Many of the league’s most potent offenses are built upon under-center, play-action foundations. The Green Bay Packers, Tennessee Titans, Las Vegas Raiders, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, etc. all had successful offenses in large part because of how effectively they can open up their play-action game. The Minnesota Vikings are stylistically similar in theory, but they are missing a key element to take things to the next level.
To operate at peak efficiency, two elements need to be working together. The run game must force defenses not to lighten the box and add extra defenders up top in coverage — this part of the equation is no issue for Minnesota — and they need a dedicated deep threat who could blow the top off the defense at any moment.
Right now, the Vikings do not really have that guy on the roster. Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen can go deep, but playing either of them as a dedicated deep guy takes away from their value as do-it-all receivers who can punish defenses on any route from any alignment. They still had a fairly explosive passing offense last season despite not having someone in this role, but a player of this kind would add tremendous value.
The cost of such a player can vary. The Rams had success with guys like Brandin Cooks and Sammy Watkins, and they expended some valuable picks to trade for them. Considering the L.A.’s offensive output in 2017 and 2018, it’s fair to say those receivers did their job. Conversely, Kyle Shanahan has always gotten by with players on the cheap. Taylor Gabriel (Atlanta Falcons), Aldrick Robinson (Washington Football Team), and Marquise Goodwin (San Francisco) all helped open up Shanahan’s offense as the dedicated deep threat monster, even if they did not always put up big numbers. It just depends on exactly how much an offense wants to ask of that player.
Minnesota has options in that regard. Whether through the draft or free agency, the Vikings could satiate their need for a dedicated deep threat through several avenues.
Jaylen Waddle, Alabama
There are some sweet receivers at the top of this year’s draft class, but only one really fits the description here: Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle. According to several analysts, the 5’10” 183-pound speedster did not play for much of 2020 due to an ankle injury, but he still reigns as the top wide receiver in the class. Waddle’s speed and acceleration in and out of breaks are unmatched.
If you pay attention to the NFL Draft or college football at all, you’ve probably seen this exact clip before. Waddle’s speed works for him in two different ways here. First, any defender covering him, be it a cornerback in man coverage or a safety nailing down a crosser, is going to want to jump as soon as Waddle cuts across the field. There is no “wait and see” playing against him — if you wait, he’s gone. Once defenders commit, though, they are susceptible to Waddle switching gears and taking the top right off again, which is exactly what happens here. Waddle somehow gets right to full speed the instant he turns his shoulders upfield again. From there, it’s just a foot race, and he’s always winning those.
It’s this ability to beat defenses over the top in a flash that makes Waddle special. Against any coverage that is not deliberately selling out to prevent exactly this (looking at you, Gregg Williams), Waddle’s got the goods to deliver on a shot play any time.
To be clear, Waddle is not just someone who takes the top off. He’s an excellent yards-after-catch threat and uses his speed across the field just the same as he does when getting vertical. He also sports impressive route-running for someone with his speed, which is why it’s so devastating when he can work himself free by even just a little bit out of his break. However, Waddle shines brightest as a deep threat and could be exceptionally valuable to the Vikings.
Whether or not Waddle will be available at 14th overall is another question. As mentioned, he is the No.1 receiver on some boards, so it’s not certain that he falls to 14. It’s also not necessary that the Vikings burn such a valuable asset on this kind of player. Their offense is already built to play with a lot of two tight end sets, which brings into question why the Vikings would spend so much for a speedster, even if they still need one. Waddle would be good in purple and gold, but he is perhaps the most luxurious option.
This is where the options start to open up for the Vikings. A handful of players between picks 45 to 100 or so could provide value as Minnesota’s deep threat, and all of them offer a slightly different flavor. In terms of spending, the mid-rounds also make the most sense for the Vikings. Their cap situation is a bit tight, and they probably should not be spending their first-round pick on a wide receiver.
Elijah Moore, Ole Miss
Moore is arguably the most well-rounded option for this role. Though not likely a 4.30s kind of sprinter, he possesses more than enough speed to threaten down the field and work himself open on posts, seams, deep crossers, etc. The 5’9″, 185-pound receiver has a wonderful sense for how to fit into zones, like squeaking past a hook player on a seam route without running himself too far into a centerfielding safety.
He is also pretty tough for a dude his size. Despite his smaller frame, Moore will go up and fight for the ball over the middle of the field regardless of lurking defenders. That attitude is necessary for him in a deep-threat role considering Moore is not in the top 1% of straight-line speed. Couple his aggressiveness with his sure-handedness and the Vikings could have a sneaky tough target in the 15-30 yard range.
Tutu Atwell, Louisville
In many ways, Atwell is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Moore. Though not the most refined route-runner or most aggressive player towards the ball in the air, Atwell has unholy speed and a knack for making plays in space. He is the kind of player whose speed alone forces defenses to respect the deep ball, even if he is not necessarily someone who consistently has the route-running savvy to get space between himself and the defender.
As such, Atwell falls a bit more in line with the Shanahan-ish kind of speed threat for this offense. More specifically, Marquise Goodwin is probably a fair approximation of what Atwell could be, both as a speed slot threat and as a gadget player. Atwell’s speed and shiftiness in space really allow him to be useful on jet/orbit motions as a change from pushing down the field. If the Vikings are okay having their speed threat be a bit unrefined as a pure receiver as a trade-off for some gadget-type plays, Atwell is the man.
Breshad Perriman (New York Jets)
Perriman has sort of revived his career. Though he will never be the player the Baltimore Ravens thought they were drafting in the first round in 2015, Perriman has turned himself into someone who can be a factor on offense even when he’s relatively unproductive. He is the kind of player who forces a defense to respect plays over the top rather than someone who actually makes plays over the top, but that still has value.
Per NFL’s NextGenStats, Perriman’s 15.2 average air yards per target ranked fifth in the league. Granted, some poor quarterback play held Perriman to just three touchdowns on 60 targets for the season, but it’s clear he was doing enough to be a nuisance down the field and warranted a fair amount of attention. Perriman also ranked fourth in the same statistic in 2019 as part of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for what it’s worth.
Chances are Perriman will not cost the Vikings very much. Perriman only made $4 million with the Bucs in 2019 before making $6.5 million with the Jets last season. Assuming that figure does not really go up, it’s a reasonable price for a role player the Vikings could use.
Will Fuller (Houston Texans)
Realistically, bringing in Will Fuller is a bit of a long shot for cap reasons, but it’s worth exploring. Fuller is far and away the superior option. He’s been among the best in the league with the Texans whenever he has been healthy.
What makes Fuller most valuable to an offense is that he’s not useless outside of threatening down the field the way some rookies or, say, Perriman may be. Make no mistake, Fuller is not Stefon Diggs or Davante Adams, but he is a functional route runner to all levels of the field and does not have to be pigeonholed as just a speed demon. Fuller can be an exceptional deep threat while still providing value elsewhere.
Like the argument against Waddle, perhaps the Vikings do not need to spend so much to fill this role. Fuller will certainly pull in a bigger contract than a guy like Perriman, even with his injury history and a lingering suspension that will keep him briefly sidelined to open the 2021 season.