Jarius Wright never became a superstar with the Minnesota Vikings. He never passed 600 yards and eclipsed 60 catches just once in his six seasons with the Vikings. But with the way they have scrambled to fill his role, Wright deserves a statue in front of U.S. Bank Stadium.
That’s because WR3 has been a mess for the Vikings. Since Wright departed after the 2017 season, they focused on drafting late-round receivers and signing castoff veterans to fill this role. As a result, they have seen defenses focus on Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, and now Justin Jefferson to grind their passing attack to a halt.
The problem still exists heading into this offseason. While Jefferson (1,400 yards) and Thielen (925) had a tremendous 2020, Chad Beebe (201) was their next leading receiver. The quickest way to solve the issue is by tossing another one-year deal at the likes of Keelan Cole or Josh Reynolds, but the best answer may lie in the 2021 draft class.
Last year, the Vikings tapped into a historic class by selecting Jefferson with the 22nd overall pick. The results can’t be denied, but they would be best served by once again tapping into a deep class. The top options for Minnesota include Alabama’s DeVonta Smith or LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase. While they are considered top-tier prospects in this class, there is enough uncertainty surrounding both players that they could be available with the 14th overall pick.
Internet scouts have asked questions about Smith’s weight. At 175 pounds, he is smaller than your prototypical NFL receiver, but he is one of the best route-running technicians in this year’s class. Putting a guy who posted 215 yards and three touchdowns in the first half of the national championship game into your offense sounds like a good idea. Putting him into an offense that also has Jefferson and Thielen sounds like an even better idea.
Even if the Vikings don’t like Smith’s weight, they should take a good look at Chase. The 6’1”, 208-pounder was part of the most dominant offenses in the history of college football. As Jefferson’s teammate at LSU, Chase torched opposing secondaries for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2019, leading to his decision to forgo the 2020 season to prepare for his NFL career.
The decision to opt out will make some scouts leery, but Chase is still a franchise-quality wide receiver. Reuniting Chase with Jefferson seems like an easy decision.
If either Chase or Smith falls to the Vikings at 14, Rick Spielman should sprint to the podium to make the selection — even if he has to stiff-arm Mike Zimmer’s defensive wishes in the process.
But what if Smith or Chase are unavailable?
The Vikings would be in a great spot even if they took the edge rusher or cornerback Zimmer’s defense needs in the first round. Even if they waited until the third round to find a WR3, they still have plenty of options that would be better than signing a free agent.
Florida’s Kadarius Toney and Purdue’s Rondale Moore are dynamic players who could make defenses think twice about doubling Jefferson and Thielen. Adding Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace would be an excellent understudy for Thielen and a potential replacement for him years from now. Even adding a bigger receiver like Michigan’s Nico Collins or Auburn’s Seth Williams would give defenses something to worry about.
The same cannot be said for the receivers in this year’s free-agent class. With the top-tier receivers like Allen Robinson, Kenny Golladay, and Will Fuller out of the Vikings price range, they are left choosing from a second tier of veterans.
In Keelan Cole’s case, he has a history with new wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell. The two worked together in Jacksonville, and Cole notched career-highs in receptions (55) and touchdowns (five) last season. The issue was that Cole ranked 98th among qualifying receivers with 1.11 yards per route run and was only 86th in PFF’s receiving grades.
Josh Reynolds is in a similar situation. He hit the market after putting up career-highs across the board with increased playing time. The 26-year-old was just as effective as Cole, however, ranking 90th with 1.26 yards per route run and grading 80th among qualifiers.
Even spending a little more for Sammy Watkins, Corey Davis, or Curtis Samuel seems like a better idea. But the Vikings are currently $5 million over the projected salary cap, and there might be better ways to spend the money considering they have holes at offensive line, safety, defensive end, and cornerback.
Having an average player for one year feels like a temporary solution, while using a pick in the first or second day of the draft seems like a better option for 2021 and beyond. Even as the Vikings’ draft approach has been short-sighted, they need to think of ways to be a better team in the long-term.
By getting a WR3 in the draft as opposed to a free-agent stopgap, the Vikings can take a big step in that direction.