NFC North: Tavon Austin

Devin Hester: I can cover anybody

November, 22, 2013
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Return specialist Devin Hester grinned Friday when approached by reporters to explain the cameo appearance he made at practice this week with the club’s defensive backs.

“If I go line up at quarterback and take a couple of snaps, you are all going to say we are running the option or running the Wildcat,” Hester said. “That’s your job.”

Hester
Hester, a former collegiate and NFL cornerback and nickelback, participated with members of the secondary in individual drills open to the media twice this week (Wednesday and Friday), and even spent roughly 10 minutes after Wednesday’s session working one-on-one with Bears’ defensive backs coach Jon Hoke.

“I did it to have fun,” Hester said. “Being a special-teamer now, I really don’t get as many reps as the normal guys do in practice since I’m a specialist now with the returns. That’s pretty much all I do now. To keep myself busy, I jump in every now and again to play around.

“We all hang out off the field, so whenever I come over there and play around with those guys, it gives them a little more energy and a little more excitement to go out there and work hard. When they see me in their group, it sparks them up a little bit. You have to make practice fun. You just can’t go through the same routine every day. When you joke around and have some fun, it goes by quick.”

While Hester seemed to enjoy the attention, he got serious for a moment when asked if he could cover Tavon Austin, the Rams' speedy rookie wide receiver, if the situation called for it.

“I can cover anybody,” Hester said before cracking a smile. “Just put a safety over the top, and I can shut anybody down. I need a safety over the top; I’m a Cover 2 man.”

Hester is likely an emergency option for the Bears if they suffer more injuries in the secondary Sunday. Cornerback Charles Tillman (triceps) has already been ruled out, while safety Craig Steltz is questionable with a concussion and starting nickelback Isaiah Frey is dealing with a fractured right hand that will require him to wear a cast during the game. The Bears also have reserve cornerbacks Sherrick McManis and Derrick Martin on the depth chart, and could theoretically elevate another defensive back from the practice squad before Sunday since the active roster stands at 52 (the max is 53).
Cordarrelle PattersonDonald Page/Tennessee Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty ImagesThe Vikings hope Cordarrelle Patterson replaces some of the big plays Percy Harvin used to provide.
The first in a periodic series examining the roles of NFC North newcomers:

By all accounts, the Minnesota Vikings traded away a unique talent last month when they shipped Percy Harvin to the Seattle Seahawks. The Vikings were not, however, ready to abandon the offense they built around Harvin's open-field running ability during the first half of last season.

So they devised a two-pronged plan for replacing Harvin in the 2013 draft. Option A was to find a way to select West Virginia all-purpose man Tavon Austin. As the first round began last Thursday, according to general manager Rick Spielman, the Vikings were mulling trade-up possibilities from their positions at No. 23 and No. 25 overall.

The St. Louis Rams crushed Option A by moving to No. 8 overall and drafting Austin at a position the Vikings couldn't reasonably hope to reach. So the Vikings pivoted to Option B, which in their minds was the best alternative -- by a long shot -- for finding a receiver with Harvin's multi-positional skills.

Can Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson, whom the Vikings acquired with the No. 29 overall pick, be a playmaker as a receiver, from the backfield and as a returner? At 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds, Patterson has a body type closer to that of a conventional receiver. (Austin is 5-foot-8 and Harvin is 5-11). But after watching the way Tennessee used him last season, the Vikings are confident Patterson has a similarly unique skill set.

"We felt that besides Austin, he was the most explosive playmaker with the ball in his hand in the draft," Spielman said. He also said Patterson is "magic" as a returner and added: "We feel this guy can do just as much as Percy can as a returner."

Unless you watched Tennessee last season, you probably wouldn't have guessed that Patterson put up 308 rushing yards last season, some on the type of bubble screen passes/pitches the Vikings used last season with Harvin. The first chart shows that Austin was more successful in all areas, but the Vikings considered Patterson's production remarkable considering he did not arrive on campus after transferring from Hutchinson Community College until just before the start of summer practice.

