Vikings

K.J. Osborn Is the WR3 We've Been Waiting For

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA TODAY Sports)

It feels like the Minnesota Vikings have been searching for a solid third wide receiver forever. In fact, the last time the Vikings had three wide receivers who racked up 500 yards each in a single season was back in 2009 with Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin, and Bernard Berrian.

Over the last four years, the Vikings’ third wide receiver has averaged just under 250 yards for the entire season. Last year, Chad Beebe only accumulated 201 yards on the year.

So it’s notable that K.J. Osborn has already accumulated 311 receiving yards. Osborn is already the Vikings’ most productive WR3 over the last five years — and it’s just Week 6. At his current pace, Osborn is on track to rack up nearly 900 receiving yards on the season, which would make him the most productive WR3 in Vikings’ history.

But is that production legitimate? Is Osborn doomed to regress into oblivion? Or does the second-year receiver have the skills and talent to continue to produce this year and beyond?


Catch Point Consistency

Osborn’s talent is legitimate, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Kirk Cousins, the floor is yours:

This is an option play designed to isolate the Vikings’ best receiver on the outside of a 3×1 set. The Vikings are running a spot concept to the field side, but Cousins has the pre-snap option to ignore the main play concept and throw the fade if the X receiver is facing press coverage without safety help. Typically the Vikings run this concept to Justin Jefferson or Adam Thielen, so it says a lot that Cousins is willing to completely trust Osborn on a fade route the same way he trusts his top-two guys.

And Osborn repays that trust with a great release to get on the CB’s toes, then swats away the press attempt. Osborn is immediately even with the corner and could win this route with speed, but he slows down to track and catch the slightly underthrown ball. Then Osborn high points and holds onto the ball despite a strong sideline contest from the cornerback. It’s an all-around high-level play showcasing Osborn’s release, speed, and catch-point talent while also demonstrating that Cousins trusts Osborn as if he were the team’s WR1.

But that’s hardly the only impressive catch Osborn has made so far this year:

As these plays show, Osborn can make contested catches, high-pointed catches, diving catches, hospital-ball catches, and down-and-away catches. Osborn may not have a huge catch radius, but he uses every inch to his advantage and has a knack for reeling in some tough grabs. Osborn is 4-of-7 on contested catches through six weeks — a higher career contested-catch rate than Jefferson or Thielen.

And even more importantly, Osborn has not recorded a single drop on 26 regular-season catches (nor on seven preseason catches either). This season, Osborn is one of only seven receivers to record more than 20 catches without a single drop.

The most important job of any receiver is catching the ball. And right now, Osborn is catching everything.


LIKE A LITTLE TEAPOT

Osborn is simultaneously the shortest wide receiver on the Vikings’ roster while also being the heaviest. At 5’11”, 203 lbs., he’s short and stout. That unique body type makes him surprisingly strong through contact, setting up some incredible plays once he gets the ball in his hands:

That density and low center of gravity, together with impressive contact balance, allows Osborn to power through would-be tacklers for big gains after the catch. Here, Eli Apple has Osborn dead-to-rights and even has his arms wrapped around Osborn’s hips, but Osborn keeps churning along the sideline to convert an incredible 3rd and 24.

When you combine that fight with Osborn’s vision and functional speed, you start to see a lot of impressive plays once he gets the ball in his hands:

The same traits that made Osborn an elite returner in college flash in the NFL after the catch. He can bulldoze defenders when he lowers his shoulder, Osborn has a good feel for angles and how to slip upfield past defenders, and he has enough straight-line speed to pick up huge yardage on crossers. Osborn currently leads the Vikings’ team in YAC above expectation, narrowly edging out Jefferson, and you can see why the Vikings scheme up touches for him.


Deceptive Speed

And that same speed that makes Osborn dangerous after the catch also makes him dangerous before the catch, as the Vikings saw immediately in Arizona:

The Cardinals’ coverage bust makes this a first down, but it’s Osborn’s speed after the catch to outrun the safety that makes it a touchdown. Osborn ran a 4.48-second 40-yard dash, better than average and in the 64th percentile for the position. That speed shows on film.

And of course, that’s not the only Vikings’ touchdown made possible by Osborn’s speed:

This walk-off win doesn’t happen if Osborn can’t get on the field-side safety’s toes here. The Panthers are running Cover 2, with both safeties gaining a lot of depth off the snap, but Osborn bursts up the hashes to force the safety to declare before breaking off on the corner route. That speed buys just enough space for Cousins to hit a pinpoint pass and the Vikings to walk off as winners in overtime.

