We’re still about six weeks from Week 1 and five weeks before the internet is flooded with predictions for the upcoming season, but you can rest assured that the Vikings are going to be a chic playoff pick. Much of the hype surrounding the Vikings focuses on the maturation of second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the return of Adrian Peterson and a talented defense that returns nine starters. If the Vikings are indeed going to make the playoffs, however, they’ll need Bridgewater’s weapons to step up and make plays down the field. That’s where Charles Johnson enters the equation.
A year ago at this time, Johnson was barely on the Vikings’ radar, let alone that of fantasy owners. He was toiling away on the Browns’ practice squad at the beginning of the season, still less than a year removed from knee surgery. The Vikings weren’t in the market for a receiver until they released Jerome Simpson, who was a week away from returning from a three-game suspension for drunk driving, after they learned he was also cited for marijuana possession. Later that same week, Johnson was a Viking.
The receiver didn’t get a chance to prove himself until Week 11 against the Bears. In that game, Johnson played more than one-third of the team’s snaps for the first time all season and caught six of his seven targets for 87 yards. The next week against the Packers, he had three catches—and 11 targets—for 52 yards and a score. Shortly thereafter, he was the team’s starting X receiver, finishing the season with 31 receptions for 475 yards and two touchdowns despite getting meaningful playing time in just seven games.
Those numbers may not jump off the page, but consider that Johnson was still recovering from knee surgery for the balance of last season and may have played the entire year at less than full strength. It may have been his second season on an NFL roster, but the 12 games he played with the Vikings last season represent the first regular season action of his career. Johnson played on just 19.1% of snaps in those first five games but turned a corner when the Vikings finally gave him an honest shot at doing so.
Coming from tiny Division II Grand Valley State, Johnson didn’t get much of a look in the 2013 draft. He wasn’t invited to the scouting combine, but those who saw him at his pro day came away impressed. The 6'2", 217-pound Johnson ran a 4.38 and 4.39 40-yard dash for the scouts in attendance, impressing Ted Thompson enough for the Packers to select him early in the seventh round. Johnson proved then that he had both the size and speed to be an impact receiver in the NFL, and he put that into practice last year.
Johnson’s speed makes him a major downfield weapon for Bridgewater. He had a total of 58 targets last season, and 13 of those (22.4%) traveled at least 20 yards in the air. For comparison’s sake, Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones, Alshon Jeffery, DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green were all within one percentage point of that same mark. Johnson caught just two of those 13 targets and dropped another, but both catches went for six points. Even with Mike Wallace in town, Johnson is going to be the Vikings’ primary option stretching the field.
Having said that, Wallace’s presence does allow Johnson to work the short and intermediate game more than he did last year. Thanks to his size, he is able to bully corners and safeties on those power routes. That size also makes him a significant threat in the red zone. Deep and end-zone targets are the lifeblood of a receiver’s fantasy value. Johnson figures to get plenty of both from a budding star at quarterback in an improving offense.
Johnson isn’t going to cost you much in your draft or auction. His average draft position as of this writing was 85.1, which places him 34th among receivers and at the beginning of the eighth round of a 12-team draft. That’s a pittance for a guy who has legitimate 1,000-yard, eight-touchdown upside. The other receivers in his neighborhood include Kevin White, Wallace, Nelson Agholor, Roddy White, Michael Floyd and Davante Adams. Each of those players has his respective virtues and upside, but Floyd is the only one I’d take before Johnson. The knee injury is completely behind him, and he comes into this season with the confidence of knowing he’s the Vikings' starting X receiver, while still being driven by the memory of being overlooked as a prospect. Don’t make the same mistake in your draft that the entire league did back in 2013.