The Vikings enter 2021 with full-throttled faith in Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson as one of the best receiver tandems in the NFL.
Thielen and Jefferson combined for 162 receptions, 2,325 yards and 21 touchdowns on 233 targets in 2020 for a Minnesota offense that was committed to the run game. While that philosophy is expected to continue, there are opportunities for lesser-used receivers or newbies to contribute in 2021.
When U.S. Bank Vikings Training Camp opens later this month, eyes are certain to fixate for a bit on Thielen, a former "Mr. Mankato" turned Master Craftsman, and Jefferson, who carded a historic rookie season without benefit of an in-person offseason program or preseason games last summer. There also will be curiosity as to what happens on the rest of the depth chart.
We opened our position-by-position camp previews with a look at Vikings quarterbacks on Monday, so receivers are a logical choice for the next group of questions.
Can Thielen top 14 touchdowns?
Thielen emerged last season as Kirk Cousins' undisputed favorite target in the red zone.
After a 37-yard touchdown catch in Week 1, the remaining 13 touchdowns caught by Thielen occurred on plays that originated inside an opponent's 20-yard line.
Thielen's impressive route running helped him win in condensed areas of the field. Seven scores were distances of 3 or fewer yards, resembling more of a fullback's scoring resume — paging Leroy Hoard, circa 1999 (all 10 scores were 4 or fewer yards) — than a Pro Bowl receiver, but putting points on the board is always the name of the game.
The 14 touchdowns in 15 starts nearly equaled the 15 scores Thielen caught in 26 starts from 2018-19 and put the Minnesota native in rare franchise air. Only Hall of Famers Cris Carter (17 in 1995) and Randy Moss (17 in 1998, 15 in 2000 and 17 in 2003) have turned in more-prolific seasons for the Vikings.
Will the Vikings turn to Thielen as often — particularly in that part of the field again — or is 14 the peak for a single season?
In any case, milestones are near. The next score will be the 40th for No. 19. Thielen also needs three catches to total 400 career receptions and tie Ahmad Rashad for seventh in franchise history.
One thing is for certain: Thielen doesn't plan to rest on any laurels yet. He described his continued offseason workouts with trainer Ryan Englebert, the founder of ETS and business partner in regional facilities.
View the best photos of Vikings WR Adam Thielen from the 2020 season.
"The week after the season … I'm sitting down with him and figuring out a plan of how we can get better," Thielen said. "So the offseason doesn't look the same, but our approach is exactly the same. I feel that's the only way that I can continue to stay on top of my game and to gain ground. I don't want to just stay at the same level. I want to keep continuing to improve."
What does Jefferson's encore performance look like?
Jefferson's historic output has been well-documented. The 2021 first-round pick backed up his draft stock with 88 catches, a Super Bowl-era record 1,400 receiving yards and seven touchdowns en route to his Pro Bowl selection.
He returned to Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center this spring for his first NFL offseason program and exuded a level of confidence that was noticed by Head Coach Mike Zimmer and Thielen.
"I think the biggest thing that I've seen out of JJ is he's very, very confident right now. He's a lot more talkative, a lot more excitable, I guess, is a way to go," Zimmer said. "He still runs great routes, catches the ball. But he's still got to continue to do things right every single day, and that'll allow him to continue to ascend into the player that he has the ability to be."
Thielen said Jefferson believed in himself a year ago but now better knows what he and this offense are "capable of."
"He's just more confident and more relaxed and having fun playing ball," Thielen said. "You know, he knew going into last year what he could do, but when you go prove it, now you can kind of come out here, work on the little things and continue to get better, and he's showing that."
Opponents on the Vikings 2021 schedule will no doubt enter every week of preparation with Jefferson included in their worry list.
He could draw more attention of double teams or be trailed across the field by a team's top corner, which could then lead to more opportunities for Thielen and teammates.
View the best photos of Vikings rookie WR Justin Jefferson from the 2020 season.
"That's the hard part about the league and doing great things in the league," Jefferson said. "There's someone always watching your tape and studying your game, so definitely during this offseason I had to, you know, learn some new moves and put some new moves into my inventory."
One thing that will help Jefferson and Co. is reps during training camp against perennial Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson and other seasoned cornerbacks who were brought in as free agents to help a young group.
"Him being one of the top corners in the league and going up against him in practice, that only makes us better as receivers, because we don't really get to see a guy like 'Pat Pete' every single game," Jefferson said.
What are the plans for WR3?
Beyond Thielen and Jefferson, the Vikings have just two other receivers who have caught passes — or even played offensive snaps — in NFL games.
Bisi Johnson has appeared in all 32 games of his first two pro seasons and made nine starts. He's caught 45 passes for 483 yards and three scores on 64 targets, with a significant share of those totals occurring in 2019 when Thielen missed six games due to an injury.
Chad Beebe bounced back from injuries that limited him to three games in each of his first two seasons to play in 14 in 2020. He caught 20 of 30 passes thrown his direction last season for 201 yards and two scores.
K.J. Osborn and Dan Chisena were rookies last season who contributed on special teams but didn't play a snap on offense. Both had some nice plays during the Vikings offseason program.
Fifth-round pick Ihmir Smith-Marsette and three undrafted rookies — Myron Mitchell, Whop Philyor and Blake Proehl — were added to the mix this spring.
Given Minnesota's preference for personnel groupings that use two tight ends or a fullback and tight end, it's possible that one of the top three receiving options on many plays will not be a receiver at all. There are, however, situations within a game, like a two-minute drill, where having three or maybe even four receivers on the field at the same time is necessary.
Practices and preseason games should offer opportunities for the less-established players to differentiate themselves. Until then, here's what has been said about that part of the roster so far.
"There's a lot of competition, and that's great because they're all making each other better," said first-year Offensive Coordinator Klint Kubiak. "The veterans are exceeding expectations, and there are some young guys that are really pushing them. I think [receivers coach] Keenan McCardell has done a phenomenal job with these rookies, getting them ready to compete. It's a lot we throw at them, but they can't show what they can do physically until they get it mentally.
"He's here after hours with those guys, so I appreciate all the work he's put in, as well as [assistant coach] Christian Jones. Those guys are studs," Kubiak said. "The team is going to be better because of the skill that [General Manager] Rick Spielman has brought into this building, and I look forward to seeing who comes out on top in the fall."
View photos of the newest Vikings from a rookies photoshoot.
Zimmer said: "I really like some of these guys. Some of the young guys we drafted, even Blake Proehl, I think he has done a nice job."
"We've still got [Chad] Beebe. K.J. Osborn has had a really nice [offseason program]. They have all kind of grown as they have been moving forward here," Zimmer added. "Thank goodness we have some of these preseason games to get a look at some of these guys. But once we get into camp, I think we'll find out about some of them as we move forward. The other part about being the third, fourth or fifth receiver is about how you do on special teams."
Fans have the opportunity to see the 2021 Vikings in person at U.S. Bank Vikings Training Camp later this month when practices at TCO Performance Center will be open to the public. Click here for ticket info about team practices, two joint sessions with the Denver Broncos and a first-of-its kind scrimmage at U.S. Bank Stadium.