Even in COVID-19 times, the perpetual optimism that typically permeates training camp remains.
Riley Reiff, for instance, said that he thinks the quality of play will be better — not worse — after a truncated offseason. Andre Patterson believes that young players will be better off having gone through weeks of virtual meetings that forced them to learn the playbook. And Kirk Cousins is upbeat about the prospects of his receiving corps; that’s a little different refrain than most fans who are nervous after the Vikings traded Stefon Diggs.
Optimism is always the default response in these situations, so positive responses should be treated with a healthy skepticism. But in the most unprecedented offseason/preseason in NFL history, all parties are more or less required to laugh through tears as they try to put a brighter spin on pandemic-related obstacles.
While all of the assertions listed above require some unpacking to determine their validity, let’s focus on Cousins’ belief that his pass catchers have what it takes to step to make an impact after losing Diggs to Buffalo.
“[There’s] really two things you want,” Cousins told reporters last week. “You want that athleticism where you know your receivers can create separation and win versus man coverage, which I think we have, and then you also want someone you know you can count on, who’s going to get lined up and know where to go in the pass game, in the run game and handle all the terminology and all the different rules. And we have a group of guys that can do that, too.”
Cousins’ criteria seems to be separation and football IQ. Those two traits are certainly useful as a baseline when practice time is a premium. The quarterback wants to know his receivers have the ability to get open, and do so from the proper alignment and in the proper amount of steps. Excelling in those areas can expedite chemistry between the quarterback and receiver.
Using the quarterback’s criteria, let’s examine Cousins’ existing chemistry with his returning receivers, then handicap how he might mesh with some of the team’s new pieces.
Thielen’s 2018 season may be the most notable cautionary tale about putting too much stock in preseason performance. Cousins had just entered the picture and didn’t seem to have the connection with Thielen that Case Keenum did the year prior. While Cousins and Diggs connected with frequency throughout training camp, Thielen was conspicuously quiet. He only made catches in one preseason game, registering just 26 yards in all of his appearances. But any stock that was put into Thielen’s low key preseason quickly seemed foolish when he delivered a record-setting start to the regular season with eight straight games tallying 100 yards or more. He finished seventh in the league in targets (153), tied fourth in receptions (113) and ninth in yards (1,373).
Of course, he benefited in part because of Diggs’ presence, which is now gone. In two years with Cousins, Thielen only played one game in which Diggs was out, and he was held to four catches for 22 yards and a touchdown against Detroit in Week 9 of the 2018 season. In 2020, he’ll have that challenge every week. Of course, Thielen could turn into the primary diversion that opens things up for rookie Justin Jefferson, who we’ll get to shortly.
Thielen is no doubt Cousins’ safety blanket. In 2018, he tied for third in the league with 22 first-down receptions on third-down plays, and he was tied for 11th in that stat before his hamstring injury in Week 7 last season. Thielen’s route-running can create instant separation that is useful on key downs and has earned him the right to be Cousins’ go-to target.
CHEMISTRY LEVEL: High
Ask any of the reporters who observed spring practices where Johnson sat on the wide receiver depth chart this time last year… it would’ve been toward the bottom. He struggled with drops early on and was lumped in with a rookie receiver class that head coach Mike Zimmer put on notice early in training camp because of the group’s poor attention to detail. Then the games began, and Johnson started separating himself from the pack with five catches, 87 yards and one touchdown in the first three preseason games. Arguably more importantly in the coaches’ eyes, he honed his understanding of where to line up on the field. Johnson locked up his spot early enough that he got to take the fourth preseason game off with the rest of the starters.
Johnson’s football IQ made him the most reliable option in a group of inexperienced or unproven depth receivers, and when Thielen and Chad Beebe went down, Johnson was forced into the WR2 role and ran many of the same routes Thielen would have. Johnson was probably underqualified for those duties but put up a respectable 294 yards and three touchdowns with only one drop.
The rookie lacked, however, the separation ability that could lend itself to a bigger role going forward. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Johnson had an average separation of just 2.5 yards at the catch point on his 31 receptions, tied for 24th lowest among qualified receivers. For reference, Diggs had the exact same separation, but not only is he one of the best contested catch receivers in football, he dealt with far more press coverage. NFL Next Gen Stats also track a receiver’s average cushion at the time of the snap. Johnson had a generous 6.5 yards, tied for 12th-highest in the league. Diggs had 4.6 yards of cushion, tied for the fourth lowest.
As a result, Johnson wasn’t a deep threat whatsoever, recording zero receptions on targets of 20 yards or more, and he posted the 13th-lowest yards per route run at 1.03.
Johnson was a rookie seventh-round pick last year, so there’s plenty of reason to believe he’ll improve. But penciling him in as anything more than a WR3 or WR4 is premature.
CHEMISTRY LEVEL: Moderate
None of the other returning Vikings have much rapport with Cousins. Beebe is the most seasoned with six catches in two seasons, Hollins comes in next with two receptions as a rookie UDFA in 2019, and Mitchell had a disappointing first season that saw him get waived and then re-signed to the practice squad. Cousins mentioned recently, though, that he liked what he’d seen from the two second-year players.
