Osborn and Smith-Marsette Should Flourish In O'Connell's Offense

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings are reportedly going to hire Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell following the Super Bowl next week. The 36-year-old should bring new to an offense that has lacked creativity for over a decade. The expectation is that a Vikings offense that has relied on the ground game for years will finally shift towards a more consistent aerial attack.

After Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp nearly broke the single-season record for receiving yards, it’s fair to wonder what ideas O’Connell has for Justin Jefferson. The Vikings’ wideout had another sensational year in his second season. Like Kupp, Jefferson almost broke the Vikings’ team record for receiving yards last year.

But beyond Jefferson, what can O’Connell do with the Vikings’ receiving corps? Adam Thielen is an established star. If he can quell injury concerns this year, he can still be a solid WR2. Behind him, though, are two intriguing youngsters.

K.J. Osborn burst onto the scene in 2021 after a disastrous rookie season. He seemed to solidify a role as the WR3 moving forward. Meanwhile, rookie Ihmir Smith-Marsette came on strong near the end of the season, scoring two touchdowns in the final month of the season.

Osborn ranked fourth on the team with 50 receptions. His 655 yards and seven touchdowns both ranked third on the team. Smith-Marsette didn’t see the field as much, only catching five passes for 116 yards. However, he splashed in the final game of the season with three receptions for 103 yards and a touchdown.

But the Rams used their depth receivers on a whole different level. Robert Woods only played nine games before getting injured, yet his 45 receptions for 556 yards and five combined touchdowns ranked fourth on the team by year’s end. When Woods went out, the Rams signed Odell Beckham Jr. to replace him. OBJ still finished sixth on the team in receptions with 27. His 305 yards were the fifth-most on the team. Like Woods, he added five touchdowns.

Osborn edged Woods and Beckham in each category, but he played every game of the season and took a vast majority of the WR3 reps. On top of that, Rams’ wideout Van Jefferson was also a productive wideout. So how was it that Woods and OBJ were so effective despite playing only half of the 2021 season?

Well, the Rams had more receivers on the field at one time than the Vikings. Per Sharp Football Stats, LA lined up in 11 personnel on 85% of their offensive snaps, most in the NFL. Eleven personnel features one running back and one tight end. Do the math – that’s three receivers on the field. Meanwhile, the Vikings lined up in 11 personnel 47% of the time. That’s well below the league-average rate of 61%.

But simply lining up with three receivers on the field doesn’t automatically produce results. Execution is paramount, as it is in any aspect of football. The Rams dropped back to pass 674 times in 11 personnel. They were 437 of 645 passing in that formation, throwing 46 touchdowns to 16 interceptions. LA netted a healthy 8.5 yards-per-attempt average with this personnel grouping.

Meanwhile, the Vikings were only 222 of 354 throwing out of this personnel. Their 21:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio was impressive, but they only netted 7.1 yards per attempt. That’s 2,969 fewer air yards than the Rams in the league’s most popular personnel grouping.

For those wondering if O’Connell will be influenced solely by Sean McVay, they should look no further than at O’Connell’s stint in Washington. With a promotion to offensive coordinator in the 2019 season, Washington lined up in 11 personnel 70% of the time. That made his transition into the McVay offense seamless.

With O’Connell likely bringing in the same emphasis for more receivers on the field, this would give Osborn even more opportunities to see the field. Before Thielen got injured in Week 13, he only saw over 65% of snaps in a game once. If he’s on the field more, he’d also lead to him getting spelled more often, allowing Smith-Marsette to get onto the field more and showcase his athleticism.

The Rams aren’t afraid to run jet sweeps and end-arounds with their wideouts, either, which could benefit Osborn and Smith-Marsette. Woods, Jefferson, and Kupp combined for 14 rushes for 84 yards on the season. Osborn and Smith-Marsette have returned punts and kicks, so don’t be surprised if O’Connell incorporates them into these sorts of runs when defenses are focusing on Jefferson and Thielen downfield.

There is a whole off-season still to play out. We don’t know if O’Connell will call plays as head coach, and we don’t know if Kirk Cousins will be returning as the Vikings’ quarterback. But despite these questions, we know that the offense will look drastically different in 2022 from a schematic standpoint. K.J. Osborn and Ihmir Smith-Marsette are two under-the-radar players who can benefit and flourish in O’Connell’s offense.

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Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings hired Kevin O’Connell to modernize their offense. The Vikings were a 21st-century football team trapped in the 1990s under Mike Zimmer. After learning under […]

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