The bye week couldn't have come at a better time for the Minnesota Vikings. Not only does the it give them an extra week to prepare for a showdown with the division-leading Chicago Bears, it allows star wide receiver Stefon Diggs an extra week to recover from a rib injury that he suffered in the Week 8 matchup with the New Orleans Saints.
In the Vikings most recent game against Detroit, Diggs was held out of the game. The injury snowball got rolling, as the Lions secondary shifted their focus to stopping counterpart Adam Thielen. Thielen entered the game with eight consecutive 100-yard performances, but was held to just 22 yards on seven targets, a light workload. When Diggs and Thielen are both healthy, they complement each other perfectly and defenses cannot shift their focus on stopping just one of them.
Minnesota's ideal way of alleviating some of the pressure from Thielen in Diggs' absence should have been showcasing third-year wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, but Detroit's defense wasn't as concerned with the former first-round pick.
This begs multiple questions: is Minnesota getting the most out of Treadwell? Is it possible that his ceiling isn't quite as high as they expected pre-draft? Has Treadwell's game progressed, and is he showing enough signs of improvement to warrant a second contract with the team?
In order to answer this string of questions, I watched every one of Treadwell's targets this season. But first, getting back to the source may be the best place to start.
Laquon Treadwell showed up to Ole Miss as a high school All-American, and immediately went on to win Freshman of the Year in the SEC. In his Junior season, Treadwell would post the impressive stat line of 82 receptions, 1,153 yards for a healthy 14.1 yards per reception, and 11 touchdowns. He would enter the NFL Draft garnering first-round and WR1 hype.
As a prospect, Treadwell was known for his ball skills and body control. Along with the ability to high-point passes, he was stronger than any defensive back he saw in college. NFL teams saw him as an above the rim and redzone threat.
Issues with Treadwell as a prospect arose at the NFL Scouting Combine, as he would test poorly across the board. Though he measured in well at 6-foot-2 and 221 pounds, his slow 40-yard dash time of 4.63s, as well as a mediocre vertical jump of 33 inches, made scouts question whether his high-point contested catches were sustainable at the next level.
Early on in his NFL career, it seemed as if those doubters were going to be proven correctly. Battling some injuries and a logjam of wide receivers on the depth chart, Treadwell struggled to find playing time as a rookie. He'd have just three targets, one reception and 15 yards for the season.
While Treadwell was struggling, other Vikings wide receivers around him were ascending. Flashes of dominance between Thielen and Diggs in 2016 turned into more consistent production last season. The duo made a legitimate case for the best wide receiver combo in the entire league.
Meanwhile, Laquon Treadwell started improving on a slow burn. First and foremost, he was able to play in all 16 games. On 35 targets, he hauled in 20 receptions for 200 yards. Still, though, Treadwell wouldn't get in the end zone.
Upon entering this season, it almost felt like a "make or break" year for Treadwell. Still only 23 years old, it was imperative for him to show signs of development and progression. The Vikings needed elevated play out of Treadwell to produce in the passing game, to take some heat away from their elite duo.
I don't say this lightly and this isn't set in stone, but Treadwell has mostly been up to the task this season.
His targets per game have more than doubled from last season, and he has also given the Vikings career highs in receptions (27), yards (253), and touchdowns (1) through nine games played. On top of those statistics, he is showing up on film on a much more consistent basis.
Now, not all of it has been pretty. Treadwell has struggled with drops at times this season; never more so than in Minnesota's Week 2 game against Green Bay. Treadwell had a drop on a third down in the third quarter, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Minnesota got the ball back with 2:13 left facing a five point deficit. On the first play of the drive, the ball bounced off of Treadwell's hands and into the arms of a waiting Packers defensive back. Luckily for Treadwell, the Vikings defense would hold and they would tie the game on the ensuing offensive possession.
Unluckily for Treadwell, he would suffer yet another drop on a third down in overtime, forcing a deep go-ahead field goal attempt. The Vikings would miss the kick, as well as another one later on in overtime en route to a tie.
Here are all of the drops:
Another startling moment came two weeks later when Minnesota traveled to play the Los Angeles Rams on Thursday Night Football. The game turned into a shootout, but Treadwell would have yet another drop.
