It’s hard not to look back at K.J. Osborn‘s signature moment from last year and chuckle slightly.
In Week 6, the Minnesota Vikings blew a 28-17 lead to a Sam Darnold-led Carolina Panthers team. Carolina kicker Zane Gonzalez connected on a 23-yard field goal to make it 28-20 with 4:41 left. Then Darnold hit Robby Anderson for a touchdown with 0:42 to go, and the Panthers got the two-point conversion to send the game into overtime.
But Kirk Cousins led the Vikings on a nine-play, 75-yard drive in overtime to beat the Panthers. His final pass was to Osborn, a 27-yard strike near the front pylon to escape Charlotte with the win. Osborn reeled it in, got the ball across the plane, and tossed his helmet in the air to celebrate.
It was reminiscent of Stefon Diggs‘ reaction to the Minneapolis Miracle. Only Osborn hadn’t beaten the New Orleans Saints to make it to the NFC Championship. The Vikings had eked out a win against a 5-12 Panthers team to enter the bye at 3-3. Still, it’s hard to blame Osborn for getting a little excited. Like Diggs, he’s a fifth-round pick who became a starting receiver. But unlike Diggs, he wasn’t drafted to be a wideout.
There was a run on returners in the 2020 draft, and Rick Spielman didn’t want to miss out. The Vikings were still suffering from the curse of Marcus Sherels and needed a reliable returner. They overdrafted Osborn, who Zierlien and other scouts projected as a priority undrafted free agent because he averaged 12 yards per return in college. Osborn was a “fearless return man on both punts and kicks,” according to NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein.
Osborn spent four years in the MAC at the University at Buffalo before transferring to the University of Miami in 2019. He had a career-high 892 yards receiving with Buffalo in 2018, but he was an all-around contributor at “The U.” The Ypsilanti, Mich.-born receiver led Miami with 547 yards receiving, returned 16 punts for 255 yards, and received 10 kickoffs for 201 yards.
“Osborn played mostly from the slot at Buffalo and mostly outside at Miami,” wrote Zierlein, “but Buffalo likely had it right.”
His size, quickness, and speed fail to stand out and he’s not fully equipped to get away from tight man on the pro level. From the slot, his instincts in space and overall toughness could serve him well but are still garden variety at best. However, Osborn has been a consistently productive punt returner for three seasons and is able to cover kicks and punts if asked. The special teams work gives him a shot if he can be functional as a backup receiver.
SI.com’s Vikings reporter, Will Ragatz, echoed that sentiment.
Osborn is a solid route-runner out of the slot who isn’t afraid to take a hit over the middle of the field and offers some yards-after-catch ability. His biggest value to the Vikings will likely come on special teams; Osborn averaged 15.9 yards per punt return last season and should compete for that role in Minnesota. He can also return kickoffs and play as a gunner on kick and punt coverage units.
Osborn struggled as a returner in his rookie season. He played in nine games, returning seven punts for 27 yards and 14 kicks for 303. He also fumbled twice. He had zero targets, zero receptions, and zero yards as a receiver. That’s none, for those of you keeping score at home. Last year, Osborn relinquished his receiving duties but emerged as the WR3 in camp.
Osborn partnered with Justin Jefferson and Jarvis Landry to train in Florida in his first NFL offseason. He also worked with three different training companies with various focuses, from strength and conditioning to receiver-specific drills. Through work ethic and a better understanding of the game, Osborn positioned himself to take advantage of the attention Jefferson and Adam Thielen received from opposing secondaries. Osborn finished last season with 50 receptions and 655 yards receiving.
He put up those numbers playing for Mike Zimmer, who preferred to run the ball and focused on defense. In 2022, he’ll be playing in Kevin O’Connell‘s modern offense. O’Connell seems to believe he can unlock something in Cousins by using the “illusion of complexity” and 11 personnel. That means there will be three receivers, a tight end, and a running back in Minnesota’s base formation.
Osborn hasn’t just turned himself into a viable option for the Vikings. They’re going to need him. Assuming Irv Smith Jr. stays healthy, defenses are going to have to focus on him in addition to Jefferson and Thielen. Furthermore, O’Connell may use Dalvin Cook more as an “offensive weapon” rather than strictly a running back. Therefore, Osborn should get plenty of open space to work with. He has an opportunity to shine, and he’s earned it.
The Vikings reached for Osborn and miscast him as a returner. Still, he’s established himself as the third receiver option on a team that will use one in their base offense. That alone is cause for a helmet-less celebration.