Over the next couple weeks, Sam Ekstrom will dig into some of the biggest Vikings offseason talkers at each position.
For the first time in the Stefon Diggs/Adam Thielen era, the 2019 Minnesota Vikings had to survive for an extended period of time without one of their co-starring wide receivers. Thielen missed most of the season’s second half with a troublesome hamstring injury before returning late in the year and competing in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Diggs put forth his best career season statistically, though a handful of sideline blowups and a bizarre early-season press conference showed that Diggs disapproved, at times, with the direction of the offense.
Meanwhile, the Vikings spent a large chunk of the year searching for a reliable third receiver before eventually settling on rookie Bisi Johnson, who showed promise for the future. But should Minnesota feel secure in their receiver depth heading into the 2020 offseason? Tight ends Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr. should make them feel more comfortable after both came alive later in the regular season, but what does Rudolph’s future hold?
With that, let’s explore the biggest questions.
CAN DIGGS AND THIELEN THRIVE IN 2020?
After Week 4, it looked like the Vikings offense was unraveling. The team was off to a 2-2 start with a pair of inter-division duds at Green Bay and at Chicago. The passing game was out of sync, and Diggs wasn’t shy in letting people know about it. It all came to a head when Diggs skipped a day of practice, then held his “There’s truth to all rumors” press conference, providing the first tangible sign that trade speculation for the star wideout might not be exaggerated.
Then, a breakthrough. Just when it appeared everything was crumbling, Diggs, Thielen and the Vikings offense came alive. Over the next nine quarters, Diggs and Thielen combined for 25 catches, 441 yards and six touchdowns. The last of those touchdowns was a diving catch by Thielen in the back of the end zone at Detroit that simultaneously injured his hamstring, setting off an eight-week stretch of games where Thielen was either a partial- or non-participant. He returned in time, however, to be a hero in Minnesota’s playoff win at New Orleans with seven catches and 129 yards.
Diggs started the most games in his NFL career (15), set a new career-high in receiving yards (1,130) and trailed only Michael Thomas in yards per route run out of qualified receivers. He, like Thielen, is under contract through at least 2023 with an eight-figure-per-year salary. Dollars aren’t an issue. But what about fit? Diggs wasn’t shy about making his displeasure known when the offense was struggling, and if his main gripe is schematic — that a run-heavy offense isn’t going to offer as many chances for Diggs to make plays — then he may have the same frustration in 2020 as the Vikings intend to continue with the same offense under new coordinator Gary Kubiak. On the other hand, getting Thielen healthy for a longer stretch could bring about an even more explosive version of the Vikings offense than we saw in 2019.
For the most part, Diggs’ teammates have voiced their support for him, including Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook and Thielen. Considering we aren’t seeing everything behind the scenes, it’s possible Diggs’ outbursts are simply a result of his competitive juices overflowing, as opposed to a chronic displeasure with his current situation.
Trading Diggs would be a massive gamble for the 2020 offense. Without him, the Vikings would be hamstrung at wide receiver without a clear No. 2 on the roster. But if a deal for Diggs approached the haul received last offseason for Odell Beckham Jr. (first-round pick, third-round pick and former first-round defensive back Jabrill Peppers), it could help the Vikings fill a hole at corner without adding new money to their cap-strapped financial situation.
HOW IMPORTANT IS ADDING RECEIVER DEPTH?
Minnesota rode the WR3 merry-go-round for half the season (and preseason) before settling on Johnson as their primary backup. First, it was Jordan Taylor, who received high praise during OTAs but didn’t amount to much in training camp. Then it was Chad Beebe, who looked sharp during the preseason and earned the job out of camp but was hurt for the season in Week 3. The team brought in Josh Doctson and Laquon Treadwell to contend for snaps as well, but Doctson was quickly injured and never made an impact, while Treadwell was surprisingly effective but in extremely limited reps.
The Vikings also had a carousel of rookie practice squad receivers in Dillon Mitchell, Davion Davis and Alexander Hollins with the latter two making a handful appearances on the 53-man roster, but neither did anything to stamp a future roster spot.
Johnson was, essentially, the third wide receiver by default and, in fact, saw WR2 snaps when Thielen was injured. The Colorado State product was a novelty for his draft position (No. 247), but he wasn’t the type of dynamic playmaker that should make the Vikings feel OK with their receiving depth. Johnson was 90th out of 102 qualified receivers in yards per route run.
Finding more competition at wide receiver should be a must. This was also the case after the 2018 season, when having Thielen and Diggs healthy wasn’t enough to stymie defenses at the end of the season, yet the Vikings didn’t do much to bolster their depth. Going forward, enhancing the offense should remain a priority since the defense is facing a potential regression with the departure of some big names.
WHAT DOES KYLE RUDOLPH’S FUTURE LOOK LIKE?
Rudolph had his lowest statistical year of production since his injury-shortened 2014 campaign, finishing the 2019 year with 39 receptions and 367 yards. But his impact the second half of the season was a reminder of his value, and Rudolph’s overtime touchdown in the Wild Card game against the New Orleans Saints provided the Vikings with a signature playoff moment. He’ll enter the first season of a four-year extension in 2020.
The veteran tight end embraced his increased role as a blocker last season, finishing with the sixth-most run-blocking reps out of all tight ends. From Week 7 on, he scored seven touchdowns (including playoffs) while finishing the season without a drop. This seemed like a necessary and natural progression for Rudolph at age 30, nearly a decade into his NFL career. To continue, he would have to find a niche as a better blocker and double-down on his role as a red-zone pass-catcher. He did that.
Smith showed the makings of Minnesota’s tight end of the future, but Rudolph made a great case for the value he brings — not the least of which was his work off the field that earned him a Walter Payton Man of the Year candidacy.
Rudolph’s cap hit for 2020 sits at $9.45 million. The Vikings could save $3.65 million by releasing him, but considering the Vikings negotiated an extension with Rudolph last offseason, there’s some incentive for the Vikings to honor that agreement for at least one more year. Who wants to sign extensions with teams that rip them up before they begin?
The Vikings can save larger chunks of cash elsewhere without cutting their tight end.