The Minnesota Vikings could make a strong case for having the best receiver tandem in the NFL with Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
Last season they combined for 215 receptions for 2,394 yards and 18 touchdowns, making up 56 percent of quarterback Kirk Cousins’ total yardage and 60 percent of his touchdowns. When throwing in the direction of Thielen, the Vikings QB registered a 115.4 rating (per PFF) and targeting Diggs resulted in a 107.9 rating. Both receivers ranked in the top 20 by Pro Football Focus’s grading system.
Cousins couldn’t ask for much more than two elite players at receiver but the rest of the supporting cast struggled in 2018. When Laquon Treadwell was targeted, Cousins’ rating dropped to 80.3.
The lack of additional weapons aside from veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph was especially felt on third downs. Per Pro Football Reference, Cousins gained just 4.8 yards per play on third down and picked up 18 first downs for 51 targets on third down (35%) throwing to anyone but Diggs/Thielen/Rudolph via Pro-Football Reference. When he did target one of his three top pass catches, the Vikings gained 44 first downs on 95 attempts (46%).
Teams would routinely double team Thielen and Diggs in key spots, forcing the other receivers like Treadwell and Aldrick Robinson to beat them.
“At some point in the season, defensively, I think teams started to try to take them away and it was tougher. When we have guys healthy and have other weapons that is so important,” Cousins said. “I think we will as I look around, I see a lot of talent out there.”
After he took over as interim offensive coordinator last season, Kevin Stefanski talked about the balance of scheming for Diggs/Thielen in important situations and finding other options.
“At times you are going to try to get them open. At times you are going to say, ;Listen, there’s one football and someone else is going to win,'” Stefanski said. “There is a bunch of different aspects and a bunch of different ways to attack that and certainly when we have the skill guys when we have, I understand defense that try to do that, but then it’s our job to get in the meeting room upstairs and draw up some plays that don’t completely take our guys out of it but that allow us to have some success, particularly on third down.”
This offseason the Vikings made an effort to give Cousins more options. One of the biggest questions that will be answered as we go through the 2019 season is whether they achieved that goal. Let’s have a look at the likely roles for his non-Thielen/Diggs/Rudolph options and whether they can produce more than the 2018 depth did…
It may seem like releasing Laquon Treadwell and signing Josh Doctson is trading bust for bust and that very little can be expected from the former Washington first-round pick. But despite his troubles and some injuries, the former TCU receiver caught 25 more passes and seven more touchdowns than Treadwell in seven fewer games.
Doctson ranked 71st of 105 receivers by PFF grades in 2017 whereas Treadwell was 106th of 108 last year.
“We hope that he brings some size and speed,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s a great jumper, athletic. So we hope that he comes in here — he’s got to learn the system, obviously — and do the things that he’s capable of.”
When playing with Cousins in 2017, Doctson pulled in six of seven “catchable deep balls,” according to PFF, had the 16th highest percentage of total targets that traveled more than 20 yards in the air (27.8%) and ranked 29th (of 80) in deep passing yards with 204. In comparison, Aldrick Robinson managed 104 yards on four deep catches in 2018.
Below, via PFF, is Doctson on throws beyond 10 yards from Kirk Cousins in 2017. You can see that on outside throws he caught 12-of-26 such passes for 23.5 yards per completion.
With Thielen as the team’s primary slot receiver, Doctson is likely to be used mostly on the outside where he can go downfield and look for big plays on contested throws.
“It’s not he was he was terrible, he just didn’t produce to a certain level,” ESPN NFL Nation reporter John Keim said on Purple Daily. “You put him in a situation where he is a No. 3 guy and I think that can help…he is a bigger guy and he can go up and get the ball, he’s good on 50-50 passes, he was good in the red zone a couple years ago…as Kirk Cousins knows he made a couple big plays with Kirk.”
If Doctson comes through with a handful of passes downfield, he will have been worth the last-minute pickup and be an upgrade on Treadwell.
