EAGAN, Minn. — Mike Zimmer stood at a podium inside a ballroom at the Indiana Convention Center fielding questions from reporters at the NFL combine.
Several minutes into a discussion of offseason topics, Zimmer was asked what 2016 first-round pick Laquon Treadwell needed to do to turn his career around.
It was a question the Minnesota Vikings coach had been asked regularly over the previous two years, one that was met with his quintessential brutal honesty.
“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 the time. We’ll be in training camp and he’ll run the stadium steps at night, which is not helping for practice the next day. But he thinks he’s trying to get better; he’s trying to get better. He’s just going about it the wrong way.”
Treadwell’s first two seasons were a major disappointment for the 23rd overall pick in 2016. He has 21 catches for 215 yards and no touchdowns in 25 career games. He has been an afterthought in the Vikings offense, a far cry from the days when he set Ole Miss records, including becoming the school’s all-time leading pass-catcher.
By the time those comments got back to Treadwell, the receiver was neither surprised nor upset at his head coach’s opinion. He actually agreed with it.
“When you know it’s true, then you just got to accept it,” Treadwell told ESPN. “I didn’t take it personal. I took it as something I can grow from, use it as, ‘OK, what exactly does he mean by that? What exactly am I doing wrong? What exactly can I fix?'”
This wasn’t the type of criticism that had gotten through effectively to Treadwell in the past. Understanding and accepting Zimmer’s tough-love approach is one way Treadwell moved past the insecurities that have crept into the background and dampened his confidence, even at the peak of his college career. So has the experience of losing his Big Man on Campus identity and becoming someone who failed to meet the highest of expectations: his own.
Treadwell, 23, always relied on his God-given physical traits and raw ability rather than refined technique. Learning that he could no longer get away with ability alone, Treadwell has matured in ways that go beyond mastering a route tree. He now understands the most important aspect that’s going to keep him in the league is the mental wherewithal it takes to play at a high level.
Treadwell blocks out talk that this season is make-or-break for his career by viewing 2018 as a chance for continued growth. The immense pressure he put on himself has subsided. Being a “team-first” guy keeps him centered.
In reality, his window to make things happen is closing. By May, Minnesota has to decide whether to exercise Treadwell’s fifth-year option, a costly decision that relies on his on-field contributions.
After taking hold of the No. 3 receiver role with a strong spring, Treadwell is starring in his own redemption biopic in training camp. He’s making catch-of-the-day worthy plays against the league’s top defense. At this point, he’s earned his place in the receiver pecking order. Whether he stays there permanently is up to him.
‘He wasn’t ready’
On Hugh Freeze’s list of the most physically gifted specimens he’s ever coached, the 6-foot-2 Treadwell is somewhere in the top five for the former Ole Miss coach. Treadwell’s ability to overpower a defensive back and win 50-50 balls with his strength made up for a lack of speed.
The 4.65-second 40-yard dash time he ran at Ole Miss’ pro day as a junior was alarming for some NFL teams, but others put more stock in what he produced with his game speed. For what it’s worth, the likes of Jarvis Landry, Danny Amendola and Mohamed Sanu all ran slower 40s than Treadwell.
Treadwell was quickly humbled when he got to the NFL. Football, at this level, was not just about bullying a defensive back with his size and coming down with the ball. He had to get better at creating separation at the line of scrimmage, which was difficult to master after he broke his tibia and dislocated his left ankle during his sophomore season. On top of that, he had to learn a new language.
Treadwell’s “lack of formula” for a route tree was not because he didn’t know how to run a post or corner route. What an NFL team might call slip right, X jet, 32 power alert, expo Z curl, Y zig was simply referred to as “Smoke” in Ole Miss’ playbook. Many college systems utilize simple names for plays so it’s easier for skill players to digest. Learning how to mirror the crisp route-running technique he witnessed from Vikings receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs was also a slow process.
“To put it blankly, he wasn’t ready,” Vikings receivers coach Darrell Hazell said. “It’s a different game. You can get away with a lot of things in college that you can’t get away with in the NFL.”
Treadwell isn’t alone. The 2014 draft — in which five receivers went among the first 32 picks and became one of the most successful rookie wideout classes in NFL history — is an anomaly. It’s far more common to see first-year receivers struggle to make the transition from college to the pros. No longer able to rely solely on his natural ability, Treadwell tried to rely on his work ethic.
But even that needed to be refined. Treadwell had to be reminded to work smarter, not harder.
“I remember him destroying a defensive back on a run play in practice that went away from him,” Freeze said. “It was pretty impressive, but unneeded and unwarranted. I just had to say, ‘Laquon, I get it. You want to give effort on a play, even one that went away from you. That’s a great thing, but what you did doesn’t help this football team. You have to be smart about it.
“This guy’s going to catch a hundred balls after practice every day, and I would have to remind him he’d been working all summer, all fall camp, let’s just go to the house and get rest. I do think it’s all wrapped up in him wanting to please people. And there’s nothing wrong with work ethic, but be intelligent and be smart about it.”
