Vikings Receivers Preview: Justin Jefferson Isn't Stefon Diggs, and That's OK
With the NFL Draft in the rearview mirror, we're going to take an early look at each position on the Vikings' 2020 roster. We'll break down any notable competitions for certain roles or roster spots before making a prediction on who makes the 53-man roster, who winds up on the practice squad, and who will be continuing their football career elsewhere. We wrap up the "skill positions" with the wide receivers, where a rookie has some pretty big shoes to fill.
It was merely a coincidence based on the way things played out on draft night, but that doesn't change the fact that the Vikings used the premiere pick they acquired in the Stefon Diggs trade to select his replacement. Diggs tweeted his way out of Minnesota, so the Vikings drafted LSU's Justin Jefferson with the 22nd overall pick that once belonged to the Bills. Whether he likes it or not, that means the rookie is coming into a situation where he'll face high expectations right out of the gate.
Jefferson has the talent and drive to meet those expectations, or at least come close. His route-running and contested-catch abilities are fairly Diggs-esque, as is his work ethic; Jefferson wasn't a fifth-round pick, but he's a former two-star recruit who turned himself into a household name in just a couple years. Still, even the most optimistic believers in Jefferson won't suggest that he'll be as good as a rookie as Diggs was last season. The 21-year-old has a great deal of work to do on his releases against press coverage to ever reach his predecessor's mastery of that art, nor will he immediately be the elite deep threat that Diggs was for Kirk Cousins.
The good news for the Vikings is that they don't need Jefferson to be Diggs for the offense to continue humming. Losing a No. 1-caliber receiver hurts, but it's a lot more manageable for a team that had two of them. It feels like some people are forgetting how dominant Adam Thielen was in 2017 and 2018, and he must be itching to show what he can do as Cousins' clear top option after missing games due to injury for the first time in his six-year career. The other factor that mitigates some of the pain of losing Diggs is the young depth the Vikings have behind Thielen and Jefferson at the wide receiver position, not to mention a potential breakout candidate at tight end.
The 2020 season will be a prime opportunity for Thielen to remind everyone that he's a top-ten receiver in the NFL. Before a hamstring injury cost him half of last year, Thielen became the first Viking not named Randy Moss or Cris Carter to post consecutive seasons with at least 1,250 receiving yards. During that two-year span, he ranked fourth in the league in receptions and sixth in yards, establishing himself as an unquestionably elite player at the position. Thielen's route-running, size, and absurd catch radius will be back in action this year and he should see a ton of targets from Cousins. Even as he enters his age-30 season, there's little reason to believe the former Minnesota State Maverick will slow down anytime soon.
In Gary Kubiak's offense, the top two receivers are going to dominate playing time. The Vikings had three or more receivers on the field on 25 percent of their snaps last year, which is by far the lowest mark in the league. Still, there's room for a third receiver to contribute, and the team will need depth in case of injuries.
The leading candidates for the WR3 job are 2019 seventh-rounder Bisi Johnson and free agent pickup Tajae Sharpe, both of whom are solid possession-receiver types. Johnson stepped up in Thielen's absence last year, posting a 31/294/3 line, but he wasn't particularly explosive or efficient. Sharpe is a former Titan who signed a one-year, $1 million deal. His catch percentage and yards per target improved in each of his three healthy seasons, and the 25-year-old has more NFL experience than any non-Thielen wideout on the roster. Chad Beebe has been an intriguing depth option over the past two training camps, but he just hasn't stayed healthy during his NFL career and is facing an uphill battle to make the roster.
In addition to Jefferson, the Vikings added two other rookie receivers. They drafted Miami's KJ Osborn in the fifth round to be their punt returner, and then gave Texas A&M's Quartney Davis $110,000 guaranteed to sign as an undrafted free agent. Davis was projected to go in the fifth round by Arif Hasan's consensus big board and is far more developed as a receiver than Osborn. I'm high on Davis's potential, but he may need to beat out Johnson or Sharpe to make the 53-man roster because he doesn't have Osborn's special teams value.
Rounding out the competition are a group of longshots: Alexander Hollins, Davion Davis, Dillon Mitchell, Bralon Addison, and Dan Chisena. Hollins appeared in five regular season games last year, while Davis and Mitchell spent much of the year on the practice squad. Addison was signed after having nearly 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the Canadian Football League last year, and he also has experience returning punts. Chisena is a 2020 UDFA with an interesting backstory; he was a track star at Penn State who walked onto the football team and was a force on special teams. It's not often that a player with three collegiate receptions gets an invitation to an NFL training camp.
Starters: Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson
Backups/depth: Bisi Johnson, Tajae Sharpe
Make 53-man roster: KJ Osborn
Practice squad: Quartney Davis
Cut: Chad Beebe, Alexander Hollins, Davion Davis, Bralon Addison, Dillon Mitchell, Dan Chisena
I really wanted to find a way to get Quartney Davis onto the 53-man roster, but I couldn't rationalize taking off Johnson or Sharpe. The Vikings almost certainly aren't going to keep six receivers; they haven't done so since 2017 and it just doesn't make sense in a run-heavy offense that uses 12 and 21 personnel so frequently. So unless Davis wows in camp, I think he starts the year on the practice squad and the team hopes that no other team poaches him for their active roster.
Other post-draft position previews
- Quarterbacks: Sorting Out the Three-Man Backup Competition
- Running backs and fullbacks: Will Dalvin Cook get paid?
- Tight ends: Expect Irv Smith Jr.'s Role to Increase in Year Two
- Offensive tackles: Will Ezra Cleveland Start as a Rookie?
- Interior offensive line: Can Garrett Bradbury Make a Leap?
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