When the Vikings play their next game in Las Vegas on Dec. 10, they plan to have Justin Jefferson on the field for the first time in more than two months, catching passes from one of three quarterbacks who's never thrown to him in a game.
They'll spend their bye week figuring out which one of those quarterbacks it will be.
Coach Kevin O'Connell said the Vikings would activate Jefferson from injured reserve on Tuesday, getting him ready to return for the Raiders game after the right hamstring injury he suffered on Oct. 8. A day after their 12-10 loss to the Bears, O'Connell also said Vikings coaches would spend the bye week considering three quarterbacks — Joshua Dobbs, Nick Mullens and Jaren Hall — as the potential starter against the Raiders.
"I think we'll take the time over these next couple days to really evaluate, not only Monday night, but the previous body of work and see where we're at as an offense, knowing we'll get Justin back to solidify our skill group," O'Connell said. "When you're looking at our skill group overall, I think the quarterback position needs to be evaluated to just figure out what we think gives us the best chance to win, [with] individual skill sets of all three of those guys, and take a look at that from a standpoint of what's the best fit right now for our team."
After leading the Vikings to wins in his first two games with the team, Dobbs has thrown five interceptions in the past two, as the Vikings have lost to the Broncos and Bears by a combined three points. The quarterback said Monday night he is "growing by leaps and bounds" in his command of the Vikings' offense after the team traded for him on Oct. 31, but O'Connell said Tuesday there's still a balance to be struck between Dobbs' skill set and the way the Vikings want to attack defenses.
"[That's] not only from an Xs and Os standpoint, but the rhythm [of the play], how footwork ties in and just trying to make up for a lot of time that we just don't have logged with Josh," O'Connell said. "There's still a lot of things that are new for him. And just the margin of error, when you're talking about the NFL pass game, can be razor-thin sometimes. The difference between conversions and chances for catch-and-runs, versus potential turnover-worthy plays, it's such a small margin of error that that's what I'm trying to balance throughout the game, throughout our preparation. If that means molding and adapting [the offense] more than we have, that's what we'll take a look at doing. If that means trying to mix and match and figure out what's best personnel-wise, we'll take a look at that as well."
Mullens, whom the Vikings acquired in a trade with the Raiders last August, has spent more time in the team's offense than either Hall or Dobbs, and O'Connell acknowledged Tuesday the veteran's experience with the scheme's details makes him an appealing option. Hall, O'Connell added, "showed some real positives" against the Falcons completing five of his six passes for 47 yards before a concussion put Dobbs in position to earn his first NFC Offensive Player of the Week award before his furniture arrived in Minnesota.
"I do think what Josh Dobbs has been able to do, especially getting out there and making plays during a tough stretch without some of our best players in the huddle, can't be discounted," O'Connell said.
Of the 529 passes targeted for Jefferson in his three-and-a-half seasons, all but 11 have come from Cousins, who missed only the Vikings' Week 17 game against the Packers in 2021 with Jefferson on the field. The receiver's return could provide opportunities for the Vikings' quarterbacks, as teams roll coverage toward Jefferson and leave other receivers open. But the Vikings' next starter will have to learn, as Cousins did, how to get Jefferson the ball in the midst of the extra attention from defenses.
Jefferson has practiced the past three weeks while remaining on injured reserve, and O'Connell said the receiver has had time to run routes with Dobbs, Mullens and Hall, so "coming off the bye won't be the first time" any of the three are throwing to him.
"We've got quite a bit of inventory of the tools defenses can use with Justin," O'Connell said. "We absolutely will put together a plan that tries to maximize number 18, whether he's lined up static in a formation, motioning, lined up with some of his other teammates in a bunch or stack and kind of go through the potential scenarios within the progression. … He happens to be an extremely friendly target with his catch radius, his ability to do pretty dynamic things after the catch."
Players will return from the bye week on Monday, O'Connell said, as the Vikings build in an extra day of practice "to make up for some time lost and get our guys as comfortable as we possibly can."
No matter what happens this weekend, the Vikings will be at least tied for the NFC's final wild-card spot. How they handle the quarterback position as Jefferson returns could dictate whether they win enough in the season's final five weeks to make the playoffs.
"Definitely, it's not the same as when you're operating with Kirk and JJ out there full-time," O'Connell said. "But by no means do we view that as a as a potential roadblock. I view that as, it's our responsibility, and specifically my responsibility, to help make that all go."