While Kyle Rudolph had another solid season in 2018, the Vikings got almost nothing out of their other tight ends in the passing game. Tight ends not named Rudolph totaled 10 catches for 113 yards and zero touchdowns.
The Vikings picked Irv Smith, a star tight end from Alabama, in the second round with hopes that he could be a unique weapon.
“I think Irv…has some versatility,” offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski said. “It’s so important to us to be able to line you up around the formation. Irv is one guy of many, and really I’d include all those tight ends in that room, they’re going to have to be split out wide, do some work from the backfield, and do some work from the line of scrimmage. Irv specifically made a few plays in that ballgame in the pass game, and it’s just going to be a constant emphasis for him to keep getting better in the run game, pass game and pass protection.”
While the tight end position asks a great deal of players at the NFL level in terms of route running and blocking, Smith played multiple positions in college and put together elite numbers among the other TEs in the 2018 draft class, as you can see from the chart of his college PFF grades below:
Smith enters a position where he does not have the carry the load, rather he can spell Rudolph and mix and match based on the opponent and situation. The Vikings hope is that he similar to Philadelphia’s Dallas Goedert, who picked up 33 catches for 334 yards and four touchdowns in his rookie season. That would be a huge upgrade over last year’s non-Rudolph tight end numbers.
The potential downside comparison is Miami’s Mike Gesicki, a second-round pick in 2018 who caught just 22 passes and graded as PFF’s worst tight end.
Smith is the most difficult of all the Vikings extra weapons to project.
Everything you needed to know about Beebe’s ascension came in Week 16 when Stefanski benched Treadwell for the former undrafted free agent from Northern Illinois. In total he caught four passes on four targets for 39 yards and three first downs in three games as a rookie.
“Beebe is a guy who I think will make a major difference for our offense this year that because of him coming up from the practice squad and him having an injury, he wasn’t able to have the same impact as I think he can going forward,” Cousins said.
The Vikings used their 5-foot-10 receiver does not have blazing straight-line speed but Zimmer said that his ability to maintain speed in and out of routes makes him difficult for defensive backs to cover, especially out of the slot.
The best comparison to Beebe’s possible role might be 2017 Jarius Wright. Similarly sized to Beebe, Wright made 10 catches on third down, eight of which turned into first downs. He also caught a key throw in the NFC Divisional playoff game against New Orleans.
If Beebe can stay healthy, he can be an additional target against one-on-one coverage in space over the middle. Matching Wright’s 18 catches from 2017 might be a reasonable projection.
Of the two wide receivers the Vikings drafted in the seventh round, Johnson was easily the more impressive, catching five passes for 87 yards in the preseason and earning reps with the second teamers in camp practices.
“He knows all the spots number one, but every time he goes in, he makes plays whether it’s practice or games,” Zimmer said. “He catches the ball well, runs good routes, seems to have a good feel with leverage on the DB’s.”
While he has made some impressive grabs, Johnson’s college production doesn’t point toward him becoming a special player right away.
Here are his rankings in key areas via PFF’s draft preview:
Recent seventh-round picks have rarely contributed in their first year. The 2018 class saw 32 total receptions by six seventh-round receivers.
Dark horses — Tyler Conklin, Brandon Dillon
The Vikings liked what they saw from Conklin and Dillon enough to keep both around and both are known for their solid pass-catching ability. Stefanski used Conklin on a three tight end set last year and ran play-action for a 33-yard gain, so it’s possible the Vikings could mix and match to some extent.
Ameer Abdullah and Mike Boone are also capable of lining up in the slot or catching passes, giving the Vikings an occasional change-up option.
There are plenty of questions to be answered — i.e. whether Doctson can flourish in a new location or Smith can jump into the mix right away — but the odds are in the Vikings favor with numerous players that have potential to be weapons behind Thielen/Diggs/Rudolph. If one of them clicks, the offense could find themselves being much more effective/efficient when opponents focus on their star players.