“I think having Dillon Mitchell and Alex Hollins on the practice squad all last season and then bringing Alex up at the end only adds more depth and experience to some of those roster spots,” Cousins said.
The truth is, none of these three are guaranteed a spot on the 53-man roster, particularly if the Vikings keep only five receivers. But Beebe still has the inside track of this group. Remember, Beebe was ordained as the team’s WR3 before an ankle injury in Week 3 ended his season. Injuries may always pester Beebe, whose small frame has proven to be fragile. But when healthy he is likely a better version of Hollins, who is even smaller.
Beebe flashed in his rookie training camp and led the Vikings with nine preseason receptions in 2018 to earn favor with the coaches — more than Hollins or Mitchell can say after both struggled to gain traction out of the gate. Beebe wins with short-area quickness, clean routes and a seemingly high football IQ that likely comes from his football lineage — exactly what could help him thrive after a shortened offseason. Unfortunately, most of Beebe’s success has come on the practice field or in preseason games. His first two regular seasons have been marred by injury, which makes it harder to project how he’d fare against starting DBs over a longer period of time.
CHEMISTRY LEVEL: Below Average
THE NEW GUYS
With respect to K.J. Osborn, Quartney Davis and Dan Chisena, the only rookie expected to make a significant impact in Year 1 is first-round pick Justin Jefferson. Nick Olson recently broke down Jefferson’s film at ZoneCoverage.com to show the ways in which Jefferson can contribute, none greater than his ability to separate with pristine route-running.
Route-running was what allowed Diggs, a fifth-round pick, to earn playing time and stand out a rookie back in 2015. It’s a skill the Vikings value greatly, which is why Cordarrelle Patterson saw his role reduced once Zimmer came to town, and it’s part of the reason Laquon Treadwell struggled to get early playing time as well. Conversely, crisp route trees are part of the reason Johnson and Beebe were quick to develop chemistry with Cousins. Jefferson has the right skillset to be quickly incorporated, and the Vikings are readily promoting him as if they expect him to be a focal point of the offense.
Jefferson got some informal workouts in with Cousins on a local high school field during the offseason, but they’ve yet to do anything full speed against live defenses. Gary Kubiak has been working feverishly with Jefferson to get him prepared with 11-on-11 practices quickly approaching as the acclimation period winds down. Jefferson missed the first several days of walkthroughs after spending time on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
“We have to get Justin caught up,” Kubiak said. “He’s missed a little bit of walkthrough time, but he’s back there now. We’ve got some split stuff coming up where rookies are in Phase 2 and veterans are still on walk-through. I’ve got a lot of things on my mind where I’m catching Justin up with the team. I’ll have him ready to go once we get pads on so he can compete. He’s a hell of a player, we know that. We know his big strength was playing inside. We’ll get him caught up so his talents can take over.”
Jefferson is no doubt talented based on his college tape, and his natural talents may go a long ways to cover up any blind spots he might have with the rest of his game. Getting the rookie caught up mentally is likely the biggest hurdle, since technique and precision have been the pitfalls of Minnesota’s rookie receivers in recent years. Cousins hopes the weeks of virtual meetings served as a beneficial time for the LSU product.
“Coach Kubiak made the comment yesterday, we will have done so much more meeting time and walkthrough time before we actually hit the practice field and go full speed than any rookie would’ve ever gotten in the past,” Cousins said. “It does lend itself well to really learning the basics, learning the fundamentals, before you have to take it to full speed, 100 miles per hour.”
POTENTIAL CHEMISTRY LEVEL: Moderate to High
Sharpe’s impact may determine whether the Vikings have a below average or above average receiving corps. Combined, the non-Thielen receivers on the roster have 39 career receptions. Sharpe has 92 in his three healthy seasons with the Titans.
Because Sharpe saw his role decrease in Tennessee with the addition of A.J. Brown, he didn’t qualify for Next Gen Stats in 2019, but his 2018 separation numbers, which did qualify, were adequate with 3 yards of average separation. His 2016 separation average, however, was tied for the sixth-lowest in the NFL at 2.1 yards.
Sharpe transitioned into more of a slot role as his career went on, and he seemed to grow into it. For instance, his yards per route run out of the slot in 2018 was a woeful 0.46, fifth-worst in football. That improved to 2.18 a year later, or 18th best in the league. Sharpe had his most efficient season in 2019, albeit in a smaller role, posting a 127.0 passer rating when targeted.
It’s not as if Sharpe has ever been a deep threat, however, so he would need to prove he can make catches in tight quarters as well or better than Johnson or Beebe, who are also battling within that niche and have more experience in the Vikings’ system. The Vikings haven’t had especially good luck with veteran receiver pick-ups — think Michael Floyd or Kendall Wright — which doesn’t doom Sharpe whatsoever, but it speaks to the free agent market in general. If there are players available cheaply, there’s probably a reason why.
POTENTIAL CHEMISTRY LEVEL: Moderate to Low