WINTER PARK/EAGAN — On the Friday before Laquon Treadwell’s expected debut against the Titans, he was the last person off the practice field. He stood a few yards away from the Jugs machine catching football after football, presumably imagining each as his first NFL catch.
But in Tennessee, Treadwell watched from the sideline with his helmet as Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen combined for 11 catches, 157 yards.
It was probably over then.
On Saturday the Minnesota Vikings searched for a trade partner for Treadwell — as they had been doing for a very long time — and came up empty handed. Finally they were forced to waive him and wave a white flag on their 2016 first-round pick.
Over his three years as a Viking, Treadwell caught 56 passes for 517 yards and one touchdown. Of all the receivers in the NFL to catch at least 50 passes since 2016, he ranked 124th of 126 in yards per reception (per Pro-Football Reference). In 2017, Pro Football Focus ranked Treadwell 97th of 107 by its grading system and in 2018 he rated 106th out of 108 receivers with at least 30 targets.
There will be no arguments about Treadwell as there were over Cordarrelle Patterson, who was one of the best all-time kick returners and a dynamic, under-utilized playmaker with the ball in his hands. There were no flashes of excellence as with Troy Williamson. He had grabs of 56, 46 and 60 yards in his three seasons as a regular. Treadwell’s longest reception was 25 yards.
No one will debate whether he is a bust but the questions that will be asked about Laquon Treadwell are: How did a team that found its star receivers in the fifth round and undrafted miss so badly on a No. 1 pick? Should the finger be pointed at the front office? At Treadwell? At the coaches? At circumstances and bad luck? What went wrong?
Despite a horrific injury that ended his 2014 season, Treadwell dominated the SEC in 2015. He caught 82 passes for 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns. Every 50-50 ball that went up in the air, he caught. Against LSU, he went against future draft pick Tre White and at one point boxed out the NFL-caliber DB for an impressive touchdown grab. He was so physically impressive, he earned the nickname “Megaquon,” a play off Calvin Johnson’s “Megatron” moniker.
NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein quoted a scout from the AFC saying this about Treadwell:
“He’s going to get beat up because he’s slow but I like everything else he does. You would think scouts would learn about overestimating speed and underestimating tape. He’ll go in the first but not sure how high.”
Zierlein compared the ex-Viking receiver to DeAndre Hopkins.
Current Yahoo! Sports football writer Matt Harmon, who created tracking data called “Reception Perception” to study each route receivers run, found that Treadwell’s lack of speed did not impact his ability to make plays in college and said that he was impressive in many areas. Harmon wrote:
“More proof that speed is overrated: Treadwell posted an above average success rate vs. coverage score on all three of the downfield routes—the post, nine and corner. The player with 4.63 speed wins downfield. Being a vertical threat is just as much about deception and the receiver’s work within the first ten yards of a route as it is about running fast. Treadwell routinely wins off the line against press coverage, and doesn’t tip his routes. In fact, he sells the defender on the idea he’s stay shallow before shuttling downfield. He utilizes that same deception with the subtle head fakes to send a corner one way before breaking the opposite direction to earn separation.
Of course there were detractors. Pro Football Focus’s Sam Monson wrote an extensive piece called “Why Laquon Treadwell is not a top WR prospect.” In the piece Monson pointed out Treadwell’s struggles with separation. He wrote:
“His issue though is that he won’t separate regularly, and doesn’t actually take advantage of his ability to win contested catches as much as he should do. Treadwell reminds some of Dez Bryant or Michael Irvin, but to me he looks far more like Kenny Britt. Britt has had success at times in the NFL and was a first-round pick himself, so that’s not necessarily a disaster. He was taken with the 30th selection of the draft, in part because of exactly the same concerns over being able to separate. In my opinion, Treadwell is far closer to that area of the draft than a top-five pick.”
On draft day it became obvious that some teams agreed with Monson. The Cleveland Browns took Corey Coleman with the 15th pick, then Houston grabbed Will Fuller at 21 and Washington picked Josh Doctson with the 22nd selection.
Whether he was first on their board or not, at that moment the Vikings felt they needed a receiver.
In 2015, Diggs had made huge strides and appeared to be part of the future but Mike Wallace was a belly-up signing and nobody knew that Thielen would go from Mr. Mankato (literally) to superstardom in the blink of an eye. The only other reliable receiver on the roster was Jarius Wright. So it seemed that adding a possession receiver — say an Anquon Boldin type — with a dynamic speedster like Diggs would give Teddy Bridgewater the options he needed to take the next step.
“He brings us a big, physical receiver that brings us a large catching radius, we went back and watched his 2014 tape as a group and we felt by far he was the top receiver coming out,” GM Rick Spielman told Vikings.com after the selection.
Turns out the best receiver in the class, Michael Thomas, wasn’t taken until the 47th pick. Everyone missed.
PFF draft analyst Mike Renner told the Purple Daily show that receivers can be particularly difficult to scout because of the nature of college football.
“One of the biggest things we came up with is separation down the field,” Renner said. “A lot of guys will produce in college football just because they are the focal point of their respective offense. They are just getting pumped targets and aren’t necessarily having to beat coverages. So that was a big thing that we tried to isolate was actual times guys had to beat coverage and had to run routes that fooled the defender.”
