The good and the bad of the 2021 Minnesota Vikings wide receivers
October 31, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen (19) reacts with wide receiver KJ Osborn (17) after scoring on a 20-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Kirk Cousins (not pictured) as running back Dallas Cowboys corner Anthony Brown (30) looks on during the first quarter at American Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker – USA TODAY Sports
As was the case for most of the Minnesota Vikings in the 2021 season, wide receivers have had a year of ups and downs. While Justin Jefferson improved on his record-breaking rookie season, Adam Thielen was hampered by ankle surgery for the final month of the season. For the first time in years, however, a third wide receiver stepped in. A rookie also flashed late in the year, offering a glimpse of the unit’s potential depth. The unit, as a whole, can be quite intriguing for the Minnesota Vikings’ next coaching staff.
What went well
Justin Jefferson has improved his rookie season. He had a few drops at first, but he quickly cleared them up during his second year. With an extra game, his totals for the season were expected to improve. But his match-to-match stats have improved further in both areas. He averaged 6.4 receptions per game in 2021 (down from 5.5 in 2020) and 95.1 yards per game in 2021 (down from 87.5 in 2020).
A mild controversy erupted in the final game of the year, as Jefferson sat at 1,616 receiving yards that year. That trailed only Randy Moss’ 1,632 yards in team history for a single year. In the end, the Vikings ran out of time because Zimmer didn’t have too much regard for the record.
Thielen has once again proven to be a reliable red-zone target despite not possessing abnormal height at his position. He caught seven of his ten touchdowns inside the 20-yard line.
But the big storyline for Minnesota Vikings receivers was sophomore KJ Osborn. The Miami product spent most of his rookie season disappointing on the punt return, not even seeing a wink at the receiver. He was far from a lock to make the team in 2021.
That changed, however, when he started making games in the preseason. Fans started buzzing about the prospects of him being the team’s WR3. He caught seven passes for 76 yards in Week 1. The following week against Arizona, he caught a 64-yard touchdown pass on the second play from scrimmage. And in Week 6 against Carolina, his 27-yard overtime touchdown reception gave the Vikings a 34-28 win. Osborn’s 50 receptions ranked fourth on the team. His 655 yards and seven touchdowns both ranked third.
Even rookie Ihmir Smith-Marsette found the pitch late in the season. After just one reception in the first 14 weeks of the season, he notched his first career touchdown on Monday Night Football in a 17-9 win over the Bears. In the season finale, Smith-Marsette caught all three targets in his direction, rushing for 103 yards and a touchdown.
What went wrong
The Vikings entered Week 12 at 5-6. Facing winless Detroit, Thielen caught a screen pass and injured his ankle. He missed the rest of the game and only played once for the rest of the season. The Vikings offense wasn’t the same with him out of the lineup as the teams rolled even more cover toward Jefferson.
Third-year wide receiver Bisi Johnson tore his ACL in camp and missed the entire season. Fifth-year wide Dede Westbrook generated some excitement and was seen as a legitimate contender for the WR3 spot when he was signed in July. However, he only caught 10 passes for 68 yards. He caught just three passes for nine yards after the Week 7 bye. He did return punts, though, averaging a respectable 8.3 yards per return.
What to expect moving forward
A new offensive scheme can do wonders for this group. Many fans still think Justin Jefferson wasn’t used properly in his first two seasons, and a thoughtful, targeted approach to centering the attack around him and not running back Dalvin Cook could open up the whole attack.
Thielen will likely be back, although he could be asked to restructure his contract. He hasn’t eclipsed 1,000 yards since 2018, and in 2021 he only recorded 100 meters once. But he is one of the oldest players in the dressing room and can still be productive. Hell, a reduced role might actually benefit him.
Osborn seems like the real deal, and another jump to Year 3 could bring some special things. I’m still not convinced he can be counted on at WR2, but as noted earlier, no one expected him to even make the team this year.
The real wild card, however, is Ihmir Smith-Marsette. He has some point guard potential. Whether that’s being used for more gimmicky games in 2022 or just a more focused focus on being a true wide receiver, he’s flashed enough to warrant a long look. But he’s still unpolished, and a three-deep reception hall looks good until someone gets hurt. Wideout may not be the biggest priority this offseason, but adding big, young outside receivers might be just what the Minnesota Vikings need.