(On the Purple Daily podcast Wednesday, I gave Phil Mackey three Vikings players that I expect to take a step forward in 2020. (I’m going to assume the season will happen.) Over the next three days, I’ll provide more insight into why I think each of these players could emerge.)
The Vikings spent the past four seasons knowing that as long as Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen were healthy they had one of the best wide receiver duos in the NFL. Diggs’ decision to force his way out of Minnesota this offseason changed that.
Thielen, who missed six games in 2019 because of a hamstring injury, is no longer the 1A or 1B among Vikings’ wide receivers. He is now clearly the guy atop the depth chart. The Vikings are hoping that first-round pick Justin Jefferson can play a large role in replacing Diggs and free agent Tajae Sharpe was signed to a one-year, $1 million deal after spending his first three seasons (92 catches for 1,167 yards and eight touchdowns) with the Tennessee Titans.
Jefferson should eventually become a key contributor, while Sharpe is probably destined to play more of a complementary role. But both newcomers are in a difficult situation given their first offseason with the Vikings will include no on-the-field work and is being done virtually.
All of this should give an advantage to a guy who put together a solid rookie season with the Vikings. Colorado State wide receiver Olabisi Johnson was the third of Minnesota’s four seventh-round picks last year. He was taken with the 247th selection, meaning there were only seven picks made after Johnson was selected.
Despite the odds being against him, Johnson was one of four wide receivers the Vikings kept on their 53-man roster to open the season. He stepped into the No. 2 role after Thielen was injured in late October in Detroit and finished the year having played in all 16 games, making six starts, and catching 31 of the 45 passes on which he was targeted for 294 yards with three touchdowns. He also had 17 receptions for first downs.
Johnson’s best performance of the season came on Nov. 17 in the Vikings’ 27-23 come-from-behind victory over the Denver Broncos, when he had six catches for 35 yards. Johnson also had two catches for 17 yards in the Vikings’ first-round playoff victory at New Orleans.
Johnson, who is 6 feet, 204 pounds, might not have been considered one of the top receivers in the 2019 draft but he proved to be a smart player and a good route runner. Don’t underestimate the importance of those things. Cordarelle Patterson was the 29th pick in the 2013 draft by the Vikings in large part because of his athletic ability, but his struggles with route running were a primary reason the team gave up on him after four seasons.
Ability doesn’t mean nearly as much if it doesn’t come packaged with reliability. Kirk Cousins wants to know that his receivers are going to be in the right place. When training camp does start, Johnson is going to arrive knowing exactly what Cousins and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak want from him. It’s going to take Jefferson and Sharpe a bit more time to catch up and that could mean Johnson’s role, especially early in the season, gets expanded.
Don’t be surprised if the 23-year-old takes advantage of the opportunity.