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Justin Jefferson’s presence means Vikings shouldn’t pass on chance to go to air more often

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Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) celebrates after catching a touchdown pass in the third quarter during an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Minneapolis. The Titans defeated the Vikings 31-20. (AP Photo/David Berding)

The Vikings will open training camp Wednesday at TCO Performance Center. This is the fifth in a seven-part series examining a topic that will impact Mike Zimmer’s team. Today, we look at the wide receiver position and standout Justin Jefferson.

There is some hope that with Klint Kubiak replacing his father, Gary, as offensive coordinator this season that the Vikings might update their scheme and finally begin to embrace the pass as so many NFL teams do these days.

But that’s assuming Klint’s boss, Mike Zimmer, would approve such an update and anyone who follows the Vikings knows that the only thing Zimmer loves more than running the football is defense. Last season, the Vikings were eighth in the NFL  with 468 rushing attempts and 27th with 516 passing attempts.

The presence of standout running back Dalvin Cook is one reason for this, but the Vikings also have numerous weapons in the passing game. That starts with quarterback Kirk Cousins and includes wide receivers Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson, tight end Irv Smith Jr., and Cook, who is a quality receiver out of the backfield. The expected addition of Dede Westbrook as the third receiver will provide another depth option.

The Vikings had looked to have weakened their passing game when wide receiver Stefon Diggs was traded to the Buffalo Bills in March 2020. But the decision to take Jefferson with a first-round pick obtained from the Bills (No. 22) in last year’s draft had an immediate impact that even Minnesota didn’t see coming.

Jefferson was mostly a non-factor in the Vikings’ season-opening losses to Green Bay and Indianapolis — he caught five passes for 70 yards in the two games — before catching seven passes for 175 yards and a touchdown in Week 3 against Tennessee.

Jefferson finished the season with 88 catches for 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns. The yardage total set a rookie record for the Super Bowl era, breaking the mark held by Arizona’s Anquan Boldin (1,377 yards) since 2003.

Jefferson won’t catch opposing defenses by surprise this season, but he also will have a better idea of what to expect. His receiving stats should increase — he was targeted 125 times last year  — unless the Vikings are intent on relying on the run as much as possible.

Smith will be a beneficiary of the departure of veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph. A second-round pick in 2019, Smith had 30 receptions for 365 yards and five touchdowns in 13 games last season. Tyler Conklin, who will be behind Smith on the depth chart, had a strong finish, catching 17 passes for 183 yards with a touchdown in the final six games.

Smith’s receiving yardage was third on the Vikings behind Jefferson and Thielen (925 yards, 14 touchdowns) and one spot ahead of Cook, who had 361 yards on 44 catches and a touchdown.

There are three important questions when it comes to the Vikings’ passing game. 1) Will Zimmer allow it to become more of a focus? 2) Will a retooled offensive line show improvement in pass protection? 3) Can Cousins get off to a better start than he did last season?

Cousins finished eighth in NFL in 2020 with 4,265 yards passing, throwing for 35 touchdowns with 13 interceptions and a 105.0 passer rating. However, he had 11 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and an 88.2 passer rating during the Vikings’ 1-5 start. There were many Minnesota players that struggled during the poor start but the Vikings can’t afford to have Cousins be one of them this season.

Cousins, who is in the midst of earning $96 million from the Vikings, needs to be provided the freedom to utilize the quality receivers at his disposal more frequently. Zimmer’s refusal to do that appeared to be a big part of the reason Diggs wanted out, and the Vikings don’t want to have the same issue with Jefferson, whose guaranteed money each of the next three seasons is a very reasonable $1.2 million, $1.8 million and $2.4 million.

Cook had 312 rushing attempts in 14 games last season, putting him second in the NFL to the 378 attempts the Titans’ Derrick Henry had in 16 games. Cook’s 356 touches also were second to Henry’s 397. It’s unlikely Cook would complain much about a somewhat reduced workload that saw the passing game emphasized more often.

That also might be what the Vikings need to move closer to the top five in scoring offense after finishing 11th (26.9 points) last season. Considering the amount of skill position talent that exists on this offense, there is no good reason that shouldn’t happen.