Perhaps no players braced for more change during the Vikings’ latest offensive playbook transition than receivers and tight ends.
Receiver Stefon Diggs emerged as the league’s top deep threat after skipping half of a week of the regular season amid a sputtering 2-2 start and his frustration over the role in a run-heavy system. Tight end Kyle Rudolph was also told passes would come. But his hands became sore between Sundays because of blocking, not catching.
Both veterans eventually adapted, and could continue as mainstays if not moved this offseason by a front office that has paid a remarkable amount of talent and remains up against the salary cap.
Below, we’ll assess the 2020 outlook and 2019 grades of Vikings receivers and tight ends.
Pending free agents
WR Laquon Treadwell
TE David Morgan (PUP)
Under contract through (+ 2020 cap hit)
2020: WR Chad Beebe ($660K), WR Alexander Hollins ($585K), WR Davion Davis ($585K), TE Brandon Dillon ($510K)
2021: TE Tyler Conklin ($730K), WR Dillon Mitchell ($510K)
2022: TE Irv Smith Jr. ($1.3M), WR Olabisi Johnson ($603K)
2023: WR Stefon Diggs ($14.5M), TE Kyle Rudolph ($9.45M)
2024: WR Adam Thielen ($12.8M)
Grades are based on a 1-to-5 scale, with ‘5’ marking excellence, ‘4’ for above-average, ‘3’ for average, ‘2’ for below-average and ‘1’ for failure to perform. Players that did not accrue a season (weren’t on the active roster for at least six weeks) or played in five games or fewer are not graded. Below are individual grades, based on game and practice observations, weekly film reviews and interviews with coaches for 13 receivers and tight ends who finished the season on the Vikings’ active roster, injured reserve or practice squad. Unofficial NFL stats, such as QB pressures, missed tackles and targeted passes, are compiled by ProFootballFocus.com.
WR Stefon Diggs (4.0) — The NFL’s No. 1 deep threat this season, Diggs led the league in catches (16) and touchdowns (6) thrown at least 20 yards downfield. Speed barely matched coupled with crisp routes made Diggs a dangerous deep threat sprung from the Vikings’ play-action heavy passing game. Adjusted to a more limited role with 55 fewer targets than the year before. Overcame a rocky start, including two penalties, a lost fumble and a drop in Green Bay. Following his first 100-yard game in Week 4 at Chicago, he was fined $200,000 by the team after unexcused absences from three days’ worth of scheduled responsibilities including practices, meetings and physical rehab. Did not quell reports about his dissatisfaction with the Vikings offense during an enigmatic press conference upon his return, saying “I can’t sit up here and act like everything is okay. It’s obviously not.” Two teammates told the Star Tribune this season that Diggs’ issues with his role had been known since he skipped some OTAs last spring, meaning those feelings may not have gone away quickly, if at all. Trading Diggs this offseason, likely at the cost of a future first-round pick, would not be surprising.
The Vikings should demand a first-round pick because Diggs has the talent to be a perennial Pro Bowler in the right system. Put together a three-game tear unmatched in Vikings history when Diggs amassed 21 catches for 452 yards and three touchdowns against the Eagles, Lions and Redskins — surpassing a three-game bar previously set by Randy Moss (446 in 2001). Played 783 snaps [75.6%]. Lost three fumbles in eight games. Penalized four times, including unsportsmanlike conduct for removing his helmet on the field after a 45-yard touchdown catch in Green Bay. Kicker Dan Bailey’s extended extra point was blocked in the Week 2 loss. Fined $10,527 by the NFL for the penalty. Led the team with a career-worst seven drops — one tipped into an Eagles interception — on 94 targets; also led the team with 63 catches and a career-high 1,130 yards. Has four years left under contract, but no guaranteed money until March 20 when his $10.9 million salary for next season becomes guaranteed.
