An offseason of change has left plenty of questions as the Minnesota Vikings prepare for the 2020 season. While the depth charts at cornerback and offensive line have dominated the conversation, so too have the possibilities the Vikings possess at wide receiver.
With Justin Jefferson collecting highlights and praise on a daily basis at training camp, it may be easy to believe he could be the key to replacing Stefon Diggs. The truth is that if the Vikings want to succeed in 2020, they will only go as far as Adam Thielen can take them.
The upcoming season will be a pivotal point in Thielen’s career. Although the presence of Diggs certainly helped Thielen rise from UDFA to superstar, the 30-year-old has done enough to earn his spot near the top of the NFL’s receiver hierarchy.
Even in a season that was derailed due to a hamstring injury, Thielen still ranked third among qualifying receivers with a 131.9 passer rating when targeted. Just two years ago, Thielen set tied an NFL record with eight straight games over 100 yards. He’s an elite receiver.
But the Vikings will need him to do even more of the heavy lifting this year. When the Vikings sent Diggs to the Buffalo Bills, nobody knew how the COVID-19 pandemic would affect the offseason. At the time, the Vikings expected to have a full offseason with on-field instruction that would help any rookie get up to speed by the time they hit training camp.
By all accounts, Jefferson hit the ground running since arriving in Eagan, but that process has happened about two months later than originally anticipated. That means that throughout the league teams will be counting on their veterans like Thielen to help carry their offense until the younger players have legitimate game action under their belt.
In the Vikings case, specifically, it means they’ll rely on the connection between Thielen and Kirk Cousins. In the 2018 season, which saw Thielen get off to a historic start, he was the one receiver that Cousins had an immediate trust with. While Diggs got his stats, it was Thielen who was more of the downfield threat and seemed like Cousins’ top choice to throw to.
Even as Cousins had issues pulling the trigger to throw to a covered Kyle Rudolph or Diggs, Thielen was the one constant, which makes his presence needed more than ever. Sure, Cousins has had a couple more seasons to work with Rudolph, and even Irv Smith Jr. showed signs of life toward the end of the season. But when he’s under pressure, Thielen will be the first guy he’ll look for.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see a scenario in which Thielen dominates the targets and returns to his 2018 form where he saw the ball thrown in his direction 153 times. Unlike John DeFilippo’s screen fest, current offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak will likely deploy Thielen downfield, which could see his yardage totals skyrocket in the same fashion that Diggs had when he saw a 7.9 increase in yards per reception last season.
But the impact on the Vikings offense just doesn’t benefit Thielen. It could also have a residual effect on the development of Jefferson. If Thielen is able to take over the alpha role early in the season, defenses will likely focus on the veteran as opposed to the rookie. Once that happens, Jefferson should have free rein to become Cousins’ security blanket, and as demonstrated during his time at LSU, he has the moves to turn a short pass into a long gain.
When looking at the rest of the Vikings offense, it’s clear that Thielen will be the player that ties everything together. An effective passing game should open up lanes on the ground for Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison and also keep play-action as a threat, which could open more deep opportunities for both Thielen and Jefferson. Plus, the offensive line could be protected with defenses unable to throw everything into the Vikings backfield.
The Vikings missed Thielen during his battle with injury last season, but they were able to get by when Diggs stepped up. With a rookie and a group of nondescript receivers behind him, the Vikings will lean on Thielen more than ever with the hopes that his game can reach another level.