for a reliable complement to star receiver Percy Harvin.
The Vikings will use their exhibition finale against Houston on Thursday to take a long look at several receivers vying not only for spots on the roster, but positions that could bring with them plenty of responsibility in the passing game.
The opportunities will be there for Stephen Burton, Jarius Wright, Devin Aromashodu and Emmanuel Arcenaux, if only because no one has been able to really stand out in the first three weeks of the preseason. So much for just trying to avoid injuries and shore up the last few spots on the roster.
“It’s a big game,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “We’re trying to determine depth along with who’s going to line up opposite of Percy in that first game ... and whether or not we need to look outside of what we have to try to find someone to give us help.”
Free agent speedster Jerome Simpson has shown some promise and a downfield threat, but he will be suspended for the first three games. Veteran Michael Jenkins is steady, but hasn’t shown much of an ability to make big plays, leaving second-year quarterback Christian Ponder with only Harvin, one of the most versatile receivers in the league, as a dependable game-breaker on the perimeter.
No receiver on the roster has more than three receptions in the preseason, with two tight ends, a running back and a fullback all hauling in more passes.
So even though Ponder and many of the offensive starters will be sitting out, Burton, Wright, Aromashodu and Arcenaux will be trying to make a major impression.
“I would love to see, all of us would, love to see one of those guys make some big plays for us down the field or beat man coverage,” Frazier said. “Houston plays a lot of man coverage so that would be good to see if we can find someone who can show that they can separate and beat one-on-ones and maybe between those four playing, we’ll find that.”
Frazier said the Vikings likely would keep five receivers and Simpson, who won’t be in action until they play at Detroit on Sept. 30. Jenkins’ spot appears to be safe right now, and he took a pay cut to try to help his chances even more. Harvin is a lock, but after that it’s up in the air.
Wright is a fourth-round rookie whose ability as a punt returner helps his cause. Burton’s 88 yards receiving are tops on the team this preseason, but he is likely battling with Arceneaux and Aromashodu for two spots.
“I think we feel confident there,” offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. “We have a good corps of wide receivers so we’re going to be OK until Jerome returns. We’ll be excited for his return but we’re going to do our best in his absence to remain effective through the air.”
But the Vikings struggled mightily to get Harvin some help last season, with Bernard Berrian, Jenkins and Aromashodu all proving to be non-factors as the season progressed. They signed Simpson from Cincinnati in the offseason, then drafted Wright and Greg Childs in the fourth round to try to add more depth. Childs tore the patella tendon in both knees in training camp and will not play this season.
That leaves Ponder, essentially, with Harvin and tight ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson as his primary targets in the passing game. The quarterback has worked hard with his other receivers in August to try to develop a rapport with them while Simpson is out.
“We’re comfortable,” Ponder said. “Jenkins, Stephen Burton, whoever is going to step in, there’s a lot of guys that can step in and take that place. They’ll be fine. We’ve got some playmakers that can get in and fill that spot and we know that Jerome will stay in it for the three weeks that he’s out. But we’ll be happy when he gets back.”