Stephen Burton (Tom Dahlin/Viking Update)
Stephen Burton had to play catch-up in may aspect last year. He was a seventh-round pick from a small school following a summer lockout of the players. This year, Burton could be a surprise contributor after displaying far more confidence in offseason practices.
When the Minnesota Vikings were lining up for practices during organized team activities and minicamp in June, there were few surprises in terms of the players and where and when they lined up.
They were still battling for starting spots, especially with training camp’s first practice on July 27. Many of the expected starters, or the players with a heads-up on the competition, were slotted with the starting units during 11-on-11 drills except for one possible exception — Stephen Burton, the largely-forgotten second-year receiver.
With Percy Harvin skipping much of the team drills because of injury and then unhappiness, Burton often found his way in with the first-team offense. Minnesota added depth at receiver this offseason with the addition of Jerome Simpson in free agency and rookies Jarius Wright and Greg Childs, and Burton was seemingly buried on the depth chart after an underwhelming rookie season.
But Burton is showing that 2012 is a new season, especially for the second-year players who had to deal with the lockout last summer.
“There’s a lot of comparisons, not having all the OTAs, not having all this time to get in with your team and work out with them and get comfortable with them,” Burton said while participating in the Vikings’ OTAs. “So now, as far learning the playbook and everything, like I said, it’s comfortable.”
Burton, a seventh-round draft pick last season by Minnesota, never really had the chance to get comfortable as a rookie. The 6-foot-1, 224-pound receiver was behind from the very beginning; first as a relative project player drafted in the final round out of small West Texas A&M, then with a rough training camp that took him out of the picture for the active roster.
Because of the lockout, Burton couldn’t meet with his coaches. He didn’t have a playbook until the lockout was lifted and he struggled in training camp, leading some to speculate if he was just a lost pick for the Vikings. It was a crash course in the NFL for Burton.
“As far as the guys that were drafted later in the rounds, it was pretty much time was against you,” Burton said. “You came in. You had to get the playbook. You had to learn as fast as possible. Of course, some people were set back by the lockout, but it was out of our control.”
Burton kept working through his growing pains though.
After being cut, he was signed to the practice squad and spent seven weeks there as he started to show more confidence and playing ability. As injuries decimated the wide receiver corps, Burton waited for his shot. Finally, he was added to the active roster, played in three games and had two catches for 38 yards against the Denver Broncos.
His season ended early as a sprained MCL sent him to injured reserve, but getting NFL game experience as a rookie helped Burton, and Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier can see the difference this season.
“That helped him because he has a lot more confidence at this stage than when we had him in training camp,” Frazier said. “He’s grown so much from having the chance to dress and get in a ball game and his understanding of the offense is so much further ahead as well. You can see the confidence and that’s a big thing for a receiver, big thing for any young player. He has tremendous athletic ability and he is one of those guys who can jump out of the gym and make the acrobatic catch. But his confidence, that’s the one thing that you can see is coming through now.”
Burton was forced out of practices during minicamp with pneumonia. He also knows a few practices in June are a far cry from the Sept. 9 season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars. But there’s also a distinct difference from being the little-known rookie receiver last year to the confident second-year player this time around for Burton.
“More relaxed,” Burton said. “There’s not so much things going through my mind. They call the play, you know what it is and you execute it.”
Brian Hall writes about the Vikings for Fox Sports North.