Minnesota Vikings: Can Charles Johnson rebound in 2016?

Dec 10, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Charles Johnson (12) against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Vikings 23-20. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 10, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Charles Johnson (12) against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Vikings 23-20. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

The Minnesota Vikings didn’t get what they were looking for from Charles Johnson in 2015.

Very little was expected of Charles Johnson when the Vikings signed him off the Browns practice squad in 2014, but when he got his chance to play that year, the former Packers seventh round pick proved that he could be a significant contributor. Johnson seemed to form instant chemistry with Teddy Bridgewater, and helped take pressure off the rookie by providing him with a trusted target down the field.

Johnson finished that season with 31 catches for 475 yards and two touchdowns, and bigger things were anticipated in 2015. Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner went so far as to declare Johnson “far and away our best receiver” during the offseason. Was it a mistake to raise expectations so high?

To say Johnson’s 2015 season didn’t go as planned would be a huge understatement. The receiver saw a meager number of targets the first few weeks of the year, then came the week three rib injury that put him out of action. Nobody knew at the time but Johnson would never regain his role as the Vikings’ starting split-end.

Unfortunately for Johnson, a guy named Stefon Diggs came bursting through the door in week four against Denver, hooking up with Teddy Bridgewater for 87 yards on six catches. Diggs would go on to post a big-time rookie season, taking over as the Vikings’ most reliable receiving target, and Johnson would be relegated to bench duties. Johnson was buried so deep on the bench that he wasn’t even active for the Vikings’ playoff game against Seattle.

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But even during such a frustrating season, there was a bright spot for Johnson. Week 8 against the Bears Johnson made a huge leaping 35-yard catch on a not-particularly-well-thrown ball by Teddy Bridgewater to help the Vikings complete a comeback victory. That catch reminded fans of the potential Johnson showed in 2014, and only made you wonder even more why he was unable to build upon his early success.

What did happen to Johnson in 2015? Injury obviously played a big part in his season going south. Once Stefon Diggs burst upon the scene, the idea of Johnson regaining his starting X receiver job went flying out the window. Some called for Johnson to be inserted at the flanker position in place of a largely ineffective Mike Wallace, but with big-name offseason acquisition Wallace making $9 million for the season, no way was he going to sit in favor of the lightly-compensated former practice squad player.

After the season a clearly frustrated Johnson talked about how the experience of 2015 affected him (via St. Paul Pioneer-Press):

"“I’m a humbled individual,” Johnson said of the difference from last year. “I just had to humble myself a little more. It’s not all about me. At the end of the day, we just want to win games, and I know my opportunity will come. Good things happen for those who wait, so I’m not worried about it.”"

Obviously, expectations are much lower for Johnson going into 2016. He is no longer thought of as a major part of the Vikings’ plans at wide receiver, even though Mike Wallace is now plying his trade in Baltimore. But is it possible we’re dismissing Charles Johnson a little too quickly?

Clearly, Johnson is a guy with a lot of fight in him. You don’t rise from practice squad player to starter without possessing some scrappy tendencies. You never want to write off a player like Johnson, who clearly has the desire and work ethic necessary to get himself back where he needs to be. Johnson still has good physical tools and in 2014 he did prove he could produce when given a chance.

That being said, what exact role is there for Johnson in the Vikings’ offense? That question is very hard to answer right now and will remain hard to answer until the Vikings finish filling out their receiver corps. Mike Wallace may be gone, but that doesn’t mean a job will be open at flanker when the season starts.

One line of thinking says the Vikings have to draft a wide receiver with some speed/leaping ability to play at the flanker position opposite Stefon Diggs. In that case the Vikings would likely go with Diggs, the rookie draft pick and Jarius Wright as their top three receivers, leaving Johnson battling Adam Thielen and Cordarrelle Patterson for scraps.

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Prospects are better for Johnson if the Vikings don’t elect to draft a receiver in the first round. With no rookie in the mix, Johnson would have to be penciled in as the Vikings’ starting flanker come training camp. Then Johnson would have a true chance to prove himself all over again.

So Charles Johnson basically finds himself today in the same place he ended the season: limbo. If the Vikes do draft a Josh Doctson or a Laquon Treadwell or a Corey Coleman, then Johnson may find himself starting 2016 with little-to-no role. If he does get a chance to play, don’t count him out.