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The future of the Vikings, part 3: Receivers and tight ends

In the lead up to free agency and the NFL Draft, we will look at what happened in 2019 and all the possible options of every Vikings position. Here we take a close look at the wide receivers…(all stats via PFF and Pro-Football Reference)

PART 1: Quarterbacks

PART 2: Running backs

Diggs and Thielen

You would be hard pressed to find two more consistent and dynamic receivers in the NFL than Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.

Over the last four seasons they have changed quarterbacks, changed offensive coordinators, flip-flopped roles and done nothing but succeed.

The 2019 season marked a significant alteration in Diggs’s usage from previous years yet he continued to rank in the 90th percentile of receivers. He went from a quick-passing approach that saw him average just 10.0 yards per catch but rack up over 100 receptions in 2018 to becoming a premier deep threat in the NFL. Diggs led the league in yards gained on throws that traveled more than 20 yards downfield and ranked second in yards per catch under the styling of Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak.

Year Diggs PFF ranking QB rating when targeted
2019 16th 111.8
2018 14th 107.9
2017 10th 116.7
2016 21st 106.2
2015 21st 96.8

Back in 2016, Diggs was used as a slot receiver but he has since played on the outside, often being matched up with the top shutdown corners. Only 17.1% of his snaps were taken in the slot in ’19, which is a massive change from 62.7% in ’16.

It doesn’t seem to matter what the Vikings ask of Diggs, he just keeps catching everything. Over his career, the combination of Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford, Case Keenum and Kirk Cousins has completed 70.9% of their passes in his direction.

The ’19 season was significant for Diggs because he not only showed that he can play the DeSean Jackson role if asked but he was also healthy for the entire year and shined when Thielen was injured. Diggs had 33 receptions in the seven weeks Thielen battled a hamstring issue and gained 576 yards (17.4 yards per catch).

While he left no doubts about ability or durability, Diggs’s ’19 season and future can’t be discussed without mentioning his Week 4 absence from practice that reportedly resulted in a $200,000 fine. The veteran receiver, who is under contract through 2023, caused enough stir for teams around the league to contact the Vikings about a possible trade.

Naturally the Vikings shut down all potential suitors — as they did to ESPN’s Adam Schefter last summer — but it’s worth wondering about his status going forward. Would he prefer a team that ranked higher than third-to-last in pass attempts? Would he want to play closer to home in Washington, D.C.? Would he hold out for a trade? The reasons for his absence after the loss in Chicago are still unclear but they can’t be quickly forgotten. And if Diggs were to seek a way out of Minnesota, it would alter the offense’s potential in 2020 significantly.

Before ’19, Thielen had been about as healthy as an NFL player can be, playing all 16 games each year since becoming a key weapon in 2016. A bad break on a brilliant catch against the Lions cost him abotu half the season but he was still every bit as efficient when playing as in years past.

Year Thielen PFF ranking QB rating when targeted
2019 20th 131.9
2018 7th 115.4
2017 8th 104.4
2016 18th 121.9

The Stefanski-Kubiak duo used Thielen in the slot far less than John DeFilippo in ’18. His slot percentage dropped from 57.1% to 32.0% as the Vikings ran out more sets with a fullback and extra tight end.

With a contract extension signed last offseason and presumably a hamstring injury that won’t be nagging in the future, the Vikings have every reason to expect Thielen to continue to play like a top 20 receiver for the foreseeable future.

Who is No. 3? 

The failures of the Vikings offense in 2018 were largely blamed on the offensive line and DeFilippo but one key missing piece was another reliable wide receiver for Cousins when opponents double-teamed Diggs and Thielen.

It was unclear coming out of training camp who would emerge. The Vikings signed Josh Doctson but he immediately suffered an injury that landed him on IR and undrafted receiver Chad Beebe also got hurt in Week 3 and missed the remainder of the year.

When Thielen went down, rookie Bisi Johnson stepped into the No. 2 spot and had a good amount of success, registering the best No. 3 receiver QB rating on targets since 2015.