"My strength is when the ball is in my hands," Patterson said. "Whether it be on a kick return, on an end around. I feel like when the ball is in my hands, I’m a special player. I’m still working on my route running, learning coverages and stuff."

Spielman said the Vikings have already discussed "having a specific game plan of how we'll be able to develop" Patterson. The obvious answer is to use him in a relatively simple schematic package that capitalizes on his open-field running ability, much as they did with Harvin. As you might recall, Harvin gained more than three-quarters of his receiving yards after the catch last season (528 of 677), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

That approach makes sense for a number of reasons, including the revelation that Patterson was a raw and only occasionally effective downfield receiver during his one season with the Volunteers. Tennessee quarterbacks completed only 51.7 percent of their passes targeting Patterson last season, including only nine of 31 attempts on passes that traveled 15 or more yards past the line of scrimmage. The chart provides further details and comparisons to the rest of his teammates.

Let's be clear. Patterson has the size and speed, having run his 40-yard dash at the scouting combine in 4.42 seconds, to be a good downfield receiver. (He also had a vertical jump of 37 inches). But if he struggled in that area on a relative basis at the college level, it stands to reason that he won't elevate immediately against NFL defenses.

Consider this report from our friends at Scouts Inc. Insider, which is not that much different than Patterson's own assessment: "[E]xtremely raw as a receiver in terms of route-running and reading coverages on the fly. There are questions about how much of an offense he can absorb right away, and his hands have been inconsistent on tape. He can immediately make an impact as a return man, and if the Vikings can find creative ways to get him touches, Patterson can still make a difference as he develops as a receiver."

So if we had to guess at the Vikings' plan for Patterson, it would start as a kickoff returner and include the kind of passes, pitches, and tosses near the line of scrimmage that Harvin excelled at turning into big gainers. By the end of the season, perhaps Patterson would have developed beyond that. But this is a player whose expectations should be viewed on a long-term horizon.

For now, as the Vikings did with Harvin, the best thing to do is to put the ball in Patterson's hands and let him do his thing.

2013 #bloggermock: NFC North

April, 23, 2013
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Our 2013 #bloggermock took an early twist and left me only partially satisfied as the protector of NFC North interests. Of note: Not a single quarterback was drafted in the first round, something that hasn't happened in the real draft since 1996. We also passed up the running back position in the first round, which that hasn't happened since the common draft began in 1967.

Below are the players I would up picking for the NFC North and my reasoning in each instance.

Johnson
5. Detroit Lions
My pick: Oklahoma left tackle Lane Johnson
Final decision: Between Johnson, Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner and BYU defensive end Ezekiel Ansah
Process and reasoning: The Lions' true intentions are tough to read at left tackle. When they drafted Riley Reiff at No. 23 overall last year, we all assumed he was the heir apparent at the position. Since the retirement of incumbent Jeff Backus, however, the Lions have emphasized Reiff's versatility and suggested he could play right guard or right tackle. To me, versatility is irrelevant if you have a true long-term answer at left tackle.

It's possible the Lions are deliberately clouding Reiff's future to hide their draft intentions. In the end, I thought the No. 5 pick was a great place to find a blue-chip left tackle and further strengthen the Lions' line by allowing Reiff to start at right guard or right tackle.

Johnson might be the third-best left tackle in the draft, but draft analysts have suggested that's a matter of experience more than aptitude. I had a brief pre-draft trade discussion with AFC East blogger James Walker, who wanted to use the Miami Dolphins' No. 12 overall pick to move up and draft a left tackle. But there was no way Johnson would be available at No. 12, so I needed much more than what Walker was offering (a second-round pick) to pass up getting him.

