MINNEAPOLIS – In late August, when the Minnesota Vikings found out they would have to proceed without Irv Smith Jr., who is expected to miss the 2021 season after undergoing knee surgery, coach Mike Zimmer talked through the ways the offense would work around the promising tight end’s absence.
“Probably go with three wides,” Zimmer said. “Some of those things we’ll have to adapt and change.”
There was some concern about Minnesota’s ability to do that, given recent history. The Vikings utilized 11 personnel (3 WR, 1 RB, 1 TE) on 27 percent of their plays in 2020, which was the lowest mark of any NFL team. According to Football Outsiders, the Vikings finished last by throwing only 9% of passes to targets designated as “other wide receivers,” meaning not their top two options in Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson.
For the last few seasons, Minnesota has searched for a No. 3 receiver to complement its top pass-catching threats, but those efforts were largely unsuccessful. Players like Aldrick Robinson, Chad Beebe and even former first-round pick Laquon Treadwell were utilized situationally, but the Vikings never had a consistent WR3 to divvy up the target share.
The performance Minnesota got out of second-year receiver K.J. Osborn was one of a few bright spots from a 27-24 overtime loss to Cincinnati in Week 1. An ugly day for the offense was mitigated by Osborn’s emergence as the Vikings’ third receiving option, which allowed the offense to deploy 11 personnel on 32 of 75 snaps in regulation (48%) – which was more than any other formation they turned to against the Bengals.
Some of that had to do with the loaded boxes that prevented them from establishing a rushing attack. The Vikings had five rushing attempts against 8-man boxes (13.5% of their plays), which yielded five total yards and a touchdown, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
The other part was the role Osborn played in extending drives on plays during which the Vikings looked like they were doomed far behind the chains. Osborn finished with seven catches for 76 yards, including a third-down conversion that preceded Thielen’s first touchdown to give Minnesota a 7-0 lead. Osborn also had a catch on fourth-and-4 that set up a 53-yard field goal to send the game to overtime.
“Not a surprise,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “Glad, thrilled that a player like that can show to everyone what he’s been showing to us for months.
“I thought his catch on fourth in the two-minute [offense] was elite. The ball was thrown hard, he’s in a lot of traffic, and he made a tremendous catch. Those are the kinds of plays as a quarterback when you see them made, it gives you a lot of confidence that you can throw the ball in there. That’s just one example that comes to mind. He’s going to help us all season.”
The Vikings signed Dede Westbrook to a one-year deal on the eve of training camp. The addition of Westbrook, who at the time was the top slot receiver available on the free-agent market, presented Minnesota with the potential to modernize its passing attack and gave Cousins another option aside from his top two receivers.
But as Westbrook continues to be slowly worked into the game plan less than a year after tearing his ACL, Osborn has shown he can handle a role few other receivers had been able to hold onto the last few seasons.
“Just understanding what's going on, understanding the offense,” Osborn said. “I'm not so much worried about what route I'm running, now I come out of the huddle, I know what route I'm running. I'm looking at the defense, I'm looking at the situation, looking at the time.
“So just understanding and experience, that's helped me a lot. It's helped me to play a lot faster, and I can just be myself and play ball and be able to make those kinds of plays."
Osborn said he's trying to "build my relationship with Kirk and the rest of my teammates and the offensive coaches (to show) that I can make those big plays and step up for our team. To make those big plays to help us win games.”