Vikings: Jarius Wright seizing larger role

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- It seems hard to believe now, considering how big of a part of the Minnesota Vikings offense Jarius Wright has become. But as Mike Zimmer recalls it, one of his first interactions with the wide receiver came this spring, when Wright was operating as though his place on the Vikings' roster wasn't a given.

"When I first got here, they were out running routes and he was talking about, 'I'll do anything to make the team,'" Zimmer said. "Now he's become a big part of a lot of things that we're doing, but he's taking advantages of these opportunities and he's worked really hard to do it."

One can sympathize with Wright if he thought the days he's enjoying now would never come. He spent the first half of his rookie season recovering from a sprained ankle and sitting idle on game days, until Percy Harvin's own sprained ankle created an opportunity for Wright to play. And then, after he caught a pair of long touchdown passes in the Vikings' playoff push in 2012, Wright was something of an afterthought for much of 2013, catching only four more passes in 16 games than he did in seven the previous year.

Wright was the Vikings' fourth receiver for much of training camp. But when the team cut the already-suspended Jerome Simpson, Wright seized his opportunity right at the same time the quarterback he'd worked with the most before the season -- Teddy Bridgewater -- was moving from the backup job to the starting spot.

The third-year receiver has already set career highs in catches (32) and yards (478) with three games left, and he's punctuated his first two 100-yard games with big gains off the same play -- a screen from Bridgewater that Wright took 52 yards in the QB's first start and 87 yards for a game-winning touchdown on Sunday.

Wright has run most of his routes on the perimeter. He gained 23 yards on a reverse on Sunday, and bulked up enough in strength coach Evan Marcus' weight program to be an effective run blocker this season. In short, he's growing up to fit a larger role in the Vikings' offense.

"He has grown so much in terms of reading defenses, reading coverages and understanding route structure," receivers coach George Stewart said. "The second area I've seen him grow is physical toughness. He's gotten bigger. He's fast. His willingness to go in and block people, that's been better. It's the toughness and the ability to see things as a football player."

Wright and Bridgewater got many of their snaps in training camp and the preseason together, and in Bridgewater's first start, Wright had the best day of his career, catching eight passes for 132 yards. Against the Jets, Bridgewater found Wright on three screens -- including the game-winner -- and a jump ball that Wright wrested away from Darrin Walls on a free play, setting up Blair Walsh's field goal attempt at the end of regulation.

"They have a natural feel for each other," Stewart said. "It's good seeing those two guys work together. You talk about our future -- opening the new stadium, Jarius will be going into Year 5, Teddy will be going into Year 3. You'd like that to continue to work that way, because now you have some cohesiveness within the group."

The future for Wright has rarely looked as bright as it did on Sunday, when he maintained a tight grip on the football he'd lugged 87 yards for the game-winning touchdown. Far removed from whatever shadow he was in at the start of his career, he's become a key piece of the Vikings' offense.

"He's another kid that's always got a smile on his face," Zimmer said. "(He) always relishes the moment that he has, the opportunity to be here in the NFL, and to be with the Vikings."