I know I've pushed the Lions to draft a cornerback like Milliner for years, but finding a left tackle can be even more difficult. I was tempted by Ansah, but decided to gamble that some decent defensive ends would make it to the top of the second round. In this mock, three of Mel Kiper's top five defensive ends would be available after the first: UCLA's Datone Jones, Auburn's Corey Lemonier and Florida State's Tank Carradine.

Ogletree
20. Chicago Bears
My pick: Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree
Final decision: There wasn't much debate.
Process and reasoning: I did not expect Ogletree to be available at No. 20 and knew it would be difficult for the Bears to move up. But once he made it past the New Orleans Saints at No. 15, I thought I had a chance. The New York Giants have been speculated as a possible landing spot, but the Giants haven't selected a linebacker in the first round since 1984 (Carl Banks).

I'm still not sure Ogletree will be available at No. 20 in the real draft Thursday night, but in this case -- with Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert already off the board -- I couldn't justify passing him up as a long-term replacement for Brian Urlacher.

Williams
Hayden
23 and 25. Minnesota Vikings
My picks: North Carolina defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden
Final decision: Between Williams, Hayden, Cal receiver Keenan Allen, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o
Process and reasoning: I really do think that Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has genuine interest in Te'o and wants to draft him. In looking back on this mock, I just got too greedy and sneaky for my own good.

I had enough ammunition to move up, but for whom? Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson went way too high (No. 8 to the Buffalo Bills), and West Virginia's Tavon Austin was gone at No. 13. Is Austin worth even an extra second-round pick to the Vikings? I couldn't do it.

Ogletree plays a position of need, but I felt sketchy about giving up extra draft choices for a player with multiple off-field flags in the past year.

So my plan was to grab two really good non-middle linebackers and then cross my fingers that someone, perhaps even Te'o, would be available in the second round, where Spielman could work some trade magic and grab one. It almost worked. Te'o made it to No. 32, where the Baltimore Ravens drafted him just after learning that Rolando McClain had been arrested once again.

Media analysis is split on whether Te'o is significantly better than the next tier of middle linebackers, and most people think the Vikings are most interested in him. So if the Vikings passed, I thought there was a chance he would tumble. In the end, that's why I passed him over even though I'm not sure Spielman will.

As for receiver, I had my eyes on Tennessee's Justin Hunter, but he went one slot ahead at No. 22. So I went with Williams, who could be a long-term replacement for Kevin Williams, and Hayden. I had a small chance to trade down, but the best offer I got to move from No. 25 to the top of the second round at No. 35 was an additional fifth-round pick. Not good enough. The cornerback class drops off after the first round, and Washington's Desmond Trufant was already off the board. In this scenario, the Vikings would be in position to maneuver in the second round for a receiver. Among those who are left is Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins.

Jenkins
26. Green Bay Packers
My pick: Georgia defensive tackle John Jenkins
Final decision: Between Jenkins, Syracuse offensive lineman Justin Pugh, Florida State offensive tackle Menelik Watson
Process and reasoning: The honest truth of the matter is that I was just guessing here. Congratulations to the Packers. No one ever knows for sure who a team is going to draft, but this year, no one really has anything more than a guess on the Packers. They appear to be interested in improving their defensive line, at least based on their limited activity in free agency, and Jenkins seemed the best of what was still remaining on the board. I don't mind saying he was even more of a guess than usual.
video
We've heard plenty of mixed reviews on Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.

ESPN analyst Todd McShay is concerned that Patterson "disappeared" for large portions of games. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Bob McGinn reported Patterson wasn't impressive in team interviews. This Sport Science video shows the other side of the argument and illustrates why he could be the second receiver off the board after West Virginia's Tavon Austin.

Patterson's reaction time and acceleration puts him on par with the Dallas Cowboys' Dez Bryant in terms of physical tools, the video concludes. Have a look.
The Detroit Lions hosted the top receiver prospect in the 2013 draft, West Virginia's receiver Tavon Austin, on a visit Wednesday. But barring some draft-day maneuvering -- a trade down by the Lions or a move up from another NFC North team -- it seems unlikely that Austin will wind up in this division.

