Friday, July 03, 2009

How to Perceive Harvin

During the 2005 off-season, just before wide-receiver Randy Moss was due a roster bonus in excess of $7 million, then Vikings' owner Red McCombs cut a deal with the Oakland Raiders to trade Moss for disgruntled linebacker Napoleon Harris and the seventh pick in the 2005 NFL entry draft. The Vikings parlayed Harris' abilities into a largely forgettable stint with the team and the seventh pick in the draft into purported wide-receiver Troy Williamson.

The Vikings insisted that their selection of Williamson was not intended to off-set the loss of Moss, but then Vikings' head coach Mike Tice could not help but effuse over Williamson's speed and prospects as a game-breaking receiver, with the coach infamously quipping that the team fell in love with Williamson's work-out. That gushing seemed to overwhelm the far more muted words of the head coach urging fans to be patient in their expectations of the rookie receiver.

After three seasons, during which, in spite of catching "thousands of passes" in practice and training with Nike's hand-eye coordination people, Williamson produced 79 receptions, three touchdowns, and several hundred dropped passes, the Brad Childress-led Vikings opted to cut their losses, trading Williamson to the Jacksonville Jaguars. The only surprise in the deal was that the Jaguars were willing to concede a draft choice--rather than request one--for removing the burden of Williamson from the Vikings' payroll.

The Williamson fiasco could be viewed as an aberration--the culmination of a poorly run organization attempting to find a diamond in the rough to draft high and pay below the normal level for the seventh overall pick. Clearly, that view holds.

It could also be viewed in more general terms, however, as a cautionary tale on having too high of expectations for a rookie receiver in the NFL draft. That, too, makes sense, and should provide Vikings' fans with at least a semblance of pause as they fantasize over the contribution that first-round draft pick Percy Harvin is likely to make to this year's Vikings' team.

As a junior at the University of Florida, Harvin caught 40 passes for 644 and seven touchdowns--slightly lesser numbers than those posted by Williamson in his second, and final season at the University of South Carolina. That's cautionary tale number one.

While it is true that Harvin adds another dimension to the Vikings in that he, unlike Williamson, demonstrated an ability to produce out of the backfield in college, having amassed 659 yards and 10 touchdowns on 70 rushing attempts during his junior season, there are two issues that likely will curtail Harvin's rushing production with the Vikings--at least in 2009. The first is that the Vikings already have a stellar running back in Adrian Peterson and a very good back-up in Chester Taylor. The second is that Childress is highly unlikely to line up Harvin in the backfield too often, having early and oft noted his concern about the abilities of young backs to block in his system (whatever that system is). That's cautionary tale number two.

While the performance of other receivers in similarly non-prolific offenses should temper expectations about Harvin's immediate impact with the Vikings, the performances of even more high-profile rookie receivers in their first years in the NFL should only enhance that sentiment.

Despite being the most heralded wide-receiver to enter the NFL since Randy Moss, Detroit wide-receiver Calvin Johnson managed just 48 receptions for 756 yards and four touchdowns in his rookie season in the NFL. While acceptable, the numbers certainly are not mind-blowing and suggest that, even the best prospects take some time to adjust to the NFL. To show that Johnson's adjustment, rather than the Lions' coaching staff or player personnel, was the issue in Johnson's first year in the NFL, Johnson proceeded to post 78 receptions, 1,331 yards, and 12 touchdowns for a 2008 Lions' team that had no quarterback, running back or secondary option at wide receiver.

If Johnson's experience in a pass-happy offense is not persuasive, consider the rookie experience of the greatest receiver in NFL history, Jerry Rice. Despite playing in all 16 games for the well-healed San Francisco 49ers in 1985, Rice managed a relatively paltry 49 receptions for 927 yards and three touchdowns. In his sophomore season, Rice caught 86 passes for 1570 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Vikings' fans, as they have become conditioned to do, no doubt will note that Randy Moss caught 69 passes for 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns in his rookie season in 1998. The 17 touchdowns were, of course, a rookie record and came under the tutelage of a pass-happy, offense-first head coach in Dennis Green. Harvin clearly does not enjoy the benefit of a similar coaching perspective. That's cautionary tale number three.

What does all of this suggest for Percy Harvin as a Minnesota Viking in 2009? That depends. . . .

Up Next: The Favre Factor.

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