Vikings

Can Tajae Sharpe Become the Minnesota Vikings' Third Receiving Threat?

Photo credit: Jim Brown (USA TODAY Sports)

As the signings poured in from the initial wave of free agency, the Minnesota Vikings were making headlines of their own. After extending Kirk Cousins and trading Stefon Diggs, the Vikings had some financial wiggle room to play with in the opening wave of free agency. After signing Michael Pierce, the Vikings turned their attention to the gaping hole they had just created at wide receiver and took one step in filling it by signing…Tajae Sharpe?

The signing of Sharpe isn’t going to suddenly pump optimism into a team that just lost arguable its top receiving weapon for a bag full of magic beans (or more accurately, draft picks). Although the Vikings would fill Diggs’ shoes specifically with Justin Jefferson a month later, the same problem with the Vikings receiving core still existed.

Since Diggs and Adam Thielen rose to prominence during the 2016 season, the Vikings owned one of the best receiver duos in the NFL. The only problem was that nobody else could replicate even a functional receiver. Things would get worse with the departure of Jarius Wright following the 2017 season, and the following year would be a complete shutdown as the Vikings limped to an 8-7-1 record.

The presence of just four receivers on the roster didn’t hamper the Vikings to the same extent in a 10-6 season, but that void of having a functional depth receiver still lingered as the Vikings shuffled through a second tour of Laquon Treadwell and Josh Doctson, who never saw the field.

Even with an impressive rookie season from Bisi Johnson, the signing of Sharpe still felt strange, but a dive through his analytics shows that he could at least be a depth piece who could be a reliable secondary target for Kirk Cousins.

Sharpe’s time in Tennessee

Sharpe began his NFL career as a fifth-round pick out of UMass who surprisingly won a job out of training camp. His rookie season produced solid overall numbers (43 catches, 522 yards, 2 TDs), but he struggled in other areas including catching just 49.4% of his targets. The following season, Sharpe suffered a foot injury during training camp and missed all of 2017.

After the firing of Mike Mularkey following the 2017 season, Sharpe never seemed to get in the good graces of Mike Vrabel, and his starting job dwindled into an opportunity as a role player. As a result, Sharpe’s rookie season has been his best statistically, but his 2019 performance may be what won him a contract with the Vikings.

In 2019, Sharpe compiled a 74.2 offensive grade from Pro Football Focus, which ranked 41st among all receivers. Although it was slightly lower than Treadwell (who was at 74.9), Sharpe drew a 127.0 passer rating when targeted, which would have ranked 14th in the NFL among qualifying receivers.

Among those targets, Sharpe was most useful when he was used in the slot. The Titans used him in the slot 26.4% of the time in his final season in Tennessee, and his 2.18 yards per route run in the slot would have ranked ninth in the NFL among qualifying receivers between Allen Robinson and Chris Godwin.

In addition, Sharpe caught all 25 catchable targets for the Titans last season. Although his drop rates in 2016 (4.7%) and 2018 (7.1%) were significantly higher, those numbers were about on par with Wright, who seems to be the gold standard for Vikings depth receivers in recent years.

What can Sharpe do for the Vikings?

At the time of his signing, there was a fear that the Vikings would trot out Sharpe and Thielen and hope for the best with Gary Kubiak‘s run-heavy offense. That didn’t come to fruition with the addition of Jefferson, but Sharpe can still play a role as one of the Vikings depth receivers and may have a better chance to fill that role than the incumbent Johnson.

Sharpe’s 2019 season could very well be an outlier, but he wound up outproducing both the 2017 version of Wright and what Johnson did in 2019.

2019 Tajae Sharpe 2019 Bisi Johnson 2017 Jarius Wright
PFF Overall Grade 74.2 64.8 71.8
Drop Rate 0.0% 3.1% 0.0%
Yards Per Route Run in Slot 2.18 0.50 1.29
Slot Snap Percentage 26.4% 38.2% 79.6%

Of course, the projected lineup for the Vikings includes Jefferson as the primary slot receiver after he was a machine in that role at LSU. But if anything, the addition of Sharpe gives Kubiak more options to play with. With Jefferson capable of playing inside and outside, the Vikings have an effective slot receiver on the roster who can mix and match along with Thielen, which should result in more three-receiver sets.

Finding the next Wright shouldn’t seem like a big deal to an NFL team, but if we’ve seen anything from the first couple years of the Kirk Cousins experience, having several reliable targets isn’t a bad thing. If Sharpe can produce somewhere near the level he did in Tennessee, he could exceed expectations and help open things up for the rest of the Vikings’ passing attack.

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