Which begs the question: How does the rest of the receiver class stack up for our teams?

That was one of the topics ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay discussed during a conference call last week. McShay ran through six other names, most of whom should be available when the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers choose between No. 20 and No. 26 overall.

[+] EnlargeCordarrelle Patterson
Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty ImagesTennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson is expected to be selected in the top 20 next week according to ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay.
I consider this position to have division-wide relevance, given the Lions' clear desire to add an outside receiver opposite Calvin Johnson, the Vikings' depth issues following the trade of Percy Harvin, the Bears' continued push to fortify their passing game, and the Packers' history of relative routine drafting at the position.

The Lions have hosted three of the six names below on visits, in addition to Austin, while the Vikings had at least two in their building this month. The names are listed in order of McShay's evaluation. Note McShay's upside-down thoughts on the pair of Tennessee receivers.

Cordarrelle Patterson
School: Tennessee
McShay: "He scares me coming out of Tennessee, but I see the talent. Everyone I talk to in the league, I think he's gone in the top 20. … Patterson, with the ball in his hands is just freakish, and even though he disappears for 30-40 plays, he'll show up with one or two big plays a game that just kind of blow your mind and leave you wanting more, and I think that's why he's going to be able to go where he's going."

Keenan Allen
School: Cal
McShay: "Keenan Allen is not 100 percent [because of a knee injury]. He ran a 4.7 the other day. It's not a perfect situation. But he's a late-first, early-second round prospect and should play like that. He runs on tape, we estimate him at 4.53, 4.55 range. I think he is going to be a really, really good No. 2 in the league. He would be a good fit. He was catching the ball better than ever this year. He knows how to use his body. He's got size and he's thickly built. He's not a burner, but he's quick and he's athletic and he's got enough speed to challenge you and take advantage of mistakes. Keenan Allen to me would be the highest rated wide receiver when Tavon Austin and Patterson are off the board." [After the conference call, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that Allen's drug test at the NFL scouting combine had been "red-flagged," requiring a re-test.]

Justin Hunter
School: Tennessee
McShay:
"If you're looking for someone to run vertical routes and stretch the field … a poor man's Randy Moss, that's what Justin Hunter is. … He's a silky-smooth route runner, and he's the guy quite honestly when they needed a throw, when they needed to pick up a first down, when they needed a play at Tennessee, that's where they went. It wasn't to the other guy, Patterson. He's the one who showed up consistently on tape. I think he's a better football player than Cordarelle Patterson."

[+] EnlargeRobert Woods
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesUSC receiver Robert Woods had 11 touchdown catches last season.
DeAndre Hopkins
School: Clemson
McShay: "After that group, you start getting into Robert Woods, DeAndre Hopkins, and Quinton Patton. They're all kind of in that same range -- 6-1, 200, 210, 212 pounds -- and they're all in mid-4.5's in terms of speed. Hopkins has the best hands of the three."

Robert Woods
School: USC
McShay: "I think you have to look at the whole picture and what has gone on throughout his career and the ups and downs. It might amount to nothing … The thing so often that's difficult to predict is, in addition, what are guys going to do when they have all this free time on their hands. … He could end up in Atlanta with a guy like Roddy White who will be [on him] all day … and he'll be fine. Or he could go to Detroit, where Calvin Johnson is the greatest guy in the world but he's not going to get on you for making mistakes. He's not that kind of leader. If [Woods] is not going to be around guys that are going to make him accountable, maybe he's not the player he would be if he goes to an Atlanta and plays with Roddy White. That's the tricky part. That's why there is some more risk with him, because he's not necessarily the greatest self-starter."

