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Making the Leap, No. 20: Vikings' Charles Johnson

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For the third straight year, the Around The NFL crew will document the players we believe will be "Making the Leap" in 2015. This could be a player emerging from no-name status to a quality starter. Or it could mean an excellent player jumping to superstar status. 

The list starts with an under-the-radar wide receiver in Minnesota, Charles Johnson.

Why Johnson is on the list


It starts with Norv Turner, whose patience helped Minnesota land a gem.

It was Turner who watched Johnson rehab from an ACL tear during their one season together with the Browns in 2013. When wideout-needy Cleveland surprisingly attempted to stash the receiver away on their practice squad last summer, Turner and the Vikings snatched Johnson up in late September.

He was barely a factor over the first half of the season, but the 6-foot-2, 225-pounder led the Vikings with 47 targets, 25 receptions and 415 receiving yards over the last seven weeks of the season. With Johnson in the lineup, the Vikings upped their output from 16.4 to 24 points per game.

Prior to trading for Mike Wallace, Turner called Johnson "far and away our best receiver," with general manager Rick Spielman calling the third-year wideout a "pleasant surprise," saying: "We're very excited about his potential, his ability."

Originally a Packers seventh-round pick out of Grand Valley State in 2013, Johnson's injury history kept him from making a single game appearance before Week 1 of last season. Now penciled in as Minnesota's starting X-receiver, the pass-catcher finds himself in the same role that Josh Gordon played under Turner during his 1,646-yard outburst with the Browns in 2013.

Adding eight pounds of muscle this offseason, Johnson stands one inch shorter but a pound heavier than Gordon, with sub-4.40 speed that makes him a tenth of a second faster than the suspended Cleveland star. Johnson's combination of moves, hand strength and burst at the line were on display in toasting former Packers cover man Tramon Williams:

Johnson's ability to separate from defenders, as he does here against Jets corner Darrin Walls, also made life easy for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater:

Obstacles


Johnson, Mike Wallace and Jarius Wright ran with the first-team offense for most of the spring. If he can fend off former first round pick Cordarrelle Patterson, Johnson should see weekly work as a starter.

Still, he won't be treated as a No. 1 target with Wallace in the mix. Set to man Z-receiver duties, Wallace is the premier talent here, but his ability to draw double coverage could wind up helping Johnson see a weekly stream of No. 2 corners. 

We went back and looked at the second most productive wideout -- in terms of catches -- on every Turner-led offense dating to 2002. The No. 2 receiver has averaged 40.5 grabs for 633 yards, compared with 60.2 catches for 941.2 yards by the No. 1. Second wideouts under Turner have caught 50-plus passes only twice over the past 14 seasons.

Johnson has a higher ceiling than many of Norv's second fiddles over the years -- names like Davone Bess, Patrick Crayton, James McKnight and Antonio Bryant -- but he needs to play consistently to remain entrenched in the game plan.

2015 expectations


Johnson remains under the radar, even in Minnesota where he can't find his No. 12 threads in stores, saying, per the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "My dad wanted a jersey, so I went out and bought some old Percy Harvin jerseys and just took off the Harvin and put Johnson on the back."

That should change this season. His dyed hair and nose ring -- which he plans to wear during games -- set him apart, but so do his size and speed. Johnson played in 94.9 percent of the team's snaps over the final six games of the year. Factoring in Wallace -- who failed to lead Miami in catches in either of the past two seasons -- and healthy tight end Kyle Rudolph, I don't have a problem pegging Johnson with 60 catches for 900 yards and six touchdowns, which would make him one of the most productive No. 2 targets in Turner's history as a coach.

If those numbers aren't eye-popping, they do mark a realistic jump for a young player with all the physical talent to become a bona fide top target in the NFL.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast discusses the Bills' QB situation, Tom Brady's appeal and the Odell Beckham Jr. drama. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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