Much of the early-offseason discussion of the Vikings' needs has been centered around the offensive and defensive lines, and rightly so. Minnesota needs to get significantly better in the trenches on both sides of the ball in order to get back to the playoffs in 2021.
But OL and DL are far from the Vikings' only weaknesses. They will likely need a safety to replace Anthony Harris, who is expected to price himself out of Minnesota's plans in free agency. And although the Vikings have plenty of playmakers on their roster, two underrated needs in that area are a dangerous third receiver and a dynamic returner on special teams. Just because they have Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, and Adam Thielen doesn't mean the Vikings shouldn't be looking to give Kirk Cousins another weapon.
As it happens, there's a free agent out there who fits perfectly as an upgrade at WR3 and punt returner. Oh, and he has a great relationship with Vikings wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell, having spent his entire NFL career underneath his tutelage. That player is former Jaguars receiver Keelan Cole.
Cole, who turns 28 in April, was signed by Jacksonville as an undrafted free agent out of Kentucky Wesleyan in 2017. He caught a 97-yard touchdown pass in his first preseason game, made the roster, and has stuck around ever since. He actually led the Jags in receiving yards as a rookie, posting a 42/748/3 line on a team that reached the AFC title game. His numbers dipped in the next two seasons, but Cole put together a strong 2020 season in a contract year, setting career-highs in catches (55) and receiving touchdowns (5) to go with 642 yards.
On paper, Cole's numbers might not jump out. He has averaged roughly 40 catches, 560 yards, and three TDs per season in his career, with a catch percentage below 58. But it's important to understand the context. During 64 career regular season games, Cole's quarterbacks have been Blake Bortles (28 starts), Gardner Minshew (20), Mike Glennon (5), Cody Kessler (4), Nick Foles (4), and Jake Luton (3). It's a pretty safe bet that Cole's efficiency numbers would go up if he's catching passes from Cousins next year.
When watching the tape, it's hard not to get the feeling that Cole is an underrated receiver with a chance to shine in a better situation. He's a sharp route-runner who can win on short, intermediate, and deep routes. He's also got excellent hands and is able to make adjustments at the catch point. Cole can beat man coverage from the slot or the outside, and has a good feel for finding the open spaces against zones.
The main thing holding him back from being a No. 1-type receiver is his modest physical traits. Cole isn't the biggest (6'1", 194) or fastest receiver (he ran a 4.6 at his Pro Day), but he plays the position well enough that it doesn't matter too much. I also think he has more potential as a deep threat than he was able to show in Jacksonville.
Here's a look at some of Cole's best plays in 2020, which demonstrate his all-around skill set.
The last play in that cut-up is a notable one. That's Cole's 91-yard punt return touchdown against the Packers at Lambeau Field in November. Not only would he be an instant upgrade at WR3 over Chad Beebe and Bisi Johnson, but Cole would be the favorite to win the Vikings' punt returner job. He had more punt return yards on that one play than the Vikings had as a team all year (K.J. Osborn and Beebe combined for 69 yards on 16 returns). Cole's 15.6-yard average on nine punt returns was obviously boosted significantly by that long TD, but he did gain 49 yards on his other eight returns. He has also averaged 27 yards on eight career kickoff returns, with two of those going for 40-plus yards.
Signing Cole would be killing two birds with one stone. His versatility and talent would make him a fantastic complement to Jefferson and Thielen, and he could offer consistency and some explosiveness in the return game.
The reason this isn't merely speculation is the presence of McCardell, who the Vikings hired as their receivers coach in January. The former Pro Bowl wideout was the Jaguars' WRs coach for the past four years, meaning he and Cole were together for their entire time in Jacksonville. And take it with a grain of salt, but this "NFL Rumors" Twitter account believes the Vikings are expected to pursue Cole.
They won't be the only ones, though. Cole should generate plenty of interest from receiver-needy teams across the league. It's possible that he would want to go to a team that passes more than the Vikings do or head somewhere where he could compete to be the No. 2 option. But the idea of reuniting with McCardell and playing for a potential playoff team might also be appealing.
As for his expected price, Pro Football Focus predicts Cole will get a 2-year, $11 million deal with $5 million guaranteed at signing. That could easily be a bargain. Once free agency gets underway and the Vikings clear up some cap space, they should be looking closely at the possibility of bringing Cole to Minnesota.
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