Vikings

K.J. Osborn Was Miscast As a Returner Last Year

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee (USA TODAY Sports)

K.J. Osborn wasn’t receiving much positive press before the start of this year’s offseason program. When he was drafted in the fifth round, pundits thought Spielman reached for a player who was expected to go undrafted. Fans were equally skeptical of the pick. He spent three seasons at a non-Power 5 school, playing at the University at Buffalo before transferring his senior year to play at the University of Miami. Osborn managed only 547 yards on 50 receptions in his lone season with the Canes.

Osborn wasn’t even the highest-ranked WR on his team. Jeff Thomas was a four-star recruit who was the No. 1 WR prospect in Illinois and the second-ranked high school prospect in the entire state. For context, Buffalo Bills defensive end A.J. Epenesa was ranked as the best overall, while Chicago Bears tight end Cole Kmet was ranked third behind Thomas. This made the Osborn selection even more confusing.

Despite this, the Minnesota Vikings felt confident enough in Osborn to draft him with the 176th pick. Special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf liked that he was an experienced punt returner and viewed him as a potential replacement for Marcus Sherels. Osborn shared return duties with Chad Beebe and Ameer Abdullah, and his performance was underwhelming. Last year, Osborn gained only 27 yards on punt returns, averaging 3.9 yards per return (Y/R). Beebe didn’t fare much better, finishing the season with a total of 42 yards on punt returns with an average of 4.7 Y/R.

One would think that someone who was drafted with the sole purpose of fixing the team’s return woes would have been more productive. But upon closer examination, the reason Osborn floundered is clear. Even though he has experience as a punt returner, that doesn’t mean he’s best suited for that role. Despite finishing with an above-average 40-yard dash time of 4.48 seconds, Osborn did not perform well on the 20-yard shuttle, which tests acceleration. Combined with his small stature, it makes it difficult for him to evade defenders. Granted, he did perform well in the bench press but not to the extent where it can overcome his other deficiencies.

In short, Osborn isn’t an exceptional athlete, which limits his value as a returner.

However, Osborn is good at playing in the slot. He spent the majority of his college career there, and it’s where he was the most productive. He finished with 1,490 yards over the course of three seasons in Buffalo. They had him play on the outside in Miami, which is why his numbers went down.

Osborn reminds me a bit of Jarius Wright in terms of his style of play. He’s short, stocky, and is essentially built like a running back. He has a high football IQ and knows where the holes in zone coverage are, adjusting his routes accordingly. He’s also known as a hard worker, which is evident to anyone who has been following along in training camp. And he graduated from IMG Academy, which is a well-known private sports preparatory school.

Maalouf’s belief that you should draft a special teams player based on experience rather than upside is flawed. If the goal was to find someone who can single-handedly carry the special teams unit like Cordarrelle Patterson, then he should’ve drafted someone like Jeff Thomas, who has the ability to blow by defenders.

Even if that player has no experience as a returner, it’s one of the easier roles to teach. All they need to do is catch the football and know when and where to run. It’s much easier than learning how to run routes. It should be noted that the Vikings were ranked sixth in Y/R the year before Maalouf was hired. That figure dropped to 21st his first year before plummeting to dead last in 2020. Some blame can also be attributed to Gary Kubiak, as Osborn was never given any true WR reps.

Fortunately for the Vikings, Klint Kubiak seems to be giving Osborn a chance to compete for the WR3 spot, and he’s been proving his worth since. I’m curious to see how they use him differently from last year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a breakout season.

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