Thursday, June 21, 2012

National Friday League: Percy Harvin gives us something to talk about

(City Pages, TBird41, Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, Yahoo!, Sports Illustrated, Bob Sansevere,, PFT)

How essential is Percy Harvin?
I've been half-joking that Percy Harvin is a glorified 3rd down back. Harvin is exactly the sort of x-factor player that can turn games for a good offense. In 2009, Brett Favre was an elite quarterback, Sidney Rice was an incredible down-field threat, Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor were both making plays as running backs, and Visanthe Shiancoe was a useful cog especially in the red zone. That year, Harvin was able to make some pretty spectacular plays as a guy that catches short passes and runs well afterward. When he's a team's third option, he's an incredible game-changing third option.

But Harvin has yet to develop into any sort of deep threat; in fact his yards per reception have been declining. I don't think he's effective as a team's #1 WR. On the 2011 Vikings' very bad offense, Harvin was a very good football player as their top pass catching threat. But that offense was still very bad. He makes plays, but he's not a transformative wide receiver. And if the Vikings are going to be a bad offense, I think they're going to be a bad offense regardless of whether Percy Harvin is there or not. That's not to say that Harvin doesn't make the Viking offense better (he does, though as TBird noted, he only played on 58.5% of snaps last season), but that Harvin as a #1 WR option doesn't make the Viking offense better enough to matter.

Imagine there's no Harvin (it's easy if you try)
Let's just imagine that in some way, Percy Harvin doesn't play a down for the 2012 Vikings. What does the offense look like?

The early games might be a struggle, while Jerome Simpson sits out during a three-game suspension, and perhaps Adrian Peterson struggles or can't play as he recovers from ACL injury. But after that, the likely WRs still on the roster would be Simpson, Devin Aromashadu, Greg Childs, Michael Jenkins, and Jarius Wright. That doesn't look great -- but I'm not sure the Vikes couldn't make something work with that crew that would make the '12 wide receiver corp no worse than the '11 wide receiver corp. That would depend on Simpson and either Childs or Wright really stepping up and emerging, and it would depend on TEs Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson being productive. But the passing offensive approach -- the sorts of plays called and passes thrown--would be drastically different.

Harvin averaged only 11.1 yards per reception. Among players with 80+ catches, only a RB and two TEs ranked lower in yards per catch. Among players with 120+ targets, only one TE ranked lower in yards per catch. But Harvin caught a high percentage of his targets -- among the best in the league, at 73% -- so his productivity and efficiency is better than the yards per reception make it appear. What happens if you spread Harvin's 123 targets around the rest of the roster? It's extremely doubtful those 123 targets would still translate into 87 receptions, but they might still translate into 967 yards. Jerome Simpson caught only 48% of his targets last season: if he got 123 targets and caught only 59 of those passes, he'd have to average about 16.4 yards per catch to get 967 yards (if he matches his career average of 14.1, he'd end up with about 832 yards). He needs to do better than a 48% catch rate. And the Vikings would need to spread those passes to Kyle Rudoph and John Carlson in the short game, and again, really hope either Childs or Wright emerge as an efficient player downfield. The Vikes can't expect any other pass catcher to get a 73% catch rate, so to match or exceed their production without Harvin, they need better yards per reception. That means fewer of those short, high percentage passes, and more downfield completions to make up for the additional incompletions. But they'd need more downfield completions anyway, even with Harvin.

Of course the Vikes don't just want to match '11's passing game production: that would still be lousy. But not only have the Vikes made moves to improve the passing game (Jerome Simpson, John Carlson, Jarius Wright, Greg Childs, and maybe more importantly, Matt Kalil), that too doesn't really matter. If the Viking passing game improves, it will be because Christian Ponder has improved. If the Viking passing game becomes competent, it will be because Christian Ponder has become competent. And while Harvin might help Ponder's effectiveness/production in '12, I don't think Harvin has anything to do with Ponder's improvement or competence: Ponder's own development is somewhat independent here. I don't know whether Ponder is good, bad, or mediocre, but that's the real subject that determines whether the Vikes improve offensively, not a WR that averages 11.1 yards per catch.

But the Vikes might struggle in the run without Harvin, who was incredibly effective as a spot runner last year (52 rushes, 345 yards, 6.6 average -- no other WR is even close to Harvin in rushing, showing again he's more a unique WR/RB hybrid than a pure WR). If Adrian Peterson isn't ready to return (or isn't ready to return effectively), so much depends on the grinder Toby Gerhart. Any flash from the running game would have to come from the occasional end-around -- or creative use of Joe Webb.

I don't think the Vikings would be hurt that badly in the passing game without Harvin -- but I think they'd really be limited in the running game. But I don't think it will really matter...