TE Kyle Rudolph (3.5) — Agreed to a four-year extension in June, giving the Vikings much-needed salary cap relief for 2019 while securing his future in Minnesota for at least a year or two. Extended NFL-best longevity at his position to 81 straight starts; the next closest is Kansas City’s Travis Kelce (32 starts). Active for all 16 games for a fifth straight season, meaning he pocketed an additional $250,000 in per-game roster bonuses. Adapted to a run-heavy offense that called for him to run or pass block on 53% of his snaps, despite playing at the lightest weight (258 pounds) of his career. Not a bulldozer in the run game, though not for lack of effort. Team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee for third straight season. Played 807 snaps [77.9%]. Penalized twice. Remains a reliable target anywhere, especially the red zone where he disappeared until Week 7. Scored six touchdowns in the next six games, five inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. Includes a ridiculous one-handed score in the back of the end zone during the Week 10 win in Dallas. Caught 39 of 48 targets for 367 yards and six touchdowns. Sure hands risen to a new level as Rudolph was the only starting NFL tight end without a drop. Has just two drops in last three years. Schemed wide open on a 32-yard, game-winning touchdown against the Broncos in Week 11. Playoff-winning touchdown in New Orleans came with controversy as Saints players accused Rudolph of pushing off corner P.J. Williams before the 4-yard catch over Williams’ helmet. Rudolph and the league deemed the contact incidental.
WR Adam Thielen (3.5) — Rewarded with a four-year, $64.8 million extension last spring. Missed his first NFL practices and games in his sixth season due to a hamstring injury suffered during a collision with a padded wall in Detroit on a 25-yard touchdown catch. Missed most of seven games (five starts). Lamented being rushed back after an attempted return Week 9 in Kansas City, just two weeks post injury. Suffered another setback in a Nov. 26 practice. Played 443 snaps [42.8%]. Penalized four times, including unsportsmanlike conduct in Green Bay; fined $10,527 for kicking Packers corner Jaire Alexander after Alexander hit him from behind. The Vikings’ go-to threat early — three of Thielen’s six touchdowns resulted in a 7-0 lead against the Falcons, Raiders and Eagles. Took a handoff for a 1-yard rushing touchdown against the Raiders. Caught 30 of 48 targets for 418 yards in the regular season. Dropped three. Just two 100-yard games against the Giants and Saints. Played through a laceration that required stitches on his ankle in the playoffs. Horrific start in the NFC wild-card win in New Orleans with a fumble on the opening possession, a dropped deep ball and a holding call. Flipped a switch into a standard Thielen performance with strong-handed grabs for 129 yards. Four of his seven catches against the Saints converted third downs, not including the 43-yard bomb he tracked over his shoulder in overtime to set up Kyle Rudolph’s walk-off touchdown.
TE Irv Smith Jr. (2.5) — Only two rookie NFL tight ends, the Broncos’ Noah Fant and the Bills’ Dawson Knox, played more than the Vikings’ second-round pick (50th overall) this season. Smith Jr., the Alabama product and son of ex-Saints TE Irv Smith, was steadily given more playing time while the 21-year-old proved he grasped the offense. Only targeted six times in September and didn’t surpass 50% playing time in a game. The rest of the season, Smith played more than half the snaps in every meaningful contest, drawing multiple targets 11 straight weeks. Played 620 snaps [59.8%]. Penalized once for a false start. An agile ‘move’ TE, which the Vikings long sought. Aligned all over the formations. Ranked third on the team in slot targets (13). Caught 36 of 47 targets for 311 yards and two touchdowns. Dropped two. Showed growth on his first NFL touchdown, a 10-yard catch in Week 11 made possible because he read the Broncos’ coverage and ran his post route between zones. Plenty of room for improvement as a route runner and blocker. Showed signs in Year 1 he could develop into a handful for NFL linebackers and safeties.
