In late August, the Minnesota Vikings had various family-friendly games and inflatable structures strewn about TCO Performance Center. Training camp was in full swing, and the temperatures hovered around 80 degrees. Sunlight wasn’t a myth yet, and the team was using cornhole and carnival games to get families to come out to their Eagan facility.
One of the inflatable activities featured a printout of Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, and K.J. Osborn with holes above their hands. Kids of various ages grabbed the footballs that were sitting beneath the image and tried to throw as many as they could into the mitts of Minnesota’s sure-handed receivers. It was hard not to think of the infamous “Three Deep” poster when looking at it.
Almost every Vikings fan of a certain age had that poster hanging in their bedroom. Randy Moss, Cris Carter, and Jake Reed stood side by side. They collectively gripped a football while staring into the souls of entranced admirers who witnessed Minnesota’s offensive explosion in 1998.
On the left stood Moss, a graduate of “Rand University.” The SuperFreak from West Virginia took an unorthodox path to the NFL. Twenty teams passed on him in the draft, and he immediately made them regret it.
Carter, of Middletown, Oh., appropriately stood between them. The Philadelphia Eagles took him in the fourth round of the 1987 draft after Carter broke school records at Ohio State. But he had a falling out with coach Buddy Ryan, who cut him because of drug and alcohol abuse. The Vikings picked him up on waivers for $100, and he turned into a Hall of Fame receiver.
Reed stands to his right. Minnesota’s third-round pick out of Grambling State in 1991, Reed arrived first and had four 1,000-yard seasons. He was the unsung hero of the group.
Together, they formed Three Deep. Moss, Carter, and Reed led the Vikings to a 15-1 season in 1998 and endeared themselves to fans along the way. While their collective success was shorter-lived than anyone would have anticipated, they reinvigorated interest in a franchise that was losing steam.
After spending years exposed to the elements at Met Stadium, the Vikings had moved inside the sterile Metrodome downtown. Ownership was parsimonious and threatened to move the team. Fans had become nonplussed with the Vikings, but Moss, Carter, and Reed brought the franchise back to life.
Osborn leaned into the comparison in late August. He tweeted a mock movie poster with Jefferson, Thielen, and him on it. It read “Three Deep” across the top. Like Moss, Carter, and Reed, Minnesota’s new Three Deep was likable in their own way.
Jefferson was lightly recruited out of high school, turned himself into a star at LSU, and watched 21 teams pass on him in the draft. Like Moss, he immediately became an impact player, and players around the league are doing his signature Griddy dance whenever they score.
Thielen, of course, is the local guy from Detroit Lakes who tried out for the Vikings after playing at D2 Mankato. Everyone knows his story now. His rise from practice-squad player to special-teamer to superstar receiver is now part of Minnesota sports lore.
Last year, Osborn transformed himself from a special-teams bust to a solid WR3. Rick Spielman gambled on the speedy receiver from Miami in the fifth round. While he didn’t stick as a returner, Osborn impressed in camp last year and filled a depth role the Vikings had needed for years.
In the offseason, the Vikings fired Mike Zimmer after two years of mediocre play. In came Kevin O’Connell, Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator, fresh off a Super Bowl win. The Vikings weren’t in dire straits as they were in the Red McCombs era. The Wilfs spend on the team, and US Bank Stadium is a far better venue than the Metrodome. But things had grown stale. Fans were sick of the team losing closely-contested games. The tension in the building had become palpable.
O’Connell has made the Vikings marginally better, and they entered the bye 5-1 as a result. But the offense hasn’t quite looked like a facsimile of McVay’s Los Angeles Rams. Instead, they’re just better than Zimmer. An improvement, no doubt. But after seeing Three Deep in 1998, fans expect more. Everyone in Minnesota knows what an explosive offense looks like, and this ain’t it.
There have been four games where the opposing defense let Jefferson get loose and two games where they’ve contained him and forced Minnesota’s other weapons to beat them. Let’s take the running game out of it for a second. Dalvin Cook has been fine but not great, and the Vikings are a passing offense now. I’m also going to isolate the pass-catchers to receivers. Irv Smith Jr. has been a red-zone threat but has made a minimal impact vertically, and Johnny Mundt is a hybrid pass-catcher and blocker.
Here’s how each player’s numbers look entering the bye week.
Week 1 vs. the Green Bay Packers
- Jefferson: 184 yards
- Thielen: 36
- Osborn: 14
Week 4 vs. the New Orleans Saints
- Jefferson: 147
- Thielen: 72
- Osborn: 6
Week 5 vs. the Chicago Bears
- Jefferson: 154
- Thielen: 27
- Osborn: 41
Week 6 vs. the Miami Dolphins
- Jefferson: 107
- Thielen: 36
- Osborn: 18
Week 2 vs. the Philadelphia Eagles
- Jefferson: 48
- Thielen: 52
- Osborn: 25
Week 3 vs. the Detroit Lions
- Jefferson: 14
- Thielen: 61
- Osborn: 73
Every game is different. Nobody knows why Green Bay didn’t focus on Jefferson more. Cousins struggled with the blitz in Philadelphia. The Dolphins game was played in stifling heat. But how did the Lions, of all teams, take Jefferson out of the game? And the Chicago game still is baffling. Regardless, no team will look at Minnesota’s results so far and focus on their peripheral weapons. They’re all going to try to stop Jefferson.
Some have the defensive talent and schemes to keep Jefferson under wraps. He’s going to go off on other teams. But the best way for the Vikings to get him consistently open is to show that their other players can beat them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look likely right now. Thielen, 32, is still a solid No. 2, but there are several superior WR2s. He’s not creating the separation he once did. And Osborn has splashed in a few games, especially against the Lions, where he caught the game-winning touchdown. But he hasn’t taken a meaningful step forward this year.
Before the Lions game, I asked offensive coordinator Wes Phillips if the best way to get Jefferson open is to use players like Thielen and Osborn or to force the ball to him. He said that sometimes teams use the “illusion of a double.” O’Connell and Phillips, who sits in a skybox to see the field from a different perspective, learned how to suss that out with Cooper Kupp in LA last year. But sometimes teams just straight-up double Jefferson, and the other guys need to come through.
“There are going to be times where they do have a true double,” he said. “They’ve got two guys, and one is inside, and one is outside. Depending on the route, other guys have to win. That’s the good thing about it, we feel like we’ve got enough guys on the field that are very capable of winning versus single coverage where we can take advantage of that.”
Hopefully, that’s the case. Maybe Thielen is a little banged up and needed the bye-week rest. Perhaps Osborn, 25, can still reach another level in his game. Smith and Cook could also help take attention away from Jefferson. Ultimately, they’re going to have to if the Vikings are going anywhere this year because opposing defenses will lock onto Jefferson. Thielen and Osborn don’t need to be the next coming of Carter and Reed, but Jefferson is capable of doing Moss-like things if defenses can’t devote their full attention to him.