EAGAN — If you’re a fan of the NBA on TNT then you have heard Shaq talk about “The Others.” His theory is that stars can only take teams so far — it’s whether everyone around them rises to the occasion that will be the difference between making a deep playoff run or sitting at home.
That concept applies to the 2022 Minnesota Vikings’ offense. While Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook can be reasonably projected to make life difficult on defenses, the Vikings have enough talent in other areas to take the offense beyond its previous production.
That starts with KJ Osborn, who has had a terrific start to training camp following up on his breakout season in which he caught 50 passes for 655 yards.
“Two practices ago, he caught two touchdowns, one at the back pylon, one by the front pylon — big-time plays,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “He's doing a good job separating as best he can and then just making difficult catches.”
Osborn’s 2021 marked the best performance in terms of yardage by a Vikings No. 3 receiver of the Mike Zimmer era. The next best was Charles Johnson in 2014 with 476 yards. During Cousins’ time in Minnesota, Laquon Treadwell’s 35 receptions for 302 yards was the previous high-water mark.
Cousins talked on Wednesday about urging coaches to target Osborn more often after he kept making plays in big situations.
“KJ started showing up a lot, and I was saying to the coaches, 'We might want to get him more involved in the first and second down gameplan throughout the whole game, because in two-minute he's really making plays for us,’” Cousins said. “I'm excited to have a player of his caliber that can help take the pressure off of Justin and Adam. I've always said when you have a great second receiver it can take the pressure off the first, but you can also say the same about KJ taking the pressure off Adam and Justin.”
Head coach Kevin O’Connell called Osborn’s camp “really, really good,” and said that Osborn’s role can be more complex than just being the third read behind Thielen and Jefferson.
“With the marriage of the run and the pass, that third receiver position requires a guy to do a lot of jobs,” O’Connell said. “Those jobs aren't always the glitzy glamor ones where we all take note of that. It might be setting a block or understanding how to hit a block in the run game and ultimately how he plays with some of those screens and variations of what we do.”
Having receivers who can drop into any role when a star player is out also carries huge value. Cousins pointed out that other receivers have been asked to step up at times over the last three seasons when Thielen has been out of the lineup. Thielen lost six games to injury in 2019, one to COVID in 2020 and four injured last year.
“When Adam was out for a game in 2020 against Carolina, I pulled Olabisi [Johnson] aside and you said 'Hey, you've gotta be Adam, you've gotta step up and be that No. 2 guy this week.' And he did. And it makes a big difference for our offense,” Cousins said. “I think we lost Adam for about six weeks in 2019 and really relied on Bisi during that whole stretch, he did a great job. Last year, KJ stepping up in Adam's absence down the stretch. So you always want that second guy to be a difference-maker going against a defense and if you have an injury, you gotta find a way to still have it.”
Cousins has mentioned his comfort with Bisi Johnson on multiple occasions. The practice rotations so far suggest that Johnson, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and veteran Albert Wilson are in the mix for spots behind the top three receivers but the order of where each stands is likely to be determined by the rest of camp and preseason.
The Vikings may be hoping Smith-Marsette will earn the WR4 spot because he’s the speedy deep threat of the group. Offensive coordinator Wes Phillips broke down the difference that a receiver with an extra gear can make in his system.
“I think depending on coverages, you can get some matchups sometimes,” Phillips said. “You hear defenses when you get in three receiver sets, they’re calling out, ‘Hey they got speed at three,’ because in certain coverages, split-safety coverages, some teams are asking that Mike linebacker to carry number three vertical. There are some advantages you can get against certain schemes. Other times you might prefer a bigger guy inside, it just kind of depends on the scheme you’re playing that week.”
Speaking of deep threats, the Vikings lost theirs for the remainder of camp in starting tight end in Irv Smith Jr. He had thumb surgery that will keep him out until at least Week 1. Johnny Mundt and Zach Davidson are taking his spot in practice. O’Connell wants to see a “next-man-up” mentality but didn’t rule out the possibility of bringing someone else into the mix.
“I know with this group, we talked a lot about the role of a tight end – what that really looks like offense to offense in the NFL nowadays, we ask our guys to do a lot – both in the run game and the pass game, so across the board,” O’Connell said.
Mundt has more experience having been in the league since 2017 but only has 10 career catches. Davidson has not appeared in an NFL game since being drafted last year. But he has more potential as a speedy pass catcher. Cousins said the team’s strength coach gives out a T-shirt to any player who runs more than 21 miles per hour and Davidson is just below that mark.
“He’s got a lot of down the field speed and at his height he has a lot of size as well and that combination gives you a lot of potential as a player,” Cousins said.
Davidson made several grabs on Wednesday in Smith Jr.’s spot but also dropped a pass that turned into a Patrick Peterson interception.
At running back the Vikings have proven Alexander Mattison behind Cook. Kene Nwangwu entered training camp with high expectations as a running back after showing his dynamic talent with the ball last year during kick returns but Nwangwu suffered a “soft tissue” injury and has missed the last three practices. He’s considered “day to day.”
Coming into the season there were questions about whether O’Connell would include fullback CJ Ham in an offensive system that hasn’t traditionally used a fullback. The Vikings’ head coach has made it clear he will follow his predecessors in using the veteran in a versatile way.
“He’s really able to take much more on his plate than the traditional fullback: A) Because he mentally can handle it, but then B) he’s a dynamic player,” O’Connell said. “To have the strength he has in the run game, the understanding to be able to do some unique run game concepts with him and then ultimately use him as a weapon in the pass game.”
Cousins said he feels more comfortable on the field with Ham alongside him.
“He can run a go ball and catch a go ball like he did against the Ravens last year. He can also block a defensive end who’s 50 pounds heavier than him,” Cousins said.
While Ham’s production probably won’t be the difference between good and great, he’s part of a group of weapons that all need to come together around Thielen, Jefferson and Cook to make the Vikings’ offense click in its first year under O’Connell.