Arif Hasan of The Athletic joined Paul Allen on KFAN’s “9 to Noon” show on Monday. While sharing training camp thoughts, Hasan noted that he believes that third-year Minnesota Vikings receiver K.J. Osborn could potentially outgain longtime wideout Adam Thielen in 2022.
The take is easy to scoff at. Thielen is a fan favorite who has produced two 1,000-yard seasons and 48 touchdowns since entering the starting lineup in 2016. Without going through his entire backstory for the 1,000th time, Thielen grew up in Detroit Lakes before playing at Minnesota State. Undrafted in 2013, he has worked his way up the depth chart, exceeding what former punt returner Marcus Sherels did as a hometown hero. Thielen is about as safe a bet as any to retire a Viking.
On Wednesday, the team released its first unofficial depth chart of the season. To the surprise of no one, Thielen joined Justin Jefferson as one of two starting receivers. The Vikings listed Osborn as the first backup, confirming what we’ve heard throughout training camp – he will retain the WR3 spot heading into the year.
While Osborn could begin the season as the team’s third receiver, that doesn’t mean the Vikings have locked him into that slot. He made a tremendous Year 1 to Year 2 jump last year. After not playing a single snap on offense as a rookie, Osborn caught 50 passes for 655 yards and seven touchdowns in 2021. That included a walk-off touchdown reception in overtime to beat the Carolina Panthers on the road.
Meanwhile, Thielen caught 67 passes for 726 yards and 10 touchdowns in only 13 games last year. He got injured in Week 13 against the Detroit Lions, which hampered him down the stretch. Thielen would miss four of the final five games of the season while dealing with an injured ankle.
The bulk stats show that Thielen still has plenty of juice in him. However, he turns 32 on Aug. 22. While he is still reliable, he may be slowing down a bit. For example, Thielen caught 70.5% of passes thrown his way in 2021, the third-highest rate of his career. However, his yards-per-target was 7.6, a full yard lower than his 2020 total. This number has dropped since his career year in 2018, when he gained 9.0 yards-per-target. His yards-per-reception was 10.8, 1.7 yards fewer than 2020, and 3.1 yards fewer than 2019.
Conversely, Osborn showed more explosion on his targets. His 61.0% catch rate was noticeably lower than Thielen’s, but Osborn managed to outpace Thielen with an 8.0 yards-per-target average. That number exceeded the likes of Tyreek Hill, D.K. Metcalf, and Stefon Diggs. Osborn’s 13.1 yards per reception was tied for 40th in the league, ahead of players like Christian Kirk and Davante Adams.
There should be more opportunities for Osborn to make plays in 2022 as well. From Weeks 3-11 last year, Osborn only eclipsed 26 yards receiving once. When Thielen was injured from Weeks 13-18, Osborn eclipsed 50 yards only twice.
With Kevin O’Connell set to bring more 11 personnel to the Vikings’ offense this year, don’t expect this sort of disappearing act from Osborn again. Having Thielen healthy should help Osborn get more favorable matchups. The Vikings ran lots of 21 personnel in 2021. That meant that the Vikings would trot out a healthy Thielen alongside Jefferson, or they would have Osborn line up opposite Jefferson.
Now the Vikings will be set to have Jefferson, Thielen, and Osborn on the field at the same time more often. Jefferson and Thielen are primarily outside receivers. That should put Osborn in advantageous mismatches with opposing nickel cornerbacks. And if the Vikings are planning on using Jefferson in a Cooper Kupp-style role as much as we’re expecting, this should give Osborn even more field to work with as defenses scheme to take away Jefferson.
I’m not saying the Vikings will phase Thielen out of the offense. He still has Kirk Cousins‘ trust in the red zone, and his route-running is among the best in the league. In fact, a productive Thielen, much like Jefferson, should only help Osborn.
But Osborn has been on an upward trajectory since his disastrous rookie season, and, by all accounts, he’s in line to take another massive step in 2022. Combine this with Thielen getting older, and you have a recipe for Osborn seamlessly transitioning into the WR2 spot. Don’t look at it as Thielen losing his job. Look at it as Osborn leaving little doubt that he will be the best man for the job in 2022.