Whether it be Cris Carter and Randy Moss or Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, the Minnesota Vikings almost always seem to have a good wide receiver duo. Their latest dream pairing is Thielen and Justin Jefferson. However, even having two great receivers is not enough.
In recent years, the NFL has found itself transforming into an offensive league driven by depth at every offensive position. And depth is something Minnesota’s top-heavy receiver room lacks. It’s that special something necessary to go far in January and hopefully into February.
To keep up with the ever-evolving offenses, NFL defenses are getting smarter too. Even two elite receiving options are not enough when opposing teams are employing six defensive backs on the field.
This showed up plenty just in the playoffs last year. Davante Adams is the best WR in the NFL and was enough for the Green Bay Packers to make the NFC Championship. But he mustered only 67 yards on 14 targets against a stifling Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense composed of multiple high-round draft picks.
The Seattle Seahawks may be the closest comp to Minnesota’s situation, with their elite receiving duo of D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. While they provided enough offense to help win the NFC West, the Seahawks were outclassed by the Los Angeles Rams, who have the NFL’s best secondary.
Three of the four championship teams were top-three passing offenses: the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, and Buccaneers. These teams employ some of the deepest WR cores in the NFL, which helped them make deep playoff runs. Recently, PFF’s Eric Eager created this chart:
The big takeaway here is that second and third receivers are more important than first receivers in Expected Points Added (EPA), and this gap only increases in the postseason. Third receivers are just as important as second receivers.
While the Vikings have two elite pass-catchers in Jefferson and Thielen, they still haven’t invested enough resources in a legitimate third wide receiver. In the past few offseasons, the Vikings threw darts at the board, signing role-players like Jordan Taylor, Kendall Wright, and Tajae Sharpe. This offseason, they didn’t even sign a single veteran receiver, despite having loads of cap room.
Here’s how the team could mitigate the need for a third wide receiver. However, it may not be the most sustainable idea.
Although the Vikings ran the most two-receiver sets in the NFL over the last two seasons, it is fair to wonder if that’s not by choice. In 2019, they had just four receivers on their 53-man roster, although they eventually expanded due to an injury to Adam Thielen. The lack of options beyond the top two has been an issue for Minnesota for quite some time.
For starters, here is the Vikings’ rate of 11-personnel (one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers on the field) since 2016:
- 2016: 63%
- 2017: 56.3%
- 2018: 67.3%
- 2019: 25%
- 2020: 29%
There was a huge drop-off after 2018, due to the schematic shift and personnel changes. Coincidentally, that was when Irv Smith Jr. was drafted. At that point, the Vikings chose to employ more two tight-end sets because it not only assisted with their run-first mentality but also let the team put their best offensive skill players on the field; Smith Jr. was a better player than Laquon Treadwell.
Still, in 2019 and 2020, the player with the third-highest number of receiving yards was Dalvin Cook, a running back. This isn’t the recipe for an explosive offense, because although the Vikings have been good with the skill players they have, the landscape changes once the playoffs come around.
Plus, for older players like Thielen who have an injury history in the new 17-game season the lack of focus on receiver depth is especially confounding. In the modern day NFL, Bisi Johnson or Chad Beebe will simply not cut it at that position when other Super Bowl contenders have Antonio Brown or Emmanuel Sanders.
After the 2020 season concluded, Justin Jefferson stated in a KFAN interview, that he saw more deep double-teams towards the end of the season. “They also started playing a little off on me too, making it more difficult to win on routes,” he said. “Once you see that, you’re a problem in the league.”
Sure, the Vikings drafted Ihmir Smith-Marsette, and, sure, he has been given the inside track to win the third receiver job. But at the end of the day, he is a fifth-round rookie, and depending on him to fill that gap in a Super Bowl-contending season would be shortsighted.
The Vikings still have approximately $14.5 million in salary cap room. “Darts on the board” like Dede Westbrook or Golden Tate are out there in free agency. It’s never too late to add more competition.
Every player that scored a touchdown for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their Super Bowl win was acquired last offseason. In this era, a team can never have too many weapons, a lesson the Vikings may learn the hard way.