When the Vikings announced last week that Laquon Treadwell would be active for the Monday night tilt against the Giants, optimism washed over fans of the former Ole Miss wideout. Treadwell, who was a healthy scratch the week before and had only logged two offensive snaps through the first three weeks of his NFL career, was perhaps poised for a prime-time breakout.
Instead, Treadwell was on the field with the offense for all of two plays. Through one month of football, Minnesota has yet to throw the ball in the direction of its 2016 first-round pick.
“[I need to] just be me and continue to compete and get better,” a frustrated but patient Treadwell told 1500 ESPN last month. “That’s all I can do. My role will come whenever they give it to me so I’ve just got to keep getting better.”
So why has an athletic freak who led the SEC in receiving last season been riding the bench? Here are three reasons.
1. Treadwell has to become a better route runner.
“He has to continue to do better in practice,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer told 1500 ESPN two weeks ago when asked why his new receiver wasn’t seeing the field. “He’s working, just biding his time until he gets an opportunity like how [Stefon] Diggs was last year. I still think he’s thinking about the number of steps to take on each route and things like that, being at the right depth.”
That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Treadwell’s inability to separate was the biggest knock against him coming out of college, and while most people focused on his lack of straight-line speed, his unpolished route-running played a role as well. Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus wrote about this before the draft:
Treadwell consistently separates far less than most of the receivers in this class. Watching his tape shows a player that relies more on his physicality than getting open in the first place, which is fine for a receiver in college that is already a team’s go-to guy, but in the NFL may result in the ball simply not being thrown his way nearly as often.
“The biggest thing is, if you’re supposed to be at 14 yards, that quarterback is expecting you to be at 14 yards every time,” Ole Miss wide receivers coach Grant Heard told ESPN during the offseason. “That ball is coming out in the NFL in a hurry. It’s those little things where you can’t be at 12 and you can’t be at 16, you have to be right at 14 and you have to be there when you’re supposed to be there.”
The good news is that route-running is a learned craft; something that should improve through repetition and practice. As long as Treadwell can learn the technical skills, his physical tools should allow him to be explosive out of his breaks. Everyone piled onto his slow 40-yard dash, but Treadwell actually had the fastest 10-yard split of any 2016 receiver prospect tested by ESPN’s Sports Science.
2. Zimmer is going to make Treadwell earn his playing time.
“Zimmer is very old school in his approach,” Christopher Gates of SB Nation’s Daily Norseman told me. “He's not going to give someone snaps just because of their draft status or their contract or anything else. This coaching staff has done a very good job of developing players on both sides of the ball, and a lot of that has to do with them not automatically throwing guys out there before they're ready.”
Sure, any coach in the league will give you a similar spiel about not handing out playing time based on draft slot, but Zimmer, a no-nonsense former linebacker who spent the first three decades of his coaching career as an assistant, has the track record to back it up. Last year’s first-rounder, cornerback Trae Waynes, played just 18 percent of the team’s defensive snaps as a rookie, per Football Outsiders. Now he’s starting. Zimmer fully intended to have 2014 first-rounder Teddy Bridgewater watch from the bench as a rookie, and only put him into the starting lineup after Matt Cassel went down with an injury.
Treadwell can find even more comfort in the story of current No. 1 wideout Stefon Diggs. A fifth-rounder in 2015, Diggs didn’t play a snap during the first three games of last season, then abruptly played 41 snaps and saw 10 targets in Week 4. He ended the season as the team leader in targets, receptions and receiving yards.
“I still feel that Treadwell is going to be a very productive player,” Gates told me, “and that's in large part because I have faith in their coaching staff to develop their players in the proper manner.”
3. The Vikings are 4-0, so Zimmer can afford to sit his first-rounder.
The organization would be feeling a lot more pressure to get immediate returns on Treadwell if the team had stumbled out of the gate. But a firm grasp on the NFC North affords Zimmer the luxury of bringing along his first-rounder at his own pace. And while the Vikings rank 24th in pass yards per game, they also rank sixth in passing DVOA efficiency. In other words, the passing attack isn’t piling up yards, but it’s moving the chains and getting the job done. Until that changes, Zimmer has no need to force Treadwell onto the field.
