In a year of uncertainty, Adam Thielen continued to do Adam-Thielen things, and the Vikings benefited from an even-better-than-advertised Justin Jefferson.
Minnesota selected Jefferson with the 22nd overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, a pick that was acquired by trading Stefon Diggs to Buffalo. Jefferson became a starter in Week 3 and never looked back, making impressive catches week after week and showing off his speed and route-running ability.
The former LSU standout silenced critics who questioned whether Jefferson could be an effective outside receiver at the NFL level. He made plays all over the field, totaling 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns through the air en route to breaking multiple records (more on that below).
"[Justin] did a great job this year of being ready when his number was called and just continuing to show up for us," Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "And it's also impressive to look back and realize that the role he had for us Week 1 and Week 2 was not the same role he had Week 3 and beyond. That's encouraging as well, to think what he could have done with two more weeks as the X [receiver]. His future's bright, and I'll be thrilled for the chance to keep playing with him."
Jefferson was able to learn from Thielen, who in his seventh season on the roster scored a career-high 14 touchdowns. Interestingly, with the exception of his first touchdown of the season, all of Thielen's scores occurred in the red zone. His impact inside the opponents' 20-yard line helped the Vikings rank sixth in the league in red zone percentage (71.2) and 15th in goal-to-go percentage (75.6).
Thielen logged two-score games on four occasions: Week 1 against Green Bay, Week 5 at Seattle, Week 10 at Chicago and Week 11 against Dallas. The Minnesota native started 15 games, missing the Week 12 game against Carolina due to being on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
Despite being frustrated with the Vikings 7-9 finish, Thielen expressed gratitude for the team's commitment during a season dramatically altered by the coronavirus pandemic as well as optimism heading into the next year.
View the best wide receiver photos from the 2020 season from Vikings photographers.
"As a competitor when you put in the amount of work you do as a team together, every single day you're grinding, and you don't hit those goals, tons of disappointment, 100 percent," Thielen said. "But a lot of excitement looking forward to 2021."
The Vikings also received a solid contribution from Chad Beebe, who played 14 games after battling a series of injuries over his first two seasons.
Beebe recorded 20 catches for 201 yards and two touchdowns, his first trips to the end zone in the NFL. The scores came at important times. The first occurred with just 50 seconds remaining against the Panthers. After muffing a punt return earlier in the game, Beebe "redeemed" himself with the 10-yard touchdown that lifted Minnesota over Carolina for the win.
Beebe caught his second touchdown in Week 17, a 40-yard play that began with just 11 seconds remaining in the first half. The catch, stay-in-bounds maneuver and pivot-and-sprint to the end zone reminded Mike Zimmer of the Minneapolis Miracle and sparked Minnesota's bounce-back on offense. The Vikings went on to defeat the Lions and end their 2020 season on a high note.
In addition to Thielen, Jefferson and Beebe, Bisi Johnson got in the mix for Minnesota's receiving corps.
The second-year receiver played all 16 games and contributed both on special teams and offense. Johnson started in Weeks 1 and 2 and then again in Week 12. Johnson recorded seven of his 14 catches and 74 of his 189 yards against the Panthers while filling in for Thielen.
15.9 — Jefferson averaged 15.9 yards per catch on 88 receptions, more than a two-yard average over the next-closest, Johnson (13.5). Jefferson's average ranked eighth among NFL qualifiers this season.
It's safe to say Jefferson will always remember his first NFL touchdown.
In Week 3 against the Titans, Minnesota faced second-and-8 from its own 29-yard line. Cousins faked a handoff to Dalvin Cook and launched a pass deep down the field to Jefferson, who created plenty of separation between himself and former Titans DB Johnathan Joseph.
It looked for a moment that King would catch and corral Jefferson, but the rookie darted to the inside and left Joseph and safety Kenny Vaccaro on the ground. He then jogged with outstretched arms before doing "The Griddy" straight into the end zone.
15 games (15 starts); 74 catches for 925 yards (12.5 average) and 14 touchdowns on 108 targets; 68.5 catch percentage
16 games (14 starts); 88 catches for 1,400 yards (15.9 average) and 7 touchdowns on 125 targets; 70.4 catch percentage
14 games (0 starts); 20 catches for 201 yards (10.1 average) and 2 touchdowns on 30 targets; 66.7 catch percentage
16 games (3 starts); 14 catches for 189 yards (13.5) and 0 touchdowns on 19 targets; 73.7 catch percentage
1. Thielen had just four catches at Chicago in Week 10, but he provided both of Minnesota's touchdowns.
The division matchup proved a big game for Thielen, who helped the Vikings defeat the Bears 19-13 at often-harrowing Soldier Field.
Cousins connected with Thielen for a 17-yard score to put Minnesota on the board first. He secured the grab with just his left hand. Thielen's fourth reception of the game occurred five minutes into the fourth quarter, breaking a tie at 13 and giving the Vikings their final points of the night.
