K.J. Osborn watched the Vikings release receiver Adam Thielen this offseason and envisioned a bigger role this fall, filling a mentor's shoes as the No. 2 receiver.
The Vikings gave Osborn a new reality by using a first-round draft pick on Jordan Addison, who head coach Kevin O'Connell called a "day-one starter" in the team's draft room following the pick.
Osborn found himself mimicking Thielen another way.
He said he texted Addison right away after the selection.
After all, that's what Thielen did to welcome Osborn as a 2020 fifth-round pick.
"Letting him know — anything he needs, I'll help him," said Osborn, who turns 26 on June 10. "It's weird I'm one of the older guys in the room. I'm going on Year 4, but I feel like the vet, which is crazy. I think I'm a natural leader and that's something I've embraced and am comfortable with."
Osborn has quickly found himself in the awkward spot of an NFL veteran expected to raise the next generation while also competing for roles that turn into dollars. Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Osborn said he's motivated to prove his worth to not only the Vikings but 31 other teams ahead of 2024 free agency.
"It's not just the draft," he said. "It's the NFL. They're always looking to replace you. To me, it's about respect, man. I want to earn my respect. … I was a fifth-round pick. I was a two-star recruit. I came from the [Mid-American Conference]. If they draft somebody, didn't draft somebody — I came from the MAC, you know what I'm saying? I'm trying to prove to myself."
Osborn — who spent four years at the MAC's University of Buffalo before transferring to the ACC's University of Miami in 2019 — remains the Vikings' No. 2 receiver in terms of NFL experience (110 catches trail only Justin Jefferson's 324) as well as age behind 27-year-old journeyman Brandon Powell, who signed in March.
Receivers coach Keenan McCardell said he asked Osborn, who didn't have an NFL catch until the 2021 season, to share experience that includes game-winning touchdown catches and his first two 100-yard games against the Colts and Bears to close last season.
"Even though you're competing against the number one draft pick, you as a pro has to teach him and bring him along right now," McCardell said. "He has the wherewithal and ability to lead that way – bring [Addison] along as well as be a successful playmaker for us, and that's what I love about him."
Osborn should still get a sizable role in O'Connell's offense. The Vikings' youth at receiver means there are no sure bets for the No. 3 role — featured in three-receiver formations on nearly 74% of plays last season, per NFL Next Gen Stats.
Other than Addison, the Vikings' biggest receiver addition was Powell, the ex-Rams backup and punt returner who signed in free agency. The team also kept receivers Jalen Reagor and Jalen Nailor, a 2022 sixth-round pick, from last year's roster.
Each of Osborn's catches will mean a little extra this season, because they're negotiating power for his next contract.
"Adding a contract year, some big things going on around here, it's even more exciting," Osborn said. "That just fuels me that much more."
He invoked former NBA stars Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant — two of his childhood sports idols — for the type of "edge" he's looking to bring this season. But you'll have to forgive Osborn, Timberwolves fans. Born in 1997, Osborn followed Garnett with the Celtics. Osborn was a 10-year-old in Michigan when Garnett was traded from Minnesota to Boston.
"One of my screensavers on my phone," he said of Garnett. "His mentality, how he plays. … Get in the zone on the field to be your best. I think playing with that chip and that edge is always good."