The Vikings turned to Stefon Diggs for a variety of problems. He caught 84 passes one year without reaching 1,000 yards because, in lieu of a run game, he was asked to break tackles on short catches. Last year with Adam Thielen injured, Diggs broke Randy Moss’ three-game Vikings yardage record as a top NFL deep threat.
Diggs’ trade to Buffalo was a reason ex-Titans receiver Tajae Sharpe said he agreed to Minnesota’s modest one-year offer in free agency. But as the Vikings try to fill the massive Diggs void, what are realistic expectations for their newest addition? A look back at Sharpe’s 2019 season showed strengths that lured the Vikings, and weaknesses that could make Diggs’ absence felt if Sharpe is asked to fill a big role.
“The opportunity that the Vikings presented me with,” Sharpe said last week on a teleconference with Twin Cities reporters, “to come in and having a chance to compete for a starting spot and widen my role a little bit, have a larger role as a part of the offense — that was an opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up. I feel like this is the perfect place for me to be .”
1. Precise footwork and detailed routes make Sharpe a likely vertical threat for the Vikings. Just don’t expect him to break many tackles. Diggs’ game-breaking speed and elusiveness has yet to be replaced, but Sharpe can win with choppy feet, savvy positioning and automatic hands.
His Titans numbers undersell his potential. Sharpe didn’t get many chances to shine in Tennessee’s run-heavy offense that buried him on the depth chart with first-round receivers and free-agent additions. Even when he got targets, they mostly came from Marcus Mariota — a very inconsistent passer and one of 2019’s worst deep throwers.
So Sharpe, 25, said he was thrilled to hear from Kirk Cousins last week when the Vikings quarterback called him after his signing.
“Actually, [Cousins] was probably the best deep ball thrower in the league last year,” Sharpe said. “So I’m excited about that, to go down the field and make some plays.”
Sharpe caught Mariota’s longest completion (excluding yards after the catch) of the season during the Titans’ Week 3 win in Jacksonville. Sharpe (#19) uses a one-move release against soft press coverage, head faking to his right before bursting upfield to his left. Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey (#20) can’t get his hands on Sharpe. But when Ramsey catches up downfield, Sharpe leans into the defender to create separation then leans away to make the 47-yard catch.
2. Sharpe likely won’t rack up broken tackles or yards after the catch. He’s only avoided three tackles on 92 catches in his NFL career, according to Pro Football Focus. A tall, slender frame and average agility (for NFL standards) make Sharpe a big target for defensive backs.
Unlike Diggs, Sharpe doesn’t often correct for mistakes, let’s say, if a block is missed on a receiver screen. Because of this, the Vikings may look at Sharpe as an intermediate-to-deep threat where he can create separation with strong route running.
The Titans seldom went to Sharpe in short distances, but this is one example after he stepped into the slot for an injured Adam Humphries during a Week 14 win in Oakland.
Sharpe (#19) runs a bubble screen with seemingly ideal conditions against off coverage. But Corey Davis blows the block on Gareon Conley (#21), who tackles Sharpe for a 1-yard gain.
3. Sharpe can play everywhere for the Vikings, starting the 2019 season as the ‘X’ or ‘Z’ isolated receiver detached from the Titans formations. However, the Titans didn’t seem to like him as a slot receiver, since they gave $19 million guaranteed to Adam Humphries after Sharpe was their primary slot guy in 2018.
A December ankle injury to Humphries once again elevated Sharpe, who thanks to a strong final month ended the season as the Titans’ third-down leader in catches (15), yards (197) and touchdowns (4).
Five of Sharpe’s third-down grabs came against the Saints during the Titans’ Week 16 loss. He’s average in contested catch situations — including a would-be touchdown batted away by the Saints’ Patrick Robinson at the end of this loss — but Sharpe has a nose for finding space between defenders.
Take this 7-yard touchdown for example. Sharpe (#19) first sells the curl to get Janoris Jenkins (#20) flat-footed. Strong acceleration keeps him a step ahead. From there, Sharpe makes the leaping touchdown catch after finding the opening behind Robinson (#21), who drops into a middle zone.