‘Putting the team first’
“A pleaser? In what way?”
Treadwell ponders the question being asked of him. Why have so many put that label on him? He quickly settles on a reason, one he learned at a young age growing up in Ford Heights, Illinois, which was once regarded as the poorest suburb in the United States.
“They always say you treat people how you want to be treated, so growing up, my mom would take us to her job where she helped mentally challenged adults,” Treadwell said. “It humbled me. My mom always gave to people, helped people. It just rubbed off on me and it stuck with me. I try to do my best to help the new guys, just help guys achieve whatever they’re out there to do because I think it’ll get you farther in life than being envious or having hatred in your heart.”
The other labels he’s gotten over the past two seasons have been far less endearing. “Bust” is commonly used, but “enigma” is more accurate at this point in his career.
After adding Kirk Cousins and Sheldon Richardson during the first wave of free agency, Minnesota signed slot receiver Kendall Wright to a one-year deal at the end of March. Treadwell was once again deemed an afterthought, with some considering the move an indication that he would be out of the running for the No. 3 receiver spot.
Going from Ole Miss’ No. 1 receiver to taking a back seat in Minnesota, where he was only a part of 35.2 percent of offensive snaps since 2016, has been humbling.
“Although you know you can go out there and play, it’s just not your time,” Treadwell said. “That’s probably one of the biggest dangers growing mentally: just staying in it, being positive, being a team-first guy and always putting the team first, although you’re not making the plays on Sundays.
“Just making sure they continue to work hard and hold themselves accountable as well as I’m holding myself.”
Paying it forward is one way he aims to live up to that responsibility. Helping younger players correct the mistakes he once made is a good place to start.
During OTAs, Treadwell sought out rookie defensive tackle Jalyn Holmes for putting in overtime on bag agility drills after a workout.
“I’m just like, man, he doesn’t even know,” Treadwell said. “He’s going to be worn out. I put a bug in his ear like, ‘Yo, I did that before. You don’t want to do it to yourself.’ Now you’re super tired and when it counts, you can’t make it count.”
‘Show what they drafted me for’
Treadwell noticed his body changing. He felt better, felt lighter and had more energy. His plan was working.
His transformation in Year 3 began with switching up how he did some things in the offseason. It started once he saw “227” on the scale, up 12 pounds from the weight he’s listed with on the roster.
Using the nutritional resources provided to him at the Vikings’ new performance center in Eagan, Minnesota, Treadwell changed his diet. He was only eating twice a day: once in the morning and again at lunch. When he left the facility around 2:30 p.m. daily during spring workouts, he wouldn’t eat again until the next morning at 6 a.m.
He credits his girlfriend for introducing “superfoods” into his life, helping him alter his eating habits (which includes going without bacon on his order at his beloved Portillo’s back in Chicago) as a sizeable part of a transition that is already paying dividends in training camp.
Treadwell is not an addendum in John DeFilippo’s scheme, and is in the clear lead to earn the No. 3 job. The offensive coordinator has utilized Treadwell as a red-zone threat in camp, praising him for coming off the ball with more violence and exhibiting the type of control that turns his body into a weapon against defenders. DeFilippo tracked Treadwell’s progress closely during the season, checking in daily with encouraging text messages.
“I’m really proud of that guy. He’s worked his butt off to really improve,” DeFilippo said. “You see a young man having some success and not letting that success go to his head. We are going to continually challenge him every single day to stay mentally focused. He can do that. There is no doubt in my mind he can do that.”
The cornerbacks Treadwell lines up across in practice noted how much tougher he is to cover compared to a year ago.
“The patience part,” Xavier Rhodes said. “Last year he was rushing to get out of his break. Now it’s trying to set up the DB to think one thing and he does a totally different thing.”
“I set my own expectations, and I just want to prove that I can play at a high level and show it. Show what they drafted me for. That’s probably been my biggest motivation.”
The buzzword around Treadwell is “discipline.”
It’s manifested itself in the way he plays on the field, highlighted by more explosiveness coming out of his routes, better route-running, an understanding of his route depth and the reason he’s held down his position with the first-team offense.
“He knows he’s a good player,” Thielen said. “He’s always known that, but he didn’t always walk around with that when he was a young player. It’s so fun for me to see a guy like that grow from year to year. He’s just having fun. Before, I don’t know if he was necessarily having fun. He was getting frustrated.”
A month out from the season and his own story taking center stage in training camp, Treadwell isn’t sure what more he has to prove to himself.
An answer like that might come as a surprise for a once highly touted receiver who has yet to score a touchdown two years into his career. But from Treadwell’s perspective, he’s already battled the biggest hurdle: himself.
It’s taken three years to quell self-sabotaging behaviors and get out of his own way. Now it’s up to him to stay there.
“I set my own expectations, and I just want to prove that I can play at a high level and show it,” Treadwell said. “Show what they drafted me for. That’s probably been my biggest motivation. Just show that I am who I was before and I can be that player every week, every day, every play.”