Quinton Patton
School: Louisiana Tech
McShay: "He doesn't like going over the middle, but he's very athletic, he has great hands and ball skills 90 percent of the time, but he'll have some focus drops. He's a wild-card to me. If he plays to his potential, he could be the third- or fourth-best receiver of this group in the NFL."

Note: The Lions hosted Patterson, Hunter and Woods, according to the team's web site. The Vikings, according to 1500ESPN.com's Tom Pelissero, hosted at least Allen and Hopkins.

On The Clock: Adrian Peterson

April, 5, 2013
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Mel Kiper, Chris Mortensen and Trent Dilfer made several important points in this video discussion of Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson:
  • Peterson has said his goal is to run for 2,500 yards in 2013, and we know better than to doubt his ambitions. But as the guys implied, history suggests he won't eclipse 2,000 yards this season. Quite simply, no 2,000-yard rusher has ever repeated the feat. Here is the full list, courtesy pro-football-reference.com.
  • The Vikings need to balance out their offense in a way that would inhibit a 2,000-yard season. Said Dilfer: "I think he can [do it]. I don't think it's best for the Vikings if he has the same type of season." Winning is not about rushing yards, Dilfer argued. It's about scoring points. He added: "You throw the ball into the end zone [to score points]. That's how you win in the National Football League." The Vikings ranked No. 25 in the NFL last season with 18 touchdown passes.
  • Kiper suggests the best possible fit for the Vikings is trading up to draft West Virginia slot man Tavon Austin. With two first-round draft picks at No. 23 and No. 25, they have the ability to do it.

Rick Spielman on drafting a WR

March, 20, 2013
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PHOENIX -- The Minnesota Vikings' rebuild of their receiver position now includes a top-end free agent (Greg Jennings), the return of one incumbent (Jerome Simpson) and high hopes for a 2012 rookie (Jarius Wright). With the veteran market dwindling (best available here on ESPN.com's Free Agent Tracker), it's fair to ask what's next.

Speaking here at the NFL owners meeting, quarterback Christian Ponder said, "I'm sure we'll take a guy or two in the draft." And the most protest we could muster from the notoriously evasive Rick Spielman, the Vikings' general manager, was that the receiver(s) won't necessarily be taken in the first round.

"The one thing I think that the signing of Jennings and getting Simpson back does for us," Spielman said, "is that it does not force us to take a receiver in the first round if we don't feel comfortable with that. According to how we get our board finalized and how it's set, we'll have a specific game plan going into place."

The Vikings have the No. 23 and No. 25 overall picks in the first round, positions that should give them the opportunity to consider all but perhaps one or two receivers in the draft, based on current media analysis. On his most recent Big Board Insider, Mel Kiper rates West Virginia receiver Tavon Austin as his No. 14 prospect and Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson at No. 19 overall. Meanwhile, Scouts Inc. considers Austin as the 17th-best prospect and puts Cal's Keenan Allen at No. 20.

Those rankings figure to change over the next month or so, and I suppose it's possible the Vikings' outlook would look different if they sign several more free agents. But here's what I think we can say with some confidence: It would be an upset if the Vikings don't take at least one receiver in the first two rounds of the draft.

Vikings: WR in free agency and draft?

February, 28, 2013
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This ESPN Insider piece Insider on the Minnesota Vikings' offseason crystallized a plan we've discussed in abstract terms. Former NFL scout Gary Horton figures the Vikings like only two of their returning receivers, and because Percy Harvin and Jarius Wright are both best-suited to play the slot position, there is probably an offseason need for "two quality edge receivers with some speed," Horton writes.

In that scenario, the Vikings could seek one of those receivers in free agency and another in the draft. To that end, Insider reporter Field Yates recommends pending free agent Mike Wallace, and not Greg Jennings, as the free agent the Vikings should target.

Yates: "Wallace possesses rare speed, and though his production tapered off in 2012 compared to his previous two seasons, he remains one of the most dangerous downfield threats in the league. For an offense that is centered around pounding the football with [Adrian] Peterson, adding an explosive edge receiver in Wallace would effectively take the top off of defenses and create further lanes for Peterson to run."

