As OTAs come to an end and the Minnesota Vikings get set to participate in mandatory mini camp next week, one particular position will be full of players jockeying for jobs when training camp opens in late July: Wide receiver. More specifically, WR3.
This offseason the Vikings made additions to the receiving corps behind stars Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs but did not invest in a proven, clear-cut No. 3 receiver. Instead we will be tracking the daily performances of Laquon Treadwell, Chad Beebe, Brandon Zylstra, Jeff Badet, Jordan Taylor, Dillon Mitchell, Bisi Johnson and a handful of others during the dog days of camp.
“I think it’s a good group,” head coach Mike Zimmer said on Tuesday. “I don’t know that anyone has really kind of separated themselves. They’re all pretty decent. Bisi [Johnson] looks good at times, Dillon [Mitchell] looks good at times. Those guys kind of show out a little bit. They’re all making little rookie mistakes right now, but as we go forward I think someone will separate themselves here.”
So we know there will be an all-out competition for the gig but the question that hasn’t been asked is: How important is WR3 to the 2019 Vikings offense?
A study by the Denver Broncos SB Nation website “Mile High Report,” indicates that — based on Gary Kubiak’s history — we might see the Vikings put less emphasis on the role that you might expect.
Mile High Report looked at the performances by WR3 throughout Kubiak’s history as an offensive coordinator or head coach and found only six instances of a third receiver catching more than 30 passes between 1996 and 2015. The last five WR3s under Kubiak had 22, 24, 22, 10 and 31 receptions.
Receivers like Jordan Noorwood, Marlon Brown, KeShawn Martin and Jacoby Jones held down the third receiver role in recent years.
(Chart of No. 3 wide receiver performances since 2000 via Mile High Report)
The MHR breakdown of Kubiak’s tendencies includes the distribution of passes between receivers, running backs, fullbacks and tight ends. Interestingly the tight end role averages 23 percent of total targets over Kubiak’s career. Last year Kyle Rudolph, David Morgan and Tyler Conklin made up just 15.7 percent.
Assuming Rudolph isn’t traded, this points to the use of multi-tight end sets with rookie Irv Smith being used as a playmaker as a more prominent feature of the 2019 Vikings offense than the use of WR3.
Also notable: Running backs and fullbacks have made up 23 percent of the target share. Last year 16.3 percent of targets went toward the Vikings backfield.
The plan at WR3 might be to separate players into specific roles.
For example, it’s plausible that Chad Beebe would mix in as a slot receiver while Jeff Badet could be a deep threat, Jordan Taylor a possession receiver and Dillon Mitchell an outside receiver. Or Laquon Treadwell could play blocking snaps while Bisi Johnson comes in the slot and Mitchell runs deep.
There are all sorts of combinations the Vikings can form with the different skill sets of their unproven receivers. The usage of Thielen could determine whether we see someone else like Beebe slide into that role. Last year Treadwell was used outside and Thielen took 57 percent of snaps in the slot (per PFF).
The possibility also exists that someone will emerge the way Stefon Diggs did in 2015 and own the job. The one outlier to the Kubiak history analysis is Jacoby Jones in 2010 when he caught 51 passes. If the Vikings are trying to emulate the Washington offense from 2016, they would need a more traditional No. 3. Kirk Cousins distributed targets evenly between Pierre Garcon (114), DeSean Jackson (100) and Jamison Crowder (99).
To recreate that scenario, someone would have to rise to the top. We’ll still be watching for that in minicamp and training camp.