MINNEAPOLIS -- We're continuing our look at the Minnesota Vikings' free agent needs today, with an analysis of the position that has commanded plenty of attention in early draft projections for the Vikings. They have some young options at wide receiver, but they don't know yet if any of them is a top target for Teddy Bridgewater. Finding a No. 1 wideout is certainly an item that should be on the Vikings' to-do list.
State of the position: The Vikings began last season planning to have Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings and Jerome Simpson as their top three receivers. By the end of the year, only Jennings was still a part of that pecking order. Simpson was released in September, after another run-in with the law, and Patterson's second season was a disappointment that ended with him on the bench. Simpson's release cleared the way for the addition of Charles Johnson, whom offensive coordinator Norv Turner recently called the Vikings' best wideout, and Johnson could turn out to be the split end of the future. Jennings also was productive at the end of the season, and third-year wideout Jarius Wright had his best season. But Patterson's future remains cloudy, and it's not clear yet if the Vikings have a bona-fide playmaker at the position.
Draft vs. free agency: There's enough star power in the draft, and some depth behind it, that the Vikings might be best-served by staying away from the flashy, but expensive, options in free agency. West Virginia's Kevin White shot up the draft board with his impressive combine performance, to the point where he might be the first receiver taken. He'd be the kind of tall, strong option that would fit nicely in Turner's offense, but two former companions of Bridgewater's -- high school teammate Amari Cooper and college teammate DeVante Parker -- could go in the top half of the first round, too. If the Vikings pass on a receiver at No. 11, they could look at players like Auburn's Sammie Coates (with whom they visited at the combine) or Arizona State's Jaelen Strong. Oklahoma's Dorial Green-Beckham has a skill set reminiscent of Calvin Johnson, though off-the-field concerns have reportedly already led several teams to rule him out. If the Vikings want a receiver in the first three rounds, though, they could find as many as a dozen players who deserve to be drafted there.
Cream of the crop: Dallas' Dez Bryant will command the headlines, though the Cowboys could put the franchise tag on him by Monday. Denver is also expected to put the franchise tag on Demaryius Thomas, which would leave Green Bay's Randall Cobb as the top player on the market. Cobb is only 24, but could re-sign with the Packers, and fits best as a slot receiver.
Other options: The depth of this free agent group leaves a number of other impressive options in the free agent market. Philadelphia's Jeremy Maclin is only 26, and is one of the best vertical threats in the game. Baltimore's Torrey Smith is another 26-year-old with deep speed. Michael Crabtree is 27, and an underwhelming season (68 catches, 698 yards) could depress his market. Players like Brandon Marshall, Mike Wallace, Vincent Jackson and Anquan Boldin could be available if their teams decide to part ways with them. And if the New York Jets decide to part ways with him, there's always Percy Harvin -- though we'd lay quite a bit of money against the odds of a pull-your-No.-12-jerseys-out type of reunion. As a whole, there are plenty of teams getting production out of young receivers, which means some of the veterans on the market could be more affordable. But the Vikings might be best off by finding their own receiver in the draft.
Growth from within: The Vikings have sent more than a few not-so-subtle messages to Patterson that he needs to put in the work to get better this offseason. If he can figure out the nuances of playing receiver in the NFL, he might solve a big part of their problem. Johnson figures to get better after more time with Bridgewater, and Wright seems to be turning into an effective slot receiver. Even Adam Thielen showed flashes at the end of the season, getting open against the Dolphins before catching a 44-yard touchdown pass against the Bears in the season finale. Jennings will be 32 in September, and carries an $11 million cap figure into next season. But if the Vikings can get another young wideout, and coax some more improvement from the players on their roster, they could have a nice stockpile of weapons for Bridgewater without a need to break the bank in free agency.