Wallace ran a 4.33 in the 40 during his combine test in 2009 and would be an obvious downfield upgrade over Michael Jenkins, who could be released, and Jerome Simpson, a pending free agent. The question is whether the Vikings will want to get involved in negotiations that probably will use as a benchmark the five-year, $55 million contract that Vincent Jackson received last spring from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

As for the draft, let me pass along Mel Kiper's top five receivers Insider, a list he updated after last week's combine:
  1. West Virginia's Tavon Austin
  2. Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson
  3. Cal's Keenan Allen
  4. Tennessee's Justin Hunter
  5. Louisiana Tech's Quinton Patton.

Austin has elite speed and playmaking ability, but at 5-foot-9 and 174 pounds, he projects at the same position as Harvin and Wright. Patterson (6-foot-3), Allen (6-3), Hunter (6-4) and Patton (6-2) are built more like edge receivers.

Patterson ran a 4.42 in the 40 at the combine, Hunter a 4.44 and Patton a 4.53. Allen did not run.

Advancing the WR conversation

February, 25, 2013
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At least two of our teams will have wide receivers on their priority list this offseason. The Minnesota Vikings need all the help they can get, while the Chicago Bears probably would benefit from a receiver with deep downfield speed.

So what did we learn over the weekend about the draft-eligible receivers? The speedsters got majority of attention but, as in every year, they are not necessarily the best receiver prospects.

Texas' Marquise Goodwin, for example, ran a blazing 4.27 in the 40-yard dash. But receiving drills "exposed some weaknesses," according to Steve Muench of Scouts Inc. Goodwin "isn't a natural route runner," Muench tweeted.

West Virginia's Tavon Austin, on the other hand, was as smooth in receiving drills as he was in the 40 (officially a 4.34), and now has a good chance to be a first-round pick. Other likely first-rounders are Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson and Cal's Keenan Allen, according to ESPN's John Clayton.

I spent most of the scouting combine focusing on time with NFC North coaches and general managers, leaving the reporting on draft-eligible players to ESPN's vast array of specialists. But many of you are looking to at least be pointed in the direction of that coverage, and that's fair.

On receivers, a good place to start is Todd McShay's daily blog . You need an Insider subscription to read all of it, but I can pass along a few tidbits -- including the suggestion that Patterson's teammate at Tennessee -- Justin Hunter -- is "a better overall receiver at this point."

Other receivers who jumped out to McShay were Texas A&M's Ryan Swope, who surprised scouts by running a 4.34 in the 40. USC's Robert Woods is now "solidly in the second-round range," according to McShay, and Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins might be as well.
INDIANAPOLIS -- It's fair to assume the Minnesota Vikings will draft a wide receiver this year. Sunday, we learned at least one important fact about the pool they'll have to choose from: It has some elite speedsters.

Two receivers -- West Virginia's Tavon Austin and Texas' Marquise Goodwin -- unofficially ran the 40-yard dash in under 4.3 seconds Sunday at the NFL scouting combine. Their best unofficial times were 4.25 seconds, which would be combine records for wide receivers if they stand.

The combine record for all players is 4.24 seconds by Tennessee Titans tailback Chris Johnson in 2008. When I have Sunday's official times, I'll update this post. UPDATE: Goodwin's official time was 4.27. Austin was given a 4.34. Still awfully fast on both counts.

Austin and Goodwin each had two attempts at the 40. Austin -- whose skill set has drawn comparisons to that of the Vikings' Percy Harvin -- ran a 4.25 and a 4.31. Goodwin followed his 4.25 with a 4.29.

We all know that combine performances are more important for some positions than others. Speed for receivers is pretty essential. Even though we are all aware of speedy receivers who failed in the NFL, there is no stopping Austin and Goodwin from leaving this combine with a fair amount of buzz.

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