The Vikings begin training camp next week, with their first full-squad practice scheduled for July 28. Between now and then, we're previewing camp with a look at each position group. Today: receivers.
Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, Chad Beebe, Bisi Johnson, Dan Chisena, K.J. Osborn, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Myron Mitchell, Whop Philyor, Blake Proehl.
In: Smith-Marsette (fifth-round pick), Mitchell (undrafted free agent), Philyor (undrafted free agent), Proehl (undrafted free agent).
Out: Alexander Hollins (Browns).
The top of the depth chart is crystal clear and quite talented with Jefferson seemingly destined for All-Pro honors early in his career and Thielen still capable of making Pro Bowls late in his. Together, they racked up 162 catches for 2,325 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. After that, things get murky quickly. That's one big reason the Vikings used the fewest three-receiver formations in the NFL last season. Receivers not named Jefferson or Thielen caught just 34 passes for 390 yards and two touchdowns a year ago.
No. 3 receiver. Beebe and Johnson will be the primary participants in this battle for the third straight year. That tells you how low this spot ranks on the Vikings' list of offseason priorities. They compensate for having no bona fide No. 3 receiver by using versatile running back Dalvin Cook and their tight ends in the passing game. Last year, Beebe and Johnson were the only wideouts other than Thielen and Jefferson to catch a pass. Beebe outpaced Johnson in catches (20-14), yards (201-189) and touchdowns (2-0). Both are decent players and admirable overachievers, but neither has stepped forward consistently. The sleeper to watch is Smith-Marsette. Drafted primarily as an elite kick returner out of Iowa, the 6-1, 181-pounder also has an opportunity to elbow his way into the offense.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Jefferson. How good to great will the encore be? Even after a slow start in 2020, Jefferson still set the NFL record for receiving yards by a rookie (1,400) while pacing last year's rookies in catches (88). Defensive coordinators will have had more time to scheme against Jefferson in 2021, but his instincts, skill set and drive should take him to another level when mixed with a full year of NFL experience. It also helps having the do-everything Cook in the backfield and the veteran Thielen on the other side. Last year Thielen had a team- and career-high 14 touchdown catches, 13 of them in the red zone.
ONE BIG QUESTION
What does the future hold for Thielen? Believe it or not, the plucky D-II kid from Mankato turns 31 on Aug. 22. Now long established as a high-priced star player, how long can he stay on top while living up to his big contract? Though his touchdowns increased last year, Thielen hasn't surpassed 1,000 yards or played a full season since catching a combined 213 balls for 2,651 yards in his back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons of 2017-18. His tank is far from empty, but Thielen's eighth season needs to be particularly special if he's to have any chance of keeping that $16.9 million salary cap number in Season 9.