WR Olabisi Johnson (2.5) — A standout seventh-round pick (247th overall), Johnson turned a strong camp and preseason into the Vikings’ No. 4 receiver job. Impressed coaches with quick recall and reliability to play multiple spots. Wasn’t a factor until Chad Beebe’s injury in Week 3; Johnson caught at least one pass the next 14 games. A slender target with 4.5 speed, Johnson stood out as a leaper. All three touchdowns scored within the 10-yard line, including a gravity-defying vertical on a 9-yard touchdown in Detroit. Played 547 snaps [52.8%]. Penalized twice for illegal blocks in consecutive weeks against the Giants and Eagles. Filled the No. 2 role after Adam Thielen’s Week 7 hamstring injury. Caught 31 of 45 targets for 294 yards and three touchdowns. Dropped two. Scored against the Lions (x2) and Chiefs. Drew a season-high nine targets during the Vikings’ comeback win against Denver, catching six for 35 yards.
TE Tyler Conklin (2.0) — The No. 3 tight end, Conklin played an in-line role as a blocker in three-TE sets. Not a bulldozer. Built more as a receiving threat, but seldom used in the passing game. Played 276 snaps [26.6%]. Penalized three times, twice for holding. Caught 8 of 10 targets for 58 yards. Missed one game: the season opener due to injured ribs suffered in practice. Season-high 35 snaps came from the Vikings’ play-action heavy game plan against the Lions in Week 14.
WR Alexander Hollins (1.5) — Part of the Vikings’ undrafted crop, Hollins was waived after the preseason and re-signed Sept. 12 to the practice squad following Josh Doctson’s injury. The Eastern Illinois speedster was promoted to the active roster Dec. 2 and appeared in six games. Played 71 snaps [6.9%]. Caught 2 of 5 targets for 46 yards, all in the season finale against the Bears when Hollins played a career-high 48 snaps. Played one snap in the playoffs, bobbling the deep third-down incompletion in the fourth quarter against the Saints.
WR Laquon Treadwell (1.5) — The Vikings front office tried to trade Treadwell, their 2016 first-round pick, and failed before cutting him after the preseason. Re-signed Sept. 24 after the Vikings lost Chad Beebe and Josh Doctson to injuries. Played 176 snaps [17%]. Penalized three times for holding. Caught 9 of 16 targets for 184 yards and a touchdown. Scored a career-long, 58-yard touchdown against a busted Seahawks coverage in Week 13. Fined $28,705 for a blindside block in the preseason. Pending free agent.
WR Chad Beebe (N/A) — A shifty slot receiver, Beebe made the roster as the Vikings’ No. 3 option and punt returner before tearing ligaments in his ankle Week 3 against the Raiders. Played 44 snaps [4.2%]. Penalized once for an illegal block against Oakland. Caught both targets for 70 yards, including a short crossing route against the Packers he turned into a 61-yard gain. Underwent surgery in November after initially trying to recover without an operation. Returned seven punts for 46 yards, including a long of 15 yards in Green Bay.
TE David Morgan (N/A) — Fourth NFL season derailed by setbacks from a cartilage issue in his knee, an injury he played through at the end of the 2018 season. Underwent two surgeries, one sometime after June’s mandatory minicamp and another in October, and told the Star Tribune this month he’s “ahead of schedule” and confident he’ll play again next season. Morgan said he’s unsure where; his contract could toll, meaning carry over to next season after he spent the year on the Physically Unable to Perform list. Otherwise he’ll be a free agent in March.
TE Brandon Dillon (N/A) — The surprise roster spot out of the preseason, Dillon played seven snaps [0.7%] in the season opener against the Falcons. Two days later, he was waived and stashed on the practice squad. The undrafted Marian graduate (6-5, 250 pounds) is the type of blocking project coaches sought for a tight end-heavy system.
WR Davion Davis (N/A) — One of two receivers stashed on the practice squad after getting cut post preseason. The Sam Houston State product went undrafted. Twice promoted to the active roster: two snaps in his NFL debut Week 8 vs. Washington and eight special teams snaps Week 10 at Dallas. Re-signed Jan. 12 on a two-year contract.
WR Dillon Mitchell (N/A) — One of two receivers stashed on the practice squad after getting cut post preseason. The Oregon product was drafted in the seventh round (239th overall) and spent the entire season on the practice squad. Re-signed Jan. 12 on a two-year contract.