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The future of the Vikings, part 3: Receivers

As the Minnesota Vikings head into a vital offseason, we will look at each position under a microscope. What worked? What didn’t work? What might change in 2019? What are the best and worst case scenarios? What options do they have going forward? Our series will lead up to the opening of free agency on March 13. We move on to part 3, wide receivers…

Quarterbacks

Running backs 

Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen

What worked:

You would be hard pressed to find a more productive duo of receivers in the NFL. Diggs and Thielen both cleared the 100-catch and 1,000-yard mark. When Kirk Cousins targeted Thielen, he had a 115.3 rating and managed a 107.9 rating when throwing in Diggs’ direction. Both of them caught over 70 percent of passes thrown in their direction and they each grabbed nine touchdowns. Amazingly the duo was targeted 290 times and only dropped six passes.

Diggs and Thielen each ranked in the top 10 in catches and touchdowns, top 20 in yards and top 15 in Pro Football Focus grade.

With the lack of running game, the Vikings routinely turned to Diggs on quick passes. On throws that traveled between 0-10 yards through the air, Diggs caught 60 of 71 passes for 437 yards, four touchdowns and one interception (105.2 rating).

According to Pro Football Focus, Diggs was the third best receiver in the NFL on contested throws.

Thielen opened the season with eight straight games of 100 yards or more. While he often lined up in the slot, Thielen was a downfield threat. On throws beyond 20 yards to Thielen, Cousins completed 11 of 20 passes with four touchdowns and one interception.

Intermediate throws were also incredibly effective when throwing to Thielen, hitting 34-of-47 for 499 yards and a 119.0 rating.

What didn’t work:

Diggs and Cousins struggled at times to connect on deep passes. The Vikings’ QB had just six completions over 20 yards to Diggs on 23 attempts. In 2017 Case Keenum/Sam Bradford went 13-for-26 on throws over 20 yards.

While Diggs racked up a huge number of receptions, his yards per catch ranked 40th of 40 receivers with at least 85 targets.

As teams adapted to the Vikings’ usage of their top receivers, Thielen saw his production dip. Over the final five games, Thielen caught just 20 passes on 29 targets for 235 yards and one touchdown.

Cousins and Thielen had a heated exchange late in the Vikings’ Week 17 loss to the Chicago Bears. Both players said that the situation was overblown by fans and media, but it certainly can’t be marked down in the positive category that they weren’t on the same page in the final week of the season.

What might change in 2019

If you owned Thielen and/or Diggs on your fantasy team in 2018, you probably had a great year. But the Vikings likely do not want to be so one-dimensional that they are throwing in Thielen/Diggs’ direction that often.

In 2017, they combined for 60 fewer catches than in 2018, but the team ranked sixth in Expected Points Added. In 2018 they ranked 22nd.

It would stand to reason that the front office will make it a top priority to find other weapons for Cousins to target, especially in key situations in which opponents will double team Thielen and/or Diggs.

We did not hear Diggs express any frustration with his role as a quick-pass receiver, but he is most dangerous when running routes between 10-19 yards. The Gary Kubiak offense includes all sorts of bootlegs and play-action passes that often have receivers running intermediate routes.

The hope for Cousins and his receivers is that Year 2 will bring an increase in chemistry — though they will once again be adapting to a new offense.

Best case scenario for 2019

Thielen and Diggs remain centerpieces of a balanced passing attack that utilizes more weapons and thus brings down their overall usage. They increase yards per reception and continue to find which routes and combinations best fit with their quarterback.

Worst case scenario for 2019

The Vikings fail to find more options for their quarterback and opponents force Cousins to go elsewhere with the ball in key situations because he isn’t willing to take risks when throwing to his two stars and the Vikings continue to struggle in third-and-long spots. The passing game does not take a step forward.

Laquon Treadwell

If you were hoping for a big step forward from Treadwell in Year 3, you did not get it. He caught 35 passes on 47 yards but gained just 8.6 yards per reception — an average that you usually see from running backs. Cousins only managed an 80.3 rating when targeting the former first-round pick, yet continued to look in his direction in important times. The low point of his season was a healthy scratch in a key game in Detroit.

After getting two years to show any flicker of potential and failing to do so, it might be better for Treadwell and the Vikings if the two part ways.

Aldrick Robinson

A favorite of Cousins’ while playing in Washington, Robinson quickly picked up the offense and jumped into the fray, grabbing 17 passes on 32 targets for 231 yards and five touchdowns. At 30, he showed that zero steps have been lost.

As a free agent, Robinson would be a good candidate to bring back as a depth receiver and pure deep threat.

Chad Beebe

The 24-year-old undrafted free agent started the year dead last on the depth chart and ended up getting the nod over Treadwell in Week 16. He was targeted four times and caught all four passes. With quick feet and good hands, Beebe will get a shot next season at becoming a regular.

Brandon Zylstra

The CFL star caught one pass for 23 yards against the New York Jets and did not see the field much beyond that. He filled in as a punt returner for Marcus Sherels at the end of the year. It’s possible he could compete for a roster spot again next year.

Options

Considering that Cousins was at his best in 2016 when he was surrounded by Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson and Jamison Crowder, the Vikings should be looking into every possible option to get him more weapons. It turns out that Garcon and Jackson could both be cut by their teams and Crowder is a free agent. That might be a place to start.

Other top free agent receivers in a deep class include: former Lions star Golden Tate, deep-threat receiver John Brown, slot receivers Cole Beasley and Adam Humphries and veteran Randall Cobb.

Any one of them would be a significant upgrade.

The draft does not appear to have a clear-cut superstar prospect, but CBS Sports ranks nine receivers as late-first round or second-round picks. The list includes an array of different types of receivers, including the freakishly sized DK Metcalf (Ole Miss), undersized/speedy Marquise Brown (Oklahoma) and the polished route-runner Deebo Samuel.





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