It doesn’t take much for a positional strength to become a weakness in the NFL. One injury, one off-field snafu, one departure and the complexion can change. Look no further than the Minnesota Vikings receivers, a group that parted with half of its elite receiving duo 10 days ago and went from having two star pass-catchers signed through at least 2023 to facing a precarious dearth of talent.
The Vikings signed Tajae Sharpe Wednesday to provide some help after their blockbuster Stefon Diggs trade that brought back four draft picks. There’s no reason to think the Vikings are content with Sharpe as Adam Thielen‘s right-hand man after several underwhelming years in Tennessee. Conversely, there’s no reason to think the Vikings have another body as established or capable on the current roster. Until the draft, where Minnesota almost certainly will seek a play-making pass-catcher, Sharpe has as much claim to a starting receiver job as second-year prospects Bisi Johnson, Davion Davis or Dillon Mitchell, and Sharpe recognizes that.
“The opportunity that’s being presented with Diggs being traded, having kind of a void to fill at the receiver position, I felt like I had the opportunity to come in here and compete for a starting spot,” Sharpe said on a conference call Thursday, “and that’s all that you can ask for is the opportunity to come in and compete, to prove your worth. I feel like with Coach [Gary] Kubiak, and with him running the offense and the success that he’s had for all these years, I just feel like this is the best spot for me to be, just to try to take my game to the next level.”
Diggs’ departure indeed leaves a void on the Vikings that some speculate should have been filled the year prior. After a 2018 campaign where the team’s lack of depth beyond Diggs and Thielen was exposed, the organization took half-measures to address the issue in 2019, signing injury-prone Jordan Taylor (who didn’t make the team) and a bevy of late-round picks and undrafted free agents. Then Thielen hurt his hamstring in Week 6, and the final wide receiver taken in the 2019 draft, Johnson, was asked to play the part of Thielen for the bulk of the season’s second half. He was effective for his pedigree, but by no means game-changing, never exceeding 43 yards receiving in a game.
Flip the injured Thielen for the now-traded Diggs, and the Vikings have a similar conundrum in 2020. The No. 1 status is clear for the 29-year-old Thielen. Suddenly, though, the team that once banked in its dynamic top two to cover up an ambiguous No. 3 has no clear-cut choices beyond Thielen. For Sharpe, who watched first-round pick Corey Davis (2017) and second-round pick A.J. Brown (2019) supplant him on the Titans’ depth chart in recent years, his opening in Minnesota offers a potentially refreshing narrative change.
“Obviously we had guys [in Tennessee] that were brought in every single year at the receiver position,” Sharpe said, “so having a new coaching staff different than what I had my rookie year, coaches like to bring in guys that they want to see come in and try to make some plays, so I understand that part about the business, and I’m all cool with that. That’s how the game goes, but like I said now, the opportunity that the Vikings presented my with, being able to come in and having a chance to compete for a starting spot and widen my role a little bit, have a larger role as a part of the offense. That was an opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up.”
With the Vikings, Sharpe joins another system predicated on the run game, similar to the Titans’ model that nearly ran them into the Super Bowl last season under head coach Mike Vrabel. That doesn’t always sit well with receivers — just ask Diggs — but Sharpe also sees the opportunity to play with the best quarterback of his career in Kirk Cousins.
“I had the pleasure of speaking to Kirk briefly yesterday,” Sharpe said. “He reached out to me, and he was excited to get things going. I’m excited, as well, to have a guy that I see as a great leader for the team. He’s an established quarterback, an established player in this league. He does a great job of delivering the football to his receivers. He was probably the best deep ball thrower in the league last year, so I’m excited about that, getting an opportunity to go downfield and make some plays.”
Deep passing wasn’t an area in which Sharpe thrived with the Titans. After a hopeful rookie season, Sharpe notched just four receptions over the next three years that went for 20-plus yards, and he failed to show much ability after the catch despite a respectable 40-yard dash time in the 4.5-second range.
Sharpe sees himself as versatile, however, with an increasing ability to play out of the slot using his bigger 6-foot-2 frame.
“I just feel like being inside I feel like it’s way more space in there, so to me in my personal opinion it’s a little bit easier than playing on the outside,” Sharpe said. “It’s just way more space in there, so it’s a lot of fun to be able to move around and be able to play just a bunch of different positions on the field.”
The 25-year-old believes playing under Gary Kubiak will be a continuation of his experience with former Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, who used similar terminology. But those offseason meetings designed to acclimate acquisitions with their new playbooks are on hold right now after the Vikings joined clubs around the league in closing their team facility due to concerns over the Coronavirus.
To stay active, Sharpe says he’s working out in his home gym and catching passes on a JUGS machine, while finding time to write and record music on the side.
“It definitely feels a little weird,” Sharpe said, “especially being an athlete, we’re kind of used to rippin’ and runnin’ and being on the go, you know, most of the year. Now everybody just has the chance to kind of sit down and kind of gather their thoughts and everything like that, but it is a little weird that I’m not getting ready to go out to Minnesota and get ready for OTAs and stuff right now. Everything’s on hold.”