It was a surreal moment last Sunday when Adam Thielen, famously One of Us, was watching the Minnesota Vikings game like one of us. There he was in his living room, isolated from the world after being placed on the NFL’s COVID-19 reserve list following the Dallas Cowboys game where he made a one-handed catch that landed as No. 1 on SportsCenter’s top plays.
He presumably had mixed feelings about seeing Teddy Bridgewater return to U.S. Bank Stadium in a different team’s uniform, looking to knock his former team out of the playoff picture.
He probably felt a sense of relief when the Carolina Panthers punted the ball up three points, hoping that Kirk Cousins could deliver a game-winning drive — only to watch Chad Beebe muff the punt and put Carolina in position to seal the game.
But we all know that he was as excited as we were when Beebe, an undrafted player out of Northern Illinois and son of former Packers returner Don, leapt into the air and cradled a Cousins pass as he landed in the back of the end zone for the Vikings’ game-winning touchdown.
It’s a reminder of the times, that even a guy like Thielen is capable of being sidelined due to the novel coronavirus and has to sit at home — unable to influence the outcome of a game that means a lot to his favorite team.
He views the game a bit differently, of course. He knows Beebe and has seen him shine in preseason games, receiving passes from exhibition legend Kyle Sloter. He looked like the Vikings’ next hidden gem they signed after the draft, much like Thielen was.
But Thielen also probably saw him in the trainer’s room as injuries derailed a promising start. He passed him on the sideline in games where he was a healthy scratch or on the injured reserve. He’s played with overlooked receivers like Charles Johnson, who showed flashes of greatness but couldn’t hold down the job.
Olabisi Johnson looked like one of those guys after the first two weeks of the season. One of four players the Vikings took in seventh-round two years ago. Dillon Mitchell came from a bigger program, Oregon, and seemed to have more acclaim heading into 2019. But Johnson, who played at Colorado State, was the player who got the snaps and began the 2020 year as Minnesota’s WR2.
This was following the Stefon Diggs trade, of course, and Justin Jefferson missed part of training camp because of COVID restrictions. Had there been four exhibition games, as there normally is, Jefferson may have begun the year as the No. 2 receiver.
It’s not hard to believe, given that he’s looked like a No. 1 at times and is putting up Randy Moss-like numbers to begin the year. But the fact that the Vikings gave Johnson the option to be WR2 in Diggs’ absence tells you they thought highly of the second-year receiver. He was supposed to be a veteran presence to stabilize the passing attack coming out of one of the strangest offseasons in NFL history.
The first two games were a disaster, and Johnson was only so culpable. But as soon as Jefferson had his breakout game in Week 3 and started to make a case for Rookie of the Year, Johnson disappeared. The Vikings no longer had a WR3. It was Thielen and Jefferson and a run-heavy attack. The closest thing they had to a No. 3 was Irv Smith Jr., another 2019 draft pick who was presented as a hybrid tight end-receiver when he was taken in the second round out of Alabama.
Given that the Vikings offense was always going to be built around Dalvin Cook and the running game, they may not necessarily need a WR3. The teams that Mike Zimmer and Gary Kubiak coached as coordinators in the ’90s had a star running back and usually only involved two receivers.
But it’s 2020, and the league has become more pass-oriented. Plus, Cousins could use a third option, especially on critical third-down plays. He could use a Jarius Wright. And while Wright himself is a free agent, he’s on the wrong side of 30 and both Beebe and Bisi are in their early 20s and already under contract.
While both Johnson and Beebe played well against Carolina — Johnson had seven receptions for 74 yards, Beebe had seven for 63 — Johnson appears to play better when Thielen is out of the lineup. He thrived alongside Diggs when Thielen was injured last year but struggled at the beginning of this season.
Beebe, on the other hand, looks like a shifty slot receiver and a capable third option. While Johnson had only been targeted four times since Week 2, Beebe got six targets in the loss to the Atlanta Falcons alone. If anything, his emergence as a viable third option may open things up for Thielen and Jefferson.
Hopefully, Thielen won’t be watching many games from his couch any time soon, but in a moment where he was watching at home like all of us, he may have been watching a player who can enable him to do more on the field now that he’s back.