Vikings

How Does Arizona's Zay Jones Signing Affect Minnesota's Plan At WR3?

Photo Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings are riding high this offseason after their fireworks display in the opening round of the NFL Draft. Throw in Aaron Jones entering the fold via free agency as their RB1, and there’s plenty of reason to be encouraged about this organization turning the page on the Kirk Cousins era. However, there’s still a glaring question mark offensively for this team heading into 2024 and Year 3 for Kevin O’Connell.

The Vikings don’t have a clear WR3 after K.J. Osborn departed to the New England Patriots in free agency. Brandon Powell, Jalen Nailor, and Trent Sherfield are the current options in Minnesota’s receiver room to fill the role. In O’Connell’s 11-personnel-centric offense (one running back, one tight end, three receivers), WR3 is a critical piece. However, the Vikings’ offense experienced a noticeable shift in personnel during O’Connell’s second season.

On first downs last year, Minnesota had the seventh-highest 12-personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers) rate in the league. That caused their 11-personnel rate on first down to drop to 43%, which was 22nd in the league. In O’Connell’s first year with the Vikings, the offense was in 11-personnel on 64% of its first downs (eighth-highest in the league). Could we attribute Minnesota’s lack of urgency in adding to its receiver room to another season of leaning into heavier personnel groupings on early downs? Maybe.

The Vikings also had free-agent options. Zay Jones operated as one of Trevor Lawrence‘s primary receivers over the past two seasons, and the Jacksonville Jaguars recently released him. Jones visited with the Tennessee Titans, Kansas City Chiefs, and Dallas Cowboys before signing with the Arizona Cardinals on Friday.

On the surface, Jones would’ve been a good fit as Minnesota’s WR3. He’s shown an ability to win from both outside and in the slot, while also displaying an ability to be a willing contributor in run support. In 2020 with the Las Vegas Raiders, Pro Football Focus had Jones graded as the second-best run-blocking receiver (minimum of 100 run-block snaps) in the NFL. For all the noise surrounding Sherfield’s value as a receiver who will dig out support in the run game as a blocker, PFF graded Sherfield as the 124th “best” run-blocking receiver out of 131 receivers who recorded 100-plus run-blocking snaps last season. For context, Jones was graded as the 93rd-best run-blocking receiver last year.

Are the Vikings expecting a Year 3 jump from Nailor? The former 2022 sixth-round pick gave little reason to expect one after recording only three catches for 29 yards last season.

Powell is another option. Despite playing a prominent role in Minnesota’s failure to convert on consecutive tush-push sneaks against the Cincinnati Bengals last season, Powell flashed as a reliable ancillary piece in the WR3 role. He came down with the game-winning touchdown grab against the Atlanta Falcons and recorded a season-high 69 scrimmage yards on Monday Night Football against the San Francisco 49ers.

While he may not be the thumper as a blocker in the run game that Minnesota could be looking for this season, Powell poses the biggest horizontal threat for this offense in the jet game. Over an eight-week stretch from Week 5 to Week 12, the Vikings gave Powell a jet-sweep carry in five of those contests. Minnesota should look to activate that part of Powell’s game more frequently, with Powell possibly earning a more clear-cut role entering this season.

Looking at the landscape, it’s fair to presume that Minnesota will continue to lean on 12-personnel more frequently on early downs, with the 11-personnel taking a bit of a backseat in 2024. The Vikings will likely operate their WR3 role by committee, with Powell as the horizontal threat and Sherfield as the additional run support piece.

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