Things weren’t looking good for K.J. Osborn in the summer of 2021.
He had just completed his rookie season with the Minnesota Vikings. He was a fifth-round pick out of Miami but was miscast as the team’s punt returner. Osborn didn’t record a single reception during his rookie year. His spot on the roster didn’t seem safe.
But Osborn started to make plays during OTAs. Then he made plays during training camp and had a strong preseason. By the end of the summer, Osborn didn’t just make the roster, he was the No. 3 wide receiver behind Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen.
“The Summer of Osborn” paved the way for a breakout season where he caught 50 passes for 655 yards and seven touchdowns in 2021. He followed it up with another solid season in 2022 (60 rec., 650 yards, five TDs). It seemed like he was in for a bigger role when the Vikings decided to release Thielen in February.
Then the Vikings selected Jordan Addison with the 23rd-overall pick in the draft. Kevin O’Connell was so excited, he was welling up like Stefon Diggs after the Minneapolis Miracle. He was incredulously muttering, “That’s a Day 1 starter!” in the war room moments before it was announced.
The Addison pick had to be devastating for Osborn, but it could be déjà vu. Unlike 2021, Osborn’s roster spot is safe. In a worst-case scenario, he’d remain the WR3. But in a best-case scenario, we could be looking at another “Summer of Osborn,” which could lead to another breakout in 2023.
When you look at Osborn’s stats from last season, you may think he is a receiver who hit his ceiling. In 2021, Osborn averaged 1.30 yards per route run; that number dipped to 1.08 YPRR last season. His Pro Football Focus receiving grade also remained unchanged, posting a 65.2-overall grade last year compared to a 64.9 rating in 2021.
But Osborn’s season may have had to do with what was happening around him. Alec Lewis of The Athletic noted in December that Osborn was asked to be more of a run-blocker in 2021 to make up for Jefferson’s transition into The Cooper Kupp Role.
While The Cooper Kupp Role has been tied to statistical production, it downplays what Kupp did as a run-blocker. According to PFF, Kupp blocked on 36.7% of his snaps and recorded an 80.9 run-blocking grade in 2021. Kupp still managed to win the receiving triple crown – leading the NFL in receptions, yards, and touchdowns – but Vikings fans may have rioted if Jefferson spent significant time as a run-blocker.
With Thielen still on the team, the Vikings relied on Osborn to take over that role. Although Osborn’s blocking rate dipped from 30.7% in 2021 to 26.7% in 2022, he still saw limited opportunities as a receiver, putting a cap on his production.
“It can get frustrating,” Osborn admitted to reporters last month. “I work really hard. But at the same time, this is a team game, and we have so many weapons. There’s only one ball that can go around, but it’s a team game.”
That doesn’t mean that Osborn can’t make an impact in the third receiver role. He had his moments, such as his Week 14 game against the Indianapolis Colts where he had 10 catches for 157 yards and a touchdown. He caught 30 passes for 388 yards and three touchdowns in the final five games.
“There will be a game where you may have made two catches and 15 yards and then there will be a couple of outliers,” Osborn said. “We can’t dictate what the defense does or where Kirk needs to throw the ball and things like that. I just tried to do my job, stay patient. My time came and at the end of the season. I found a rhythm there.”
Even with his acceptance of his role, his teammates feel like Osborn is capable of more.
“K.J. has a tricky role because he doesn’t get as many balls as he wants,” Jefferson told Lewis in December. “Of course, he would want a bigger part and to do more than he already has been doing [in the passing game], but he comes up clutch whenever his name is called, whenever the ball is thrown to him, and he’s a great teammate.”
Thielen echoed Jefferson’s comments during an interview with Matthew Coller on the Purple Insider podcast, mentioning that Osborn could be a top receiver on another team.
“I think everyone’s been a little wrong about K.J.,” Thielen said. “I just think that he is a WR1 in this league, and I think that he has so much talent. I think his attitude, his effort, the way he approaches every single day – his mindset is one of the best I’ve ever been around.”
Even with current and former teammates throwing superlatives around, it may be hard to believe Osborn is capable of more – especially with the addition of Addison. But the key might not be getting more out of Osborn as it is increasing his efficiency.
Thielen’s decline was a big storyline for the Vikings’ offense because he averaged a career-low 1.08 yards per route run. However, it was an even bigger problem in regards to O’Connell’s scheme.
In 2021, O’Connell not only had Kupp in the WR1 role but he also had Robert Woods, an effective complementary piece. Woods averaged 1.74 yards per route run before tearing his ACL that season. The Los Angeles Rams later replaced him with Odell Beckham, who averaged 1.30 YPRR in the regular season and 2.55 yards per route run in four playoff games.
Van Jefferson was one of the biggest beneficiaries. He put up a career year with 50 catches for 802 yards and six touchdowns despite being in the WR3 role. Jefferson’s efficiency was also noticeable as he generated 1.45 yards per route run.
Comparing Osborn to Van Jefferson might not seem like a compliment. But that’s exactly what the Vikings could be hoping for by bringing in Addison.
Addison averaged 2.78 yards per route run last season at USC in an offense that utilized him more on screens than passes downfield. In the previous year at Pittsburgh, Addison averaged 2.94 yards per route run while playing in an offense that has more similarities to what O’Connell is running in Minnesota.
It would be unreasonable for Addison to create the same production immediately. However, even modest numbers would be enough to open things up for the rest of the offense.
Will this be enough to generate a second Summer of Osborn? Probably not. But it is enough to give him more chances to contribute, which could lead to a bigger season and a chance to cash in during the final year of his contract.