Osborn’s speed adds a new element to the Vikings’ offense that was missing in previous years with Chad Beebe or Olabisi Johnson, as these four plays show:

The first play here shows how much yardage after the catch can be gained when Cousins hits Osborn in stride across the field. That is the same skillset that allowed Jarius Wright to have so much success in Minnesota on mesh and crossers, particularly on third downs, and it will continue to serve Osborn well over his career.

The second and third plays show that Osborn can legitimately threaten on go routes. Osborn runs a nice vertical route on the second play, giving a quick jab step to threaten inside before breaking outside the nickel corner. If Cousins were not working the other side of the field, this could have been a huge completion. On the third play, Osborn is able to run right past the defensive back again, forcing a key defensive pass interference call to keep this drive alive.

And on the last play, Osborn may not be targeted, but his speed forces the safety and weakside hook defender to carry him upfield, which is precisely why Jefferson gets about as open as you can be in the NFL.

Osborn’s speed makes all these plays happen. It will continue to lead to success after the catch, on vertical routes, and for the offensive design generally.


Developing Route runner

Osborn spent much of the offseason working on his route running with Stefon Diggs, Jarvis Landry, and teammate Justin Jefferson, and it sure seems like some of their route-running magic has rubbed off. Osborn has made significant strides refining his route running when compared to his rookie year. It’s particularly apparent watching his release off the line of scrimmage:

Osborn shows a great variety of releases off the line of scrimmage here, doing a great job getting on each cornerback’s toes before bursting past them or jab-stepping outside before releasing with space inside. He has choppy, quick footwork and does a great job swatting away press attempts or armbars as he bursts upfield.

Equally impressive is the separation Osborn can create at the top of his routes:

Osborn isn’t an elite natural separator like Diggs or Amari Cooper, but he does a good job varying the tempo of his routes and using that short, choppy footwork to explode out of his breaks. As the comeback route above shows, he does a good job throttling down upfield to create separation. He’s also able to use his size in the stems of his routes to lean into defenders before breaking away, creating space upfield.

Osborn still has room to grow in his route running. However, suppose he can continue his meteoric development compared to his time in college or as a rookie. In that case, Osborn could develop into a very good separator, particularly off the line of scrimmage. He should be able to, given the reputation he has for his attitude and work ethic.


Difference-Making Blocker

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Osborn’s game is his willingness and effectiveness as a blocker. Take this pin block against 265 lb. DE Sam Hubbard:

To sustain that block that long and that effectively as a tight end would be impressive. To do it as a 203 lb. wide receiver is something else entirely.

It’s not just a big reason why this pin-pull sweep works; it’s a big part of the Vikings’ identity. Osborn has frequently been tasked with chipping defensive ends like Myles Garrett, Chandler Jones, or Brian Burns in pass protection, and his willingness to do the dirty work in the run game has played a big part in the Vikings’ rushing success:

Osborn essentially allows the Vikings to run 11 personnel while often playing more like a 12-personnel move tight end. He can line up as a split-end X-receiver out wide (where he has lined up on approximately 40% of his offensive snaps this season) and beat press. Or he can line up right off the line of scrimmage to take on linebackers and even defensive ends. That versatility gives the Vikings the ability to threaten the run even while deploying three receivers.


A Very Solid WR3, and Potentially Even More 

Osborn is already the Vikings’ most productive WR3 over the last five years. As the tape above demonstrates, he has the skillset to continue to get open off the line of scrimmage, reel in everything thrown near him, and pick up extra yards after the catch with his speed and strength through contact. Like any second-year receiver, Osborn still has plenty of room to grow. He’s not always on the same page as Cousins, he doesn’t always generate a ton of separation in his routes, and he lacks the elite size, speed, or innate separation ability of other receivers.

A few months ago, Osborn was a long shot even to make the roster. But so was Adam Thielen when he first tried out for the Vikings. And as Thielen has proven over the last decade, the right coaching and work ethic can see a special teamer become a rotational receiver, a rotational receiver become a starter, and a starter become an All-Pro. I’m not sure what kind of ceiling Osborn has, but after seeing just how much he’s improved in just one year, I’m certainly not betting against his long-term potential.

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