EAGAN, Minn. — As Verizon Vikings Training Camp continues and the 2020 season nears, plenty of players will play key roles for the Vikings.
But some players will be in the spotlight more than others, whether it is because of roster turnover or their own progression in recent years.
This is a 10-part series about X-factors on the roster.
Rookies are excluded, as are veterans who have already cemented themselves as vital players on the Vikings.
Previous X-factors highlighted players who are primed for more playing time with the Vikings, but what about a newcomer?
Here's why receiver Tajaé Sharpe could be an X-factor in 2020:
— Productivity per opportunity
— Familiarity with system
Stat line: 25 receptions for 329 yards (13.2 yards per reception) and four touchdowns on 35 targets; caught 71.4 percent of passes thrown his direction; 80 percent of his receptions gained first downs or scored
Sharpe signed with Minnesota during free agency after four seasons in Tennessee. The Titans drafted the former UMass star in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
He made an impression quickly, debuting against the Vikings and recording seven catches for 76 yards during 2016 Kickoff Weekend. Sharpe was targeted a career-best 83 times as a rookie and caught 41 passes for 522 yards.
After missing all of 2017 with an injury, Sharpe received fewer opportunities (82 targets combined from 2018-19) but still produced with efficiency, as evidenced by his percentage of receptions that resulted in first downs (82.4) and a catch percentage that vaulted from 49.4 in 2016 to 55.3 in 2018 and 71.4 in 2019.
Best Splash Play So Far
Sharpe's longest touchdown of his career was a 36-yarder against New Orleans last December.
The third-and-1 play was impressive for multiple reasons. He started blocking at the line of scrimmage on a play action rollout before releasing.
The Saints took away Ryan Tannehill's apparent intended target, but the quarterback was able to extend the play, and Sharpe was, well, sharp in making himself available.
He read the defense and reacted, finding an opening that allowed Tannehill to zip the ball between Saints defenders at the 30-yard line. Sharpe secured the catch at the middle of the field before sprinting to the end zone.
It's well-documented that the Vikings: A) will have a solid commitment to run the football; B) are likely to use heavy personnel with a fullback or extra tight end (sometimes both); C) were impressed by fellow X-factor Bisi Johnson in 2019; D) drafted Justin Jefferson with the No. 22 overall pick.
All of those components may stand to reduce the potential amount of playing time for Sharpe, but the Vikings also traded Stefon Diggs, freeing up some targets in the passing game. They could stand to benefit at the position group from the experience of a player who has started 29 of 47 games played.
He has the versatility to be comfortable when lining up outside and when working from the slot.
"I think it's very important. The more you can do to help the team, it goes a long way, so if you can play inside and outside, the coaches have that flexibility to move you around and not keep you locked down or stuck at one position," Sharpe said. "It helps yourself out to give you a chance to get on the field and make some plays, but it also helps the team out with depth at every position. That's one thing we kind of preach to the young guys, not learning just one position, but learning the formations and the whole concepts so you can play anywhere on the field."
The Vikings could face situations in which they need to play with three or four receivers at once (hurry-up offense at the end of a half); or they could use that personnel (a passing look) to force a defense to use smaller personnel and then run the football.
Minnesota has had somewhat of a revolving door at receiver beyond Thielen and Diggs and is looking to solidify the depth of the position group. When Thielen was injured last season, Bisi Johnson's versatility helped him step in and contribute.
The Vikings lost Chad Beebe for all but two weeks, and Josh Doctson, who was signed last September, landed on Injured Reserve/Designated to Return days after joining the Vikings. He played in one game.
Minnesota took a look at Alexander Hollins late in the season, and he caught two passes for 46 yards on four targets.
Already past the midpoint of training camp, the Vikings have Beebe, undrafted free agents Dan Chisena and Quartney Davis, Hollins, Jefferson, Johnson, Dillon Mitchell, fifth-round pick K.J. Osborn, Sharpe and Thielen.
Besides 56 starts by Thielen, Sharpe's 29 are the most on the team and six more than the rest of the players combined.
In the past four seasons, Johnson and Laquon Treadwell (2019), Treadwell and Aldrick Robinson (2018), Treadwell and Jarius Wright (2017) and Cordarrelle Patterson and Charles Johnson (2016) have been the third and fourth most-targeted players at the position.
Sharpe was the fourth most-targeted Titans receiver last season, third most in 2018 and second as a rookie.
His per-season averages over the three seasons in which he has played follow:
55 targets, 30.7 receptions, 389 yards, 23 first downs and 2.7 touchdowns
To compare those numbers, we averaged the totals of the above "No. 3/No. 4" Vikings receivers from 2016-19:
39.5 targets, 25.3 receptions, 261.8 yards, 14 first downs and 1.8 touchdowns
Sharpe has been productive with his opportunities, despite having caught touchdowns from three different Titans quarterbacks in as many seasons. He also played for two head coaches and three offensive coordinators in four seasons, including current Green Bay Head Coach Matt LaFleur.
LaFleur was quarterbacks coach in Washington under Mike Shanahan from 2010-13. Shanahan was San Francisco's offensive coordinator in 1994 when Vikings Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak was the quarterbacks coach of the 49ers. Shanahan then took Kubiak to Denver, where they were head coach and offensive coordinator, respectively, from 1995-2005.
Sharpe has been able to build on the carryover between the Vikings system under Kubiak and LaFleur's.
"We had some similar formations and route concepts, but pretty much I feel like every team runs the same thing and calls it something else," Sharpe said. "You've just got to get used to the terminology and formations and things of that nature. Coming from under LaFleur, it wasn't too big of a change, but it definitely helps me that I was under that system previously. I just had to get used to the new terminology and things like that. It's coming along well, though."
Early in camp, Kubiak said Sharpe "has really been in our system at Tennessee."
"Same verbiage, really same system," Kubiak said. "Easy for him to catch up, and you can see it with these early walk-throughs."
As the Vikings proceed with evaluating receivers, they'll have to do so without the benefit of preseason games. Head Coach Mike Zimmer will continue to create game-like situations frequently.
Sharpe recently made the most of increased opportunities in an Aug. 20 when Thielen was assigned a lighter load.
Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins recently explained what quarterbacks want to see from receivers.
"You want that athleticism where you know your receivers can create separation and win versus man coverage, which I think we have," Cousins said. "You also want someone you know you can count on, who's going to get lined up and know where to go in the pass game, in the run game and handle all the terminology and all the different rules. And we have a group of guys that can do that, too. From both sides, I think we've got a great group in the receivers room."