“The Vikings have a good thing going right now, and Zimmer probably doesn't see a whole lot of reason to disrupt it just to get Treadwell some snaps,” Gates said. “Zimmer will play Treadwell as soon as he and Turner decide that Treadwell is ready.
Full Q&A with Christopher Gates of Daily Norseman
Jeff: Why do you think Laquon Treadwell hasn’t seen much of the field this season?
Chris: I think that his route running has a lot to do with it. For a guy like Treadwell that isn't necessarily going to kill guys with his speed, his route running has to be precise, and it doesn't appear that Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner think he's where he needs to be yet.
On the bright side, at least for Treadwell and fans of Treadwell, is that Zimmer hasn't thrown players into the fire when he feels they're not ready. Trae Waynes, the cornerback that the Vikings picked with the No. 11 pick in the 2015 draft, hardly saw the field at corner as a rookie (though he did contribute on special teams). This season, Waynes is playing well. The Vikings, at least under Zimmer, won't play guys that they feel aren't ready.
Jeff: Do you see Treadwell eventually carving out a role this season? If so, when and how expansive?
Chris: It's going to be hard for him. With Stefon Diggs established as the Vikings' No. 1 receiver, Adam Thielen carving out a role, and Cordarrelle Patterson apparently out of Zimmer's doghouse, the Vikings appear to have their top three wide receivers set. Patterson's contract is up after this season, as the team did not pick up his fifth-year option, but he's a completely different type of receiver from Treadwell. Mostly, though, it probably depends on Treadwell. If the coaching staff sees what they want to see from him on the practice field, then he'll get his opportunity. If he doesn't, then he won't. But he'll have his work cut out for him.
Jeff: How much do think Zimmer’s personality and coaching philosophy play a role in Treadwell's lack of playing time?
Chris: Zimmer is very old school in his approach. He's not going to give someone snaps just because of their draft status or their contract or anything else. This coaching staff has done a very good job of developing players on both sides of the ball, and a lot of that has to do with them not automatically throwing guys out there before they're ready. That probably has a lot to do with why Zimmer was passed over for head coaching jobs so many times before finally getting his opportunity. In this age of coaches that like to coddle players, Zimmer has absolutely not done that in his first 2-plus years in Minnesota. It's also a big part of why his players would pretty much run through a brick wall for him if he asked them to.
Jeff: Do you think the 4-0 start has lessened the public pressure on the Vikings to get immediate returns from their first-rounder?
Chris: There might be more pressure on Zimmer to play Treadwell if the Vikings weren't doing well. There's a portion of the fanbase that thinks that Treadwell should be playing now, but it's a pretty small group as it stands right now. Regardless, I don't think it would make a whole lot of difference to Zimmer one way or the other. The Vikings have a good thing going right now, and Zimmer probably doesn't see a whole lot of reason to disrupt it just to get Treadwell some snaps. I know I've said it a few times already but, again, Zimmer will play Treadwell as soon as he and Turner decide that Treadwell is ready.
Jeff: Are you or other Vikings fans at all beginning to worry that Treadwell won’t pan out?
Chris: It is way, way too early to be calling Treadwell a bust. I understand that in this era of HAWT TAEKS that people want results yesterday and are ready to immediately dismiss anything that doesn't give them those results, but to do that in this case is pretty ridiculous. The Vikings have their way of developing players, and it's working for them. I touched on Waynes earlier, but there are plenty of other examples. The plan for Teddy Bridgewater his rookie season was for him to sit and watch Matt Cassel all season. Then Cassel got hurt in Week 3 and the coaches put Bridgewater out there. I still feel that Treadwell is going to be a very productive player, and that's in large part because I have faith in their coaching staff to develop their players in the proper manner.