Following the trade of Stefon Diggs, the Vikings are only left with one proven receiver in Adam Thielen and a bevy of players who are looking to take a step forward in recently-signed Tajae Sharpe, 2019 seventh-rounder Bisi Johnson, Chad Beebe, Alexander Hollins, Davion Davis and a handful of others. Naturally the expectation is that they will be looking to replace Diggs with either the 22nd overall pick from the Buffalo Bills or their own selection at 25th overall.
With many other needs on the roster, little cap space to sign free agents and the market becoming more thin each day, the Vikings could opt to roll with their current group of receivers and A) hope Thielen carries the load B) look for another body in the middle rounds to compete for a role during training camp.
Is it a viable option? Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s past might suggest that it is.
During Kubiak’s years in Houston, receiver Andre Johnson was the centerpiece of the team’s passing attack, racking up five 100-catch seasons and was on pace for three more if not for injuries. Unlike Thielen, Johnson did not have a top-notch 1B receiver alongside. The Texans used players like Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones to fill out the rest of the receiver targets.
Houston focused more on tight ends in the passing game, throwing in Owen Daniels’s direction over 100 times in 2008 and 2012. Backs and additional tight ends like Arian Foster, James Casey and Garrett Graham filled out the rest of the passing game, which was consistently one of the most efficient in the NFL under Kubiak.
|Year||Andre Johnson Targets||No. 2 receiver targets||
Passing net yards per attempt rank
|2011||51 (7 games)||65||8|
|2010||138 (13 games)||80||6|
Even without Diggs, the Vikings have the capability to repeat his Houston blueprint, so long as Thielen is healthy. With Kyle Rudolph, Irv Smith, Dalvin Cook and CJ Ham all capable receivers, the Vikings do not necessarily have to get desperate in the draft for an early-round receiver.
Last season when Thielen was injured, Kirk Cousins effectively spread the ball to his other targets. Between Week 7 and Week 13, Cook had 27 receptions on 34 targets for 290 yards (10.7 yards per catch), Rudolph caught 26 of his 39 passes and Smith brought in 24 of his 36 total receptions during that span.
How does it look in practice?
Using FanSpeak.com’s draft simulator with the aim of addressing immediate needs outside of receiver, here’s how our simulation came out:
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In this case, the Vikings would pick up a Day 1 starting cornerback in Fulton, who allowed just 48 receptions on 111 targets in his direction over the last two years at LSU, per PFF data. And while Epenesa did not have a great NFL Combine, his power and production are impressive enough to give him a chance to contribute right away, even if that is at a three-technique defensive tackle spot as a third down rusher. He was credited with 22 sacks over the last two seasons.
Other potential non-receiver options in this draft simulation (which you can see the entire thing here) included taking Houston tackle Josh Jones, Alabama corner Trevon Diggs, defensive lineman Marlon Davidson, TCU corner Jeff Gladney and LSU safety Grant Delpit.
In the second round, a number of top defensive players like TCU’s Ross Blacklock, Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield Jr. and Alabama edge rusher Terrell Lewis went just before the Vikings at 58th overall. There were still numerous edge rushing prospects as five players at that spot went in the next nine picks but with Epenesa already selected, it made sense to address the offensive line with Boise State’s highly-athletic Ezra Cleveland, who ran a 4.93 40-yard dash at 6-foot-6, 311-pounds in Indy. Similarly to Brian O’Neill, he would likely need a year of development before stepping in but the Vikings desperately need future answers (and depth) on the O-line.
Finally in the third round it was time to pick project players rather than those expected to make an instant impact with receiver with Donovan Peoples-Jones. The Michigan receiver lacked in production with only 71 receptions in the last two years on a team that struggled at quarterback. He’s far from a refined receiver but has tremendous athletic skill and was a five-star recruit coming out of high school. Peoples-Jones has Derrick Rose’s vertical jump at 44.5 inches and runs a 4.48 at 6-foot-2, 212-pounds.
(For the record, quarterback Jake Fromm was on the board at this point).
Corner Troy Pride Jr. is similar in his terrific NFL Combine with a 4.4 40-yard dash and questionable play at times. While he only allowed an 86.6 rating into his coverage per PFF, Pride only had 10 “forced incompletions,” which was 82nd in the country.
Lawrence is a low ceiling, high floor player who might have a chance to see the field right away but isn’t likely to become a star. He could offer some depth inside in a rotation with Jaleel Johnson and Armon Watts.
Kubiak’s offense opens the door to the Vikings taking a surprising direction and passing up on a heap of talented receivers in favor of hoping that one of them on the roster or a mid-round pick develops into quality support for Thielen. It opens up the opportunity for pressing defensive needs to be covered with the first-round picks and either an offensive lineman or another defensive player who can play a role or become a starter in 2021 to be picked in the second.
While it’s a justifiable position for a team that wants to grab one of the seven playoff spots and should have an offense capable of doing so without a first-round receiver, it puts a great deal of pressure on Thielen and could cripple the offense if he’s forced to miss any time. With game-changing talents at receiver in the first and second round, it would be difficult for the Vikings to leave draft night without one.