On that same Friday before his debut, Treadwell’s college coach told SKOR North (then 1500ESPN) that his former pupil was one of the hardest working players he had ever seen but he needed to sharpen the details of his route running.
“When the route is supposed to be nine yards, it has to be nine yards,” coach Grant Heard said.
You might think that would be simple but not so much if you have never been asked to be that detailed. One of Treadwell’s few targets in 2016 came in a Thursday night game against Dallas in which Sam Bradford threw his way on a third down in the red zone. The throw went nine yards, Treadwell went 10 and the Vikings had to kick a field goal.
After a nightmarish rookie season that included just one catch — a 15-yard reception against the Detroit Lions — Treadwell admitted that he had never learned the ins and outs of route running that his peers Diggs and Thielen had mastered.
Instead Treadwell spent endless hours with the Jugs machine and working on his physical shape. At the NFL Combine prior to the 2017 season, head coach Mike Zimmer called him out for spending extra time after training camp running stadium steps.
“Laquon needs to get out of his own way,” Zimmer said. “He’s a guy that works extremely hard, probably doesn’t do things the right way all of the time. We’ll be in training camp and he’ll run the stadium steps at night, which is not helping him for practice the next day.”
But heading into 2017 Treadwell showed progress. He convinced offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur that he was the clear-cut No. 3 receiver and earned playing time early in the season over veteran Jarius Wright. Over the first six weeks of ’17, Treadwell played between 42% and 77% of snaps. When Diggs went down with a hamstring issue, the 2016 first-rounder had his chance to prove that he had made a big jump in his Sophomore year.
On the first drive of his first game as the No. 2 receiver, quarterback Case Keenum launched a ball deep down the sidelines in Treadwell’s direction. Ravens cornerback Brandon Carr out-leaped Treadwell and picked the pass off. For the remainder of the game Baltimore used man-to-man coverage on Treadwell and he finished with three catches for 28 yards.
It was probably over then.
Following the Ravens game, the highest snap count Treadwell saw the rest of the season was 43 percent and in the Vikings’ two playoff games he played 19% and 22%.
A new life
The Vikings entered 2018 with a new quarterback and new offensive coordinator. They both vowed to give Treadwell a fresh start.
Early in training camp, Kirk Cousins and Treadwell connected often.
“You just see the numbers or the lack of production in the first couple of seasons, but I get out here and see a guy that comes to work every day, knows the play, knows the system, has a good sense of the game, has made aggressive tough catches, and has run a variety of routes and really shown up on all of them and schematically he is getting the football a lot,” Cousins said. “He keeps showing up, I am just going to go where my reads are taking me.”
Cousins wasn’t the only one buying an improvement. New OC John DeFilippo used him between 54% and 89% of snaps over the first four weeks of the season and he caught 12 passes — a pace that would have put him near 50 receptions for the year. But the same signs of struggle were still there.
In Week 1 there was a miscommunication with tight end Kyle Rudolph and the Pro Bowler threw up his arms in frustration with Treadwell. In Week 2 he dropped a pass right into the hands of a Packers defender, nearly costing the Vikings the game.
His issues came to a head against New Orleans. On a key fourth down, Cousins targeted Treadwell over the middle. The throw was high but Diggs or Thielen normally bring that ball in. Instead it bounced off the tips of Treadwell’s hands and then the Saints quickly took care of business and scored a game-changing touchdown.
When DeFilippo was fired, Kevin Stefanski quickly got to work moving Treadwell out of the offense. He caught zero passes in Stefanski’s first game and was benched in favor of Chad Beebe in Week 16 against Detroit. Had Beebe been healthy that would have happened again in Week 17 but Treadwell was forced into action. If there was ever a last chance to make an impression, that was it. He caught one pass for seven yards.
It was definitely over when the Vikings named Stefanski their full-time offensive coordinator.
The Vikings didn’t cut Treadwell earlier this offseason because moving on wouldn’t have made any difference with the salary cap, whereas trading him would be beneficial. So they attempted to “showcase” him in the preseason but that effort fell flat with teams that had been watching him for three years.
It would be easy to say that Treadwell going bust didn’t hurt the Vikings because of the emergence of Diggs and Thielen, who are arguably the best receiver tandem in the NFL. But that’s not completely accurate. The Vikings have otherwise struggled to find receiving options. The Vikings suffered through Michael Floyd’s Kombucha Gate only to get 10 catches out of the former Cardinals star. They cut Kendall Wright in camp last year. They eventually signed Aldrick Robinson, who made a handful of grabs. This time around only Bisi Johnson emerged and they kept just four receivers on the initial 53-man roster.
The domino effect is that there is no parachute if something goes wrong. The Vikings do not have anyone fit to step into Diggs or Thielen’s role in case of emergency.
As for Treadwell, he should find a new home. There’s little downside for bottom teams to sign a former first-rounder with hopes that they might find lightning in a bottle.
And the Vikings will take the heat. They desperately drafted for need and ultimately took a player with fatal flaws for NFL receivers.
So the Treadwell story ends with a sprinkle of all the typical NFL bust stories. Bad luck, red flags, unfortunate circumstances, second/third/fourth chances and plenty of hindsight.