How Early Is Too Early For Wide Receiver In the Draft?

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Vikings fans will soon be able to get a clearer picture of the vision that Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell have for this franchise. One week from now, the new leadership will be celebrating their inaugural draft pick. And with that selection, the new regime will begin to show the cards that they’ve held close to the vest. Let the Monday-morning quarterbacking begin!

Will the Vikings adhere to the consensus and target a cornerback like Derek Stingley or Trent McDuffie?

How about another pass rusher off the edge in Eden Prairie’s Jermaine Johnson?

Is 12th-overall too early for a defensive tackle like Jordan Davis?

Does trading back and accumulating Day 2 pick(s) make the most sense?

All those questions will soon be answered. But arguably the most intriguing mystery is: When will the new regime select a wide receiver?

Since O’Connell arrived, Skoldiers have been envisioning a Los Angeles Rams-esque offense that prominently features gamebreakers at wide receiver. After all, the football world watched as O’Connell and Sean McVay‘s offense picked up Odell Beckham Jr. midseason and helped catapult them to the Lombardi Trophy.

Granted, injury misfortune to Robert Woods kept us from seeing the Rams truly unleash their 11-personnel packages with Cooper Kupp, Woods, and Beckham. But you get a sense of just how much of a premium O’Connell’s scheme put on their receiver room over the past two years.

Since O’Connell was introduced as head coach of the Vikings, he’s used mixed messaging like every other coach in the NFL. At his opening press conference, O’Connell mentioned that his Vikings offense would replicate a lot of the same components that made the Rams so successful. And just a few weeks later at the combine, he expressed his desire to be more multiple and utilize the Vikings’ existing personnel.

These contradictory statements — that were two weeks apart — are exactly why the receiver position is so interesting in the upcoming draft. As it stands now, Minnesota’s 11-personnel package would be the exact same as last year’s — with the only exception being Irv Smith Jr. at tight end instead of Tyler Conklin. And as we saw last season, there’s a lot to be excited about with Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, and K.J. Osborn.

But what happened to Minnesota’s offense in 2021 when Thielen was essentially forced to miss the last six games of the season? With a healthy wide receiver core over the first 11 weeks of the season, Kirk Cousins was near the top of the league with a 105.3 passer rating and 23:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

However, Minnesota’s offense wasn’t the same with Thielen down for the conclusion of the season. Cousins’ passer rating fell to 89.1 over the next four games against the Detroit Lions, Pittsburgh Steelers, Chicago Bears, and Rams. Granted, Thielen started against the Lions and Rams, but he only played six and 23 snaps, respectively, in those games before leaving due to injury.

The offense as a whole struggled in Thielen’s absence. But Osborn responded by scoring touchdowns in five of the final six games as the No. 2 receiver alongside Jefferson, adding to the dilemma for the Vikings as it pertains to wide receiver in the draft.

With O’Connell’s scheme, can Osborn make another jump in Year 3 and become fully entrenched as the team’s No. 3 receiver? Ultimately, it’s tough to argue against what he did individually when presented with a bigger role in the offense. But then again, did Thielen’s absence reinforce how critical it is for this offense to have at least two marquee receivers on the field at all times?

Let’s not forget, Thielen is entering his age-32 season and has combined to miss 11 games since 2019. Restructured contract and all, can the Vikings afford to cross their fingers and hope that Thielen dodges the injury bug in 2022? Is O’Connell encouraged enough by Osborn in that role should Thielen miss additional time next season?

Where (and if) the Vikings select a receiver in next week’s draft will tell a lot about not only what their scheme will look like, but just how confident they are in both Thielen and Osborn.

If Adofo-Mensah selects a Garrett Wilson, Jameson Williams, Chris Olave, or Drake London at 12th overall, you can go ahead and kiss C.J. Ham‘s playing time goodbye. By spending their top resource on a receiver, the Vikings would have no choice but to go full Rams by living in 11-personnell with Jefferson, Thielen, and said rookie receiver.

But what if the Vikings resist the urge and wait until the second round to opt for a Skyy Moore, Treylon Burks, Jahan Dotson, or Christian Watson? With O’Connell’s previous employer spending second-round picks on receivers over the past two drafts in Van Jefferson and Tutu Atwell, this would likely mean that Osborn would have the inside track on securing the No. 3 role, unless the rookie shows out in training camp. After selecting Van Jefferson in the 2020 draft, it was Josh Reynolds who commanded the No. 3 spot for the Rams before Jefferson broke out this past season in Year 2.

That also probably wouldn’t bode well for the “We plan to be more multiple, offensively” soundbite out of O’Connell. By spending the first Day 2 pick on a receiver, that would represent a serious investment into the 11-personnell philosophy. And one that would likely come at the expense of Ham’s role in the offense.

Should the Vikings decide to address other positions with their first two picks, this would represent the dream scenario for purple fullback truthers. By waiting until the third round for a receiver like Wan’Dale Robinson, Calvin Austin, Danny Gray, or Kyle Phillips, O’Connell’s dreams of being more multiple with Minnesota’s returning personnel would basically become a reality. That’s not to say that a third-round rookie couldn’t turn some heads in his first year, but this would equate to a substantial endorsement of Osborn both in the short and long term.

The Vikings’ offense as we know it under O’Connell will largely be dependent upon when Adofo-Mensah decides to pull the trigger on receiver in the draft. And for all the Hammer Timers out there, the longer Minnesota waits to select a receiver, the better off it will be for the Skoldiers who still cling to 1990s-style football and the I-formation.

Should the new regime decide to spend a premium first- or second-round pick on a wideout, get your popcorn ready. That means Minnesota will be unleashing an offense that relies heavily on having three or more wide receivers on the field at a significantly higher rate.

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