Treadwell has improved his level of play since going through this rough stretch, and is beginning to show signs of consistency in his game. While he hasn't dropped a pass since the Los Angeles game, the most encouraging part of the stretch is that he has caught 15 of 18 targets thrown his way since.
Even in the game against the Rams, Treadwell showed signs of bouncing back. With Minnesota down 38-31 at the two-minute warning, they faced a 2nd and 18 deep in their own territory. It wasn't Thielen or Diggs that quarterback Kirk Cousins threw to; it was Treadwell for a gain of nine. The best part? Cousins went back to him on 3rd down to move the chains.
Those two plays below:
Since then, Treadwell has found his groove. Treadwell is beginning to fit in as a legitimate third option for Minnesota, taking advantage of how defenses are playing the Vikings offense.
One play against Arizona stood out. As Treadwell and Thielen aligned next to each other, Thielen ran a corner route and Treadwell ran a whip route. Both defensive backs to that side sunk to Thielen's corner route, freeing up Treadwell underneath. For a 220-pounder who ran a "slow" 40 time, he looked pretty smooth getting upfield for extra yardage after the catch.
The yards after the catch aspect to his game wasn't necessarily forecasted as he came out of Ole Miss. However, with the role that he currently fills, he's given more opportunities to make plays with the ball in his hands. While not the shiftiest or the fastest, he transitions into a runner quickly and is tough for defensive backs to bring down. He constantly picks up yards through contact.
On a particular 3rd and 8 play against Philadelphia, Treadwell caught the ball while off-balance on another whip route, just about four yards short of the first down. He dropped his pads, got vertical and ran through contact to move the sticks by a few inches.
On top of that, Treadwell is showing positive signs when operating against all coverages. He is seeing voids in zone coverages well, finding holes over the middle and continuing to work as Cousins extends plays. This is typically the role of quicker slot receivers, but Treadwell is more than adept at it too.
The main part of Treadwell's improved play, however, is his work against man coverages. While he isn't the vertical threat that many thought he could be just yet, he's found his niche. Treadwell has been eating on slant routes, beating defensive backs inside off the line of scrimmage.
On the next three plays, the cornerbacks he faces are Jaire Alexander, Patrick Peterson, and Marshon Lattimore, Treadwell wins all three reps:
Back in the Green Bay game, despite the drops, Treadwell showed early signs of success against man coverage. In the redzone, he was able to win inside on his release against press coverage. As he was fighting pressure with pressure and stacking the defensive back, the safety flew over top as it looked like Treadwell was headed for an out-breaking route. This left a void in the middle of the field that Treadwell exposed for a touchdown:
The body control that Treadwell showed throughout his college film is finally being put to use in the NFL as well. Against the Saints, Treadwell ran a curl route into a massive window. Despite the throw from Kirk Cousins being off target to the side, Treadwell easily adjusted to it and brought it in while going to the ground:
Treadwell's high-point ability has yet to really be a factor in his NFL career. However, with the flashes of body control, I believe it can still be put to use. Already with the ability to defeat press coverage to the inside on tape this season, Treadwell flashed some extra release moves against New Orleans. Down near the goal line, he made the cornerback bite inside and created an easy path to the back pylon. While the throw didn't go his way, this was a scenario in which Treadwell could be winning above the rim:
At the end of this season, Minnesota will face the decision on whether or not to pick up Treadwell's 5th-year option and keep him rostered for the 2020 season at a higher price tag. Adam Thielen is wildly underpaid at the moment, so Minnesota will likely commit money his way on top of Diggs' big contract.
Treadwell will likely need to continue developing his game in order to warrant Minnesota picking up his option.
As a player, Treadwell may never be the downfield catch-point receiver that many thought he could be. Realistically, his ability to stretch the field is actually the missing trait keeping him from being an all-around player. With Diggs and Thielen in the fold, I don't think Treadwell's role is likely to change anytime soon.
Additionally, while he has been much more consistent with his hands as of late, he will need to continue hauling passes in to clear the drop concerns. If Treadwell can expand his role, whether when Diggs is missing time or simply as the Vikings third-option, he will have the opportunities to develop into that all-around guy. Until then however, Treadwell may never live up to the first-round standard, even if he's progressed into a more than solid player.