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Will Vikings QB decision rest on the best fit for Jefferson?

The Vikings activated Jefferson on Tuesday and Kevin O'Connell remained noncommittal with his QB situation.

You would probably rather eat glass than look for silver linings following the Minnesota Vikings’ miserable 12-10 loss at US Bank Stadium on Monday night but there are some things on their side that make it possible the loss could be merely a body blow rather than a knockout punch. First, that the NFL standings after 12 weeks still include the Vikings as a playoff team. Second, Justin Jefferson is set to return. On Tuesday, the Vikings activated Jefferson following a seven-week absence with a hamstring injury.

Celebration bells for JJ’s return are muted by the grumbles from a meltdown at the hands of the lowly Bears — a tradition that had taken a couple years off but appears to be very much still alive — but it can’t be understated how much Jefferson has meant to the Vikings’ offense over the last few seasons. In case you need a refresher, he’s still only 115 yards behind Jordan Addison for the team’s second leading pass catcher despite having not played since early October.

By Pro-Football Reference’s “success rate” statistic, 64% of plays Jefferson’s way were successful. The next best on the Vikings is 56% (Brandon Powell) and TJ Hockenson at 52%. Additional resume notes on Jefferson include breaking Randy Moss records and landing himself offensive player of the year last year. Oh, and before he got hurt he was averaging more yards per game than 2022.

While the Vikings were able to survive Jefferson being out of the lineup going 5-2 without him, the All-Pro receiver’s absence reared its head in losses to the Broncos and Bears. In Denver the Vikings had the ball with a chance to take the late lead but couldn’t find any options to kickstart a game-winning drive. That’s usually JJ time. And against Chicago the passing game went completely flat, not just with Josh Dobbs’ four interceptions but in averaging just 5.0 yards per passing play and producing 242 yards on offense. There are only five instances of total yardage less than that during Jefferson’s career in purple.

Justin Jefferson

Justin Jefferson hasn't played since suffering a strained hamstring on Oct. 5. 

The major issue coming out of the game, according to head coach Kevin O’Connell. was the “rhythm and timing” of the passing game. He used that terminology numerous times in the postgame press conference and Tuesday’s Zoom call with the TC media. Asked why the offense wasn’t on point, O’Connell used examples of Dobbs’ footwork and struggling to get on the same page with receivers.

“Don’t think necessarily coverage-wise there was anything that really caused us issues,” he said. “It was more just execution on our part.”

Following the game, O’Connell did not commit to Dobbs being back under center in two weeks when the Vikings face off with the Vegas Raiders on the road. Around 12 hours later, having had an opportunity to look at the game again on tape, he did not change his tune about the QB situation, leaving the door open for Dobbs to be replaced by either Nick Mullens or Jaren Hall.

“I think we’ll take the time over these next couple days to really evaluate, not only Monday night but the previous body of work, and just see where we’re at as an offense – knowing that we’ll get Justin [Jefferson] back in this offense to solidify our skill group,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell said specifically that Jefferson’s return will be part of the decision at quarterback.

“Knowing we’re going to get Justin [Jefferson] back, what does that look like to try to attack coverages not only on third down and in the red zone, but some of those early down opportunities where we do want to stay aggressive with how we want to move the football and marry everything together?” O’Connell said. “It’s not the same as when you’re operating with Kirk [Cousins] and JJ [Justin Jefferson] out there full time, but by no means do we view that as a potential roadblock. I view that as something that it’s our responsibility.”

O’Connell acknowledged that the margin for error in NFL passing games is thin, so miscues with footwork and timing can prove costly, as it did against the Bears. Over the first three games Dobbs played he was able to paint over any issues with timing by making plays where he escaped the pocket. The Bears, however, did an excellent job of keeping him from running and forcing mistakes while he was under duress. When Dobbs was pressured, he went 8-for-14 for 84 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. PFF scored him a 26.7 grade, by far the lowest of any Viking QB under pressure this year.

