Which Vikings WRs will surprise?
By: Grant Schwieger
The wide receiver position is often one of the most heavily scrutinized positions when it comes to training camp position battles across the NFL. Teams almost always carry a minimum of five WRs on their 53-man roster with 6 WRs being fairly common as well. The 2020 Vikings actually carried 7 wideouts on their initial roster: Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson, Chad Beebe, Bisi Johnson, Tajae Sharpe, KJ Osborn, and Dan Chisena. So, which pass-catchers will make the 2021 Week 1 roster, and how many will there be in total?
Six of the seven WRs from 2020 are on the 2021 Vikings training camp roster to this point, with Sharpe being the only one no longer in Minnesota. The Vikings did take a hit to their depth when it was announced that Bisi Johnson tore his ACL in practice last Friday and is going to miss the 2021 season. Johnson has proven to be a capable backup outside WR so far in his career, amassing 836 snaps in the last two seasons since being a seventh-round pick in 2019. Minnesota will now have to look elsewhere on the roster to fill Johnson’s role, however, they thankfully have a few alternatives that could suffice.
Less than a week before Johnson went down, the Vikings signed former Jaguars wideout Dede Westbrook to a one-year deal. With the Minnesota WR room not having much spunk outside of Jefferson and Thielen, the Westbrook move was much applauded at the time. Now, with one less able body to catch passes, the move looks even better. Westbrook has yet to practice fully after tearing his ACL last season, but the hope is he will be a full-go once the season begins. He caught 66 passes in back-to-back seasons for Jacksonville in 2018-2019, so for the sake of this article, we will assume, if healthy, he makes the roster.
The only other two locks at the position to make the team are obviously Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. Jefferson has looked absolutely fantastic based on reports coming out of camp, and Thielen has not shown any signs of slowing down quite yet either as he turns 31 later this month.
If the Vikings were to keep six WRs on the 53-man roster, that leaves three spots left for Chad Beebe, KJ Osborn, 2021 5th round pick Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Dan Chisena, and 2021 UDFAs Blake Proehl, Whop Philyor, and Myron Mitchell. After about of week of camp, the leader among that group appears to be Osborn. After not registering a single offensive snap in 2020, he has been the talk of camp seemingly every day, making big play after big play.
A positive development from Osborn would be a very welcome sight to see for Vikings fans, as he did not impress on special teams in 2020 and the team sorely needs a third receiver to make any sort of impact on the team. With Westbrook not healthy yet and Beebe not a lock to remain WR3 by any means, Osborn has taken full advantage of his opportunities thus far in 2021.
As for Beebe, he was the Vikings de facto WR3 in 2020, however, his 314 snaps all year trailed CJ Ham and Tyler Conklin’s snaps, so he was not necessarily a vital piece of the offense. He has excelled at getting open from the slot in short-yardage situations with 21 of his 27 targets coming between 0-9 yards downfield per PFF. Kudos should be given to Beebe for carving out a role in the NFL with limited size and speed, but when it comes to roster spots in 2021, he does not exactly scream “lock.”
Ihmir Smith-Marsette came out of Iowa boasting a 4.43 40-yard dash time and after a few days of camp has shown off his speed on multiple occasions. Most of his reps have come against the 2nd and 3rd string defense but regardless it is alleviating to see him make plays already. The majority of his snaps in college came from the outside, and with Beebe and Westbrook playing mostly out of the slot in their careers, Smith-Marsette may find himself battling with Osborn to replace Johnson as the backup outside WR.
That leaves Chisena, Proehl, Philyor, and Mitchell as potential odd men out if Minnesota rolls with only six wideouts. Chisena was a bit of a shock to make the roster in 2020 so he cannot be ruled out at this point. While his position is listed as WR, he is more of a special teams player that just needs a designated position. It remains to be seen if the Vikings will need Chisena to be a core special teamer again in 2021 as the team’s overall depth is much better now than it was a year ago.
Proehl and Philyor both had solid college careers at East Carolina and Indiana, respectively. Neither one has been bad by any means so far in camp, they just have an uphill battle to climb when it comes to the wideouts in front of them on the depth chart. They have both performed well enough to possibly garner a spot on the practice squad, which might be a more attainable goal for them. Injuries and covid can easily derail a position’s depth, though, and Proehl and Philyor will surely both be eager to step up if needed.
As for covid, Myron Mitchell is unfortunately currently on the Reserve/Covid-19 list so his first training camp out of UAB will have to be put on pause for now. That will put him at a disadvantage once he is eventually able to return, and a practice squad spot might be what he ends up battling for as well.
Once preseason games begin and we are able to see this group play live, the cream of the crop will start to rise to the top and we will have a better understanding of how the coaches view the WR depth chart. As for now, everyone behind Jefferson and Thielen will continue to slug it out for the final four or five roster spots. My current prediction? The Vikings will roster six wideouts come Week 1: Jefferson, Thielen, Westbrook, Osborn, Smith-Marsette, and Beebe.