And what to do about his trade request
If I were the Vikings, I would try to be conciliatory and mend/build a good relationship, but I would let Percy Harvin play out his contract. If he holds out, oh well: I'm not sure what sort of trade value he'd bring anyway when he's asking for a trade. But let him play for the next two seasons, and then see where everybody is at. A lot changes in two years (just look at the '09 and '11 Vikes!). Maybe by that point the Vikings will be a contender. Maybe by that point the Vikings will know they have another potentially elite WR on the roster. Maybe by then Harvin will be happier in Minnesota. Maybe by then there will be a new coach. Who knows?

The Vikings' advantage is that Percy Harvin has two years left on his contract. Just use that advantage, and make him play whether he's happy or not (a lot of unhappy employees still show up for work). There is no way to predict the state of the Vikings or Harvin's happiness in two years, and in football, no real reason to consider any player a guarantee to be on your roster in two years anyway. And if Harvin is still the #1 WR on the Vikings in 2013, I would guess that position is still a weak spot on the team they'll be working to fix anyway.

And let's add this
Man, I am happy we get to worry about this shit! If we didn't know the Vikings had decades more to spend in Minnesota, if indeed we suspected strongly the Vikes were moving after 2012, would you even muster up the interest to bother worrying about Percy Harvin's trade request? But we know the Vikes will be here in 2014 and beyond, so it's worth our time* to talk about a current player's future with the franchise. And if Harvin leaves, it's not like we missed a narrow window: there are decades more to find better wide receivers.

*well, sort of. In the relative sense.

And I suppose we'll add this
Despite one very good season from Sidney Rice, the Vikings have desperately struggled to fill the WR position since they traded Randy Moss in '05. Oh, they've done things to try (just about everything, actually, including drafting WRs in early and late rounds, signing expensive and cheap free agent WRs, and even trading for Moss!), but nobody has been more than a one year fix. After years of Cris Carter and Randy Moss, it's sort of annoying watching a team either struggle with no quality WRs ('05, '06, and '07 were, um, unpleasant*) or have a player emerge for one season (Bernard Berrian was actually productive in '08, Sidney Rice emerged in '09) without establishing themselves as a long-term franchise WR.

*I'll say once again that whatever Brad Childress' flaws as an offensive coach, the assessment that he misused offensive talent in his first couple of years was entirely unjustified. In '07 Bobby freaking Wade was the team's best WR by far!  Bobby Wade!

Moving on...

Is Ladainian Tomlinson the greatest fantasy player of all-time?
If you Ladainian Tomlinson was on your fantasy team in 2006, and you didn't win your league's championship, it might be time to take up fantasy basketball or something. You'd be fairly happy if your fantasy QB threw for 31 touchdowns; that year Tomlinson scored 31 touchdowns.

But it's more than that. In his six-year prime from '02-'07, Tomlinson averaged 2070 yards from scrimmage and 19.8 touchdowns per season. He could almost single-handedly keep a fantasy team contending for a title. A brief note on his fantasy value at The Fifth Down.

Kick Ass Links
Sports fandom and psychology of perception (The New Yorker).

Whatever gets you through the night; if players signing with a former team just to retire makes them happy, be happy, man. But Ladanian Tomlinson finished his career as a Jet (NY Times).

Russell Westbrook was practically the exclusive reason the Thunder were in Game 4; you could tell this just watching it happen.  Bill Simmons assesses  (Grantland).


  1. PV:

    You have an interesting perspective on Harvin's value as a Viking and a WR. You're right, it's Christian Ponder that needs to develop the most for the Vikings offense to start humming and Harvin can't do much about that. But if you thought the Vikings offense was bad last year (and it was), think how bad it would be without Harvin drawing the attention of opposing defenses.

    Harvin might not be a transformative WR, but I believe he can be a transformative football player.

  2. Maybe instead of improving yards per catch to compensate for Harvin's hypothetical absence, the Vikes should develop a plan to get a 100% catch rate on those 123 attempts and settle for a mere 8.0 yards per catch. There's 984 yards right there.

    Mmm, no. That might not go.

    How about a 13-ish percent catch rate but 70 yards per reception? I know just the guy, and he'd be cheap too: Troy Williamson.

  3. That's just the thing: I'm not sure Harvin really demands the sort of coverages that open things up for anybody else. He's certainly a playmaker, and his versatility creates great mismatches, but I'm not sure opposing defenses put much double coverage on him because there can't be much fear of him hurting them over the top (plus he played fewer than 60% of snaps last season anyway--whether that's coaching misuse or not).

    I really like Harvin as a football player, and I certainly hope he plays a long career with the Vikings. But I'm questioning how essential he is, and I'm doubtful an offense can be successful if he's the #1 WR.