Year No. 3 receiver Targets Catches QB rating
2019 Bisi Johnson 41 31 119.4
2018 Laquon Treadwell 47 35 80.3
2017 Laquon Treadwell 33 20 52.6
2016 Cordarrelle Patterson 64 52 100.1
2015 Jarius Wright 45 34 106.0

Johnson showed that high IQ and route-running ability work in the NFL no matter where you are drafted. But the question is whether the Vikings will attempt to add more talent to the receiving corps or stick with Johnson and Beebe when he’s healthy and possibly look for seventh-round pick Dillon Mitchell to develop.

While the free agent pool is pretty thin with the top names in the Vikings’ price range being the likes of Tedd Ginn, Randall Cobb, Danny Amendola, Breshad Perriman and Robby Anderson. With many other needs on the roster, it seems unlikely that they would pay anything more than in the $5 million range for those players.

This year’s draft is extremely deep with receiver talent, which could open the door for the Vikings to look in the middle rounds for a playmaker to develop behind Diggs and Thielen.

At very least we learned in 2019 that the Vikings have one capable receiver behind their stars.

Irv is the future but throw it to Kyle

The Vikings mostly turned to rookie tight end Irv Smith as their No. 3 receiver role. He played 59.8% of total snaps, an impressive mark for a first-year tight end.

The Alabama product was one of five rookie tight ends to receive at least 40 targets, here’s where he ranked among them in key categories:

Smith rank among rookies
PFF grade 1st
QB Rating 2nd
Run blocking 2nd
Pass blocking 1st
20+ catches 2nd

Normally tight ends take longer to develop because of the complexity of the role. They are asked to understand run blocking schemes, help in pass protection, run underneath routes and in Smith’s case downfield routes as well.

Smith was everything the Vikings could have hoped for in his first year. He lined up all over the field, taking 425 snaps as an inline tight end, 188 in the slot and 68 as an outside receiver.

As far as the future goes, Smith can be whatever the Vikings want him to be. If they ultimately move on from Kyle Rudolph in two years, Smith can take over as the No. 1 tight end and potentially develop into a Pro Bowl talent. If Rudolph continues to play at a high level, the Vikings can move Smith around from WR3 to TE2 to FB1 or whatever else they need from him.

Speaking of Rudolph, his catch totals went down this year in part because of Smith’s presence but that doesn’t mean he was less valuable. The 6-foot-6 veteran registered his highest QB rating when targeted of his career.

Year Rudolph PFF ranking QB rating when targeted
2019 15th 139.5
2018 27th 113.5
2017 11th 117.9
2016 15th 104.9
2015 20th 104.6

It seemed to take two years for Cousins to fully trust that Rudolph is open even when he’s not open. Rudolph grabbed six touchdowns, two of which were highlight-reel worthy, and he reached over a New Orleans Saints cornerback to complete the Vikings’ victory in the Wild Card round in overtime.

With Rudolph playing another full season healthy, there’s no reason for the Vikings to look to move on. If anything, Cousins could throw more often to Rudolph in certain situations where he can be a checkdown option. When Cousins has thrown toward his veteran tight end, he’s completed more than 80% of passes.

The fact that Rudolph was made gains in run and pass blocking should also have the Vikings feeling good about where they stand at tight end.

Even their third option Tyler Conklin showed he belongs as a role player on the offense, catching nine passes on 11 targets.

The future of the franchise

Of all the positions, the Vikings should feel the most secure about their receivers and tight ends. Of course that’s assuming that Diggs is happy being a part of the future. If not, suddenly finding a trade partner and a replacement would become a major priority. But with him under contract long term, it’s difficult to see the Vikings moving on under any circumstance.

Having the weapons in place could influence the Vikings in two different ways.

Since it’s unclear whether the they will sign Kirk Cousins to a contract extension, it may be factored into the equation that Diggs and Thielen turn everything they touch into gold. Every quarterback has had great success with them, which could at least bring the Vikings’ brass to wonder if a less expensive or rookie-deal quarterback could put up similar numbers with their help.

Or they could look at it as being only a couple pieces away from getting deeper in the playoffs with Cousins since he already has proven he can produce big numbers with these weapons.


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