One doesn’t need to be an All-22 expert to understand that football has been evolving. The hard-nose, black-and-blue mindset that defined the league for decades has shifted to more nuance and finesse. Most offenses are stretching the field north, south, east and west like never before. That’s led to more playmakers at wide receiver and an increased emphasis for franchises to build deep rooms of pass-catchers.
The Vikings, however, have zigged while the league has zagged. Minnesota ran a system in 2019 based on heavy personnel, multiple tight ends, a fullback and a robust running game. Old school, one might say. The result? The fewest three-receiver sets in the NFL, according to Sharp Football, and by a wide margin. Just 214 times the Vikings lined up three receivers, while the league-leading Cincinnati Bengals did so 800 times. The league average was 605.
The Vikings believe in their system. They’ve said so with their words, whether by Gary Kubiak, Kirk Cousins or Mike Zimmer, and with their actions — they agreed to trade star receiver Stefon Diggs in March. There’s no indication Kubiak is going to flip to an Air Coryell system now that he’s in charge. No, his plan will resemble what Vikings fans saw a year ago.
Here’s the catch: The Vikings have a receiving corps packed with receivers who can thrive in the slot, and without three-receiver sets, the slot generally disappears unless, of course, it’s filled with a tight end or running back. Without Thielen or Chad Beebe for much of last season due to injury, leaning on other offensive playmakers made sense. But with a healthy receiving corps that added Justin Jefferson and Tajae Sharpe, the Vikings have more versatility. So how much will the Vikings utilize it?
“The more you can do to help the team, it goes a long way,” said Sharpe. “If you play inside, outside, the coaches have the flexibility to move you around and not keep you locked down or stuck at one position. … It helps at depth at every position.”
Calculating by yards per route run, Thielen was a top 10 slot receiver in 2017 and top 20 in 2018 before getting hurt a season ago. Jefferson led the nation in slot yardage for the NCAA Champion LSU Tigers last season with 1,518 yards. Sharpe was 15th out of qualified slot receivers in 2019. Then there’s Bisi Johnson, K.J. Osborn and Beebe, whose diminutive builds fit the more traditional slot archetype.
The unique aspect of Minnesota’s slot options is their size. Thielen, Jefferson and Sharpe are all 6’2″ or taller with effective slot resumes. As football becomes increasingly position-less, slots no longer need to be small. Back in 2006 — the first year Pro Football Focus calculated slot performance — there were only four receivers with 300 or more slot snaps, and all four were 6’1″ or shorter. Last year, there were 19 receivers with 300-plus slot snaps, and almost half were taller than 6’1″.
The analysis is simple. Teams force defenses to play their third cornerback, who is often shorter and less physical. Unless the defense has a bigger corner (think Xavier Rhodes) who can shadow inside, there’s a mismatch waiting to happen. When asked about teams putting their top pass catchers in the slot, Zimmer pointed out that defenses can double-team easier when receivers are lined up inside. Yet the best receivers still find ways to exploit defenders from the slot. Seven of the top 10 slot receivers last year were their team’s overall leading receiver, and five of the 10 were among the 10 best leaguewide in overall yards per route run. And not surprisingly, eight of the top 10 best slots were 6’1″ or taller.
“Those receivers are good whether they line up inside or outside,” Zimmer pointed out.
TOP 10 SLOT PERFORMERS (YARDS PER ROUTE RUN)
The Vikings’ approach last season was antithetical yet effective. Instead of capitalizing against an additional corner, they kept defenses in base with an extra linebacker and tried to take advantage with their tight ends and running backs. Then they picked their spots to go deep for Diggs with great efficiency. Diggs finished the season tied for the league lead in deep receptions (16) and led the NFL in deep receiving yards (635).
“I think one of the things I did like about our system last year was once Adam went down, Diggsy really was our main receiver,” said quarterback Kirk Cousins, “and from there we used a lot of tight ends, we used running backs, we used C.J. Ham as a fullback, and asked those positions to do far more from a receiving standpoint. I’d like to believe that when you put those personnels on the field with heavier people, tight ends, fullbacks, that it puts the defensive coordinator in a bind because he’s assuming that it’s going to be run, or this is going to be a tighter formation.
“I do think personnel is one of those things that’s the game within the game, and when you have versatile players and you can stay very multiple with what you do within a personnel it can make for a great advantage. So last year we still moved the football well in a lot of different personnel groupings that didn’t involve receivers.”
Thielen saw a significant decrease in slot opportunities last year, down to 18 slot snaps per game (when healthy) from 32 the year prior. Diggs went down to eight per game after getting 15 each of the previous two years. Once he joined the rotation, Johnson received 17 slot snaps per game, mostly taking the role of Thielen in the offense.
The difference in 2020 is substituting Jefferson for Diggs. While the latter could thrive anywhere on the field, Jefferson was almost exclusively a slot last year at LSU, and his only work with the Vikings’ first-team offense at camp has been in the slot. If the Vikings don’t see Jefferson as a boundary threat right away — but still want him on the field — that may compel them to find ways to use three-receiver sets more often.
“The Mike Thomases, the Odells, Davante Adams, they play inside and outside,” Jefferson said on a recent Zoom call. “Those receivers are more versatile, and that’s the type of receiver that I’m trying to be here, just being able to go outside and run routes and go inside and run routes.”
Before the draft, the Vikings spent time watching Jefferson’s 2018 college season when he played more on the boundary, and they believe he is interchangeable, as does his quarterback.
“I think if there were limitations and he was only comfortable in the slot he’s probably not a first-round pick,” Cousins said. “I think the ability to jump in and out of that role and be versatile is part of what is exciting about his ability.”
The Vikings’ top five receivers all arguably have the ability to slide inside, and their most traditional slots, Beebe and Johnson, could be valuable on third downs reminiscent of Jarius Wright in the mid-2010s. But the Vikings also have three quality tight ends, a deep room of running backs and one of the league’s best fullbacks. Some might say they went heavy last season by default, whereas this season they have more options to spread the field.
Now it’s on Kubiak to plug in the right pieces.