While it may not have been Thielen's flashiest game of the season, the two-touchdown outing gave Minnesota another NFC North win.
2. Despite the Vikings Week 17 being "meaningless," per se, after already being eliminated from the playoffs, Minnesota's season-high 405 yards receiving were nonetheless notable.
Not to mention record-breaking numbers by Jefferson.
He led the team with nine catches for 133 yards, bringing his season total to an even 1,400. Not only did Jefferson break Randy Moss' franchise record for yards by a rookie (1,313), but he also surpassed Anquan Boldin's NFL rookie record (set in 2003 with 1,377).
Thielen added 57 yards on four catches, and Beebe's 44 yards included the impressive 40-yard touchdown during the 2-minute drill just before halftime. The remainder of Minnesota's receiving yards were credited to running backs and tight ends.
1. Let's just say the Vikings didn't experience Hoosier Hospitality during their visit to Indianapolis.
The Colts hosted the Vikings for a Week 2 matchup, and Minnesota's offense struggled mightily en route to just 175 total net yards.
Indy's secondary had a field day, with three defensive backs – Kenny Moore, Khari Willis and T.J. Carrie – picking off Cousins, who didn't throw a touchdown pass. The Colts held the Vikings to just 113 receiving yards, a season low. Jefferson recorded three catches for 44 yards, and Thielen was targeted eight times but had just three catches for 31 yards. Johnson added 24 yards on one reception.
2. The Vikings had a chance to get it done but couldn't come up with the plays.
Against Dallas in Week 11, Minnesota got the ball back with 1:37 left in the game and trailing by just 3. Cousins connected with Dalvin Cook for a 4-yard gain on first down, and that was the final time the Vikings moved the ball.
A pass over the middle to an open Jefferson was dropped, and a third-down throw to Thielen was disrupted by cornerback Jourdan Lewis. The Vikings had no choice but to go for it on fourth down, but a pressured Cousins missed Thielen downfield.
After a hard-fought game that came down to the final minute-and-a-half, Minnesota was unable to execute and fell 31-28.
"Just being able to go out there and make those big plays for the team, putting points on the board and setting this team up for success. That's all that really matters. It boosted my confidence a lot, coming out here and having a game like that on a high level. More to come, and we've just gotta keep working."
– Jefferson after scoring first career TD against Tennessee
"I didn't necessarily know what to expect, but I've said this before: The moment I first saw him run routes and catch the football, I knew there was something special there. Did I think he was going to break every record and be one of the best receivers in the NFL this year? I don't know. That's … pretty tough to do as a rookie. But it's been fun to watch. It's been fun to be a part of. Again, another guy you kind of cheer for, and you're excited for him to have success just because of the locker room guy he is, the guy he is every single day, the smile that he brings. His presence, man, it affects people around him, so it's pretty cool."
– Thielen on Jefferson's impact in his rookie season
"All of the doubts, all of the people that doubted me at the beginning of the season and didn't think I was going to have this type of season or didn't think I was the player that I am. All of that was just built up on me. I just released the beast. I just went out there and played my ball. Just was true to the process and let my game play for itself. I'm definitely stoked about this season."
– Jefferson reflecting on Year 1
Pressing Questions for 2021
1. Will the Vikings solidify a sure-fire WR3 heading into next season?
There's no question about Minnesota's starting receiver duo. Thielen and Jefferson combined for 2,325 yards and 21 touchdowns on the season, helping the Vikings rank fourth in total yards per game. Thanks to yards-per-reception averages of 12.5 (Thielen) and 15.9 (Jefferson), Minnesota also ranked third in the NFL in passing yards per play (7.8).
But behind the dynamic duo, did the Vikings establish a strong third receiver heading into the 2021 season? Beebe's participation increased to be sure, and it seems likely that he'll continue to see an uptick in production. Even so, Minnesota didn't utilize him a ton.
The Vikings signed free agent receiver Tajaé Sharpe in the spring, but the 26-year-old was active for just four games and had just three targets with no catches before being released on Dec. 14.
Looking ahead to next year, will Minnesota continue to look at Beebe and Johnson as WR3 candidates, or could a new addition be in the cards?
2. Will Vikings receivers see increased action next season?
Minnesota has two of the best receivers in the game, but the team also utilizes a run-heavy offense with one of the NFL's best backs in Dalvin Cook.
According to Sportradar, pass plays accounted for 54.3 percent of the Vikings snaps from scrimmage, which ranked sixth-lowest in the NFL, which also means Minnesota's run play percentage (45.7) was the sixth-highest. Cousins averaged 17.8 passing attempts to wide receivers per game.
Although there is some uncertainty as to whether Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak will return for a second season in the role, it seems unlikely that Zimmer will change his offensive philosophy. Which is not a bad thing, but it will be interesting to see if the Vikings increase the number of opportunities for receivers on a week-to-week basis.