With Nick Mullens healthy, O’Connell could turn to him because of his experience in the offense. The former 49er was acquired during 2022 training camp and completed 21-of-25 passes in limited duty. This year he was QB2 through the entire training camp and preseason process but suffered a back injury early in the year, which bumped up rookie Jaren Hall into the backup position.

Before Hall got hurt in Atlanta he was in the midst of leading a quality scoring drive but reading between the lines of O’Connell’s comments it appears the head coach’s focus is on the mastery of the offense. That would point the arrow toward Mullens.

“We're going to make sure that whoever's playing quarterback is aware and understands the intent behind plays… how to quickly and efficiently get to the right place to go with the football,” O’Connell said. “Because in the end, that's what the NFL passing game is about, rhythm, timing, understanding that the defense, can and will take some things away, but progressing that rhythm and trying to find the voids and vacancies, and zone or premiere matchups and man coverage.”

Mullens last started multiple games in a season in 2020 when he went 2-6 with 12 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and and 84.1 quarterback rating for the San Francisco 49ers. Over his entire career he has a full season’s worth of games and has been efficient with 7.8 yards per pass attempt and completed 65% of his throws but also has 23 interceptions in 17 starts.

Of course, those starts didn’t come along with the NFL’s best receiver by his side. What comes along with that is all the tricks of the trade that O’Connell has been using over the last two years in order to find ways to get Jefferson open.

“We will absolutely put together a plan that tries to maximize number 18,” O’Connell said. “Whether he's lined static in the formation, motioning, lined up with some of his other teammates in a bunch or stack and kind of go through what the potential scenarios are within the progression and try to give the quarterback as much information as we can to help them make the best possible decision.”

In order to execute all the bells and whistles of a Jefferson-led offense, the QB has to understand the details, which also points more in the direction of Mullens.

There are some questions that come along with a potential change, starting with: Is it an overreaction to one bad game by Dobbs? In the previous three games that he started they produced a total of 68 points and cleared 350 yards total offense in each game. The last time the Vikings played Chicago in Week 6, they produced only 220 yards and 12 first downs. On Monday night they topped both those marks, even as ugly as the showing was.

Dobbs also graded out well when he was kept clean. He completed 14-of-20 passes with a clean pocket and PFF scored him a strong 84.0 mark. Last week against the Broncos he graded over 90 when he wasn’t under pressure.

The rocket scientist QB likely gives the Vikings offense a higher ceiling and floor considering he ranks No. 1 in the NFL in rushing Expected Points Added and had an impressive highlight reel — and doesn’t know the offense as well and has a penchant for turnovers. It might be worth building on the sample size by giving him an opportunity to play with Jefferson and see if he can A) give them a chance to beat good teams with his physical skill and B) be any part of the future.

Both of those things seem less likely after the way he played against the Bears, especially as opponents gameplan more and more for his rushing.

“They're really trying to keep him as much as they can in the pocket working through his progressions,” O’Connell said. “When he has moved, the tendency has been to go backwards and out of the pocket as opposed to up and out and not really having some of those voids to push up and out and remain a passer and apply pressure that way. They've done a good job trying to contain his ability to get out of the pocket and impact the game either with his legs.”

Whoever is under center, the Vikings will have opportunities to produce in the passing game against their next two opponents. The Raiders and Bengals rank 22nd and 21st, respectively, in EPA against the pass. With Jefferson returning and the Vikings likely needing to reach 9-8 to make the playoffs, the season is not out of reach unless they have more games like Monday night with offensive ineptitude and turnovers. The best way to avoid that and give Jefferson the best chance to thrive may be a QB change.

“You can't take away from what Josh was able to accomplish early on, now we just need to assess,” O’Connell said. “Can we sustain moving forward? Can we get him to a place where we can be a little bit more consistent as an offense? Limit our turnovers. What that looks like, all conversations we're going through you know at this very moment.”