Percy Harvin can do plenty of things on the field, as long as the Vikings have him on the field.
I checked out their playing time as part of comparing their production. As it turned out, Nelson and Harvin were on the field for almost exactly the same amount of time. Nelson played 609 snaps and Harvin 605. (All numbers in this post exclude penalties, which means they vary slightly from the figures we've used during the season.) The percentages of their team's total snaps were close as well: 58.9 for Nelson and 58.4 for Harvin.
That makes sense for Nelson, who was part of the NFL's deepest receiving corps. But I have a hard time understanding how Harvin -- by far the Vikings' best receiver in 2011 and one of their few playmakers -- was on the sideline for more than 40 percent of a mostly punchless team's snaps.
Across the NFL, 54 receivers played a higher percentage of their team's snaps than Harvin did. That includes teammate Devin Aromashodu, who eventually stepped into the starting lineup after Bernard Berrian's departure and Michael Jenkins' injury. Aromashodu caught 26 passes while playing on 674 snaps, 69 more than Harvin. (Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe led Vikings pass-catchers by playing 76.1 percent of the team's snaps.)
I think we all assumed that Harvin would be the Vikings' No. 1 receiver, and it was immediately surprising when he played about half of the snaps in the Vikings' first two games. At the time, coach Leslie Frazier said: "We have certain packages where we want to feature him, and not necessarily overuse him, but use him to help our football team."
Many of us dropped the issue given Harvin's season-long productivity, but in the end the Vikings finished the season with the NFL's fifth-fewest passing yards while their best receiver was on the sideline for 41.6 percent of their plays. That's hard to defend.
On the other hand, it's possible the Vikings believed Harvin would be more effective with managed snaps. He did, after all, catch a career-high 87 passes while rushing for 345 yards out of the backfield. The Vikings also had him as their primary kickoff returner on 30 of the kickoffs they faced.
Frazier denied during the season that his playing-time plan for Harvin was related to his migraine history, but it's worth noting that Harvin had no reported issues this season. Did the limited contact contribute to that? Assuming Frazier was being truthful, the two events were coincidental.
Regardless, in the big picture Harvin is too young to be on a pitch count. He won't turn 24 until May. It's true that he was managing a rib injury late in the season, but that doesn't account for 431 plays on the sideline. There is every reason to believe that Harvin could and should play at least as much as the No. 1 or No. 2 receivers on other teams.
For context, here are the NFC North receivers who played a higher percentage of snaps than Harvin in 2011:
Consider that Jennings played more snaps in 12 1/2 games before suffering a knee injury than Harvin did in 16. In the end, Harvin had the best year of his career when playing limited snaps. The Vikings must spend part of this offseason deciding if that was the reason, or if they artificially capped his production by overcompensating on his playing time.