Training Camp Primer: After Thielen & Diggs, Receivers Will Try to Separate from Pack

With Verizon Vikings Training Camp set to open next week (Friday, July 26 is the first scheduled public practice open to the public), the Vikings.com writing staff is doing a Training Camp Primer series this week to take deeper looks at offseason topics that likely will be answered in camp practices and the preseason.

Schedule

Thursday: After Thielen & Diggs, Receivers Will Try to Separate from Pack

Friday: Special Teams to Feature Competitions for Positions & Roster Spots

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EAGAN, Minn. — The NFL’s top wide receiver duo resides in Minnesota, as Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs enter the 2019 season as the only teammates who had at least 100 catches and 1,000 yards in the previous season.

As for the rest of the Vikings wide receivers group, the battle for the No. 3 job features a wide array of characters including the son of a former NFL player (Chad Beebe), a guy who didn’t even play in 2018 (Jordan Taylor), a former first-round draft pick (Laquon Treadwell) and a Minnesota native who is most known for starring in the Canadian Football League (Brandon Zylstra).

But for the trio of Beebe, Taylor and Zylstra, three of the men battling for one of the most scrutinized positions on the Vikings roster, they might also be some of the closest players off the field.

The bond was formed in the spring and summer as each lived in the same hotel near Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center, and usually capped the night with intense games of Settlers of Catan, a multiplayer board game that features players trying to build the biggest and best land settlements.

While the group, which also included tight end Cole Hikutini, needed something to do to pass the time, the games also became the building block of friendships between the teammates.

It was Taylor, the Texas native and a newcomer to the Vikings, who apparently established bragging rights.

“Oh, they told you about me? I’ve been killing them,” Taylor said with a laugh. “I’d never heard of it, so I’m not sure if it’s not like a Southern game, but it’s not a game we ever played growing up.

“I probably win about half the time. It was a way, early on, for us to play the game but also sit around and talk and get to know each other,” Taylor added. “But now it’s a competitive mess, which is good.”

Added Beebe: “It’s definitely a tight group. With Settlers of Catan … just things like that, we’re bonding and everyone wants the best for each other.”

The group may be tight off the field, yet as training camp looms, they will soon engage in what could be the fiercest position battle on the roster.

The Vikings are set with Thielen and Diggs as the top two options, but there has been constant chatter about which other player could separate himself throughout training camp and the preseason.

Beebe appeared to make a strong impression in spring practices, as assistant head coach/offensive advisor Gary Kubiak had plenty of praise for the 5-foot-10 wide receiver in June.

“I think you also got to look at the fact that [Beebe] has had probably as good of an offseason as any player that I know on our side of the ball,” Kubiak said. “He’s got a chance to be a really good player for us, so it gives us flexibility to bounce around personnel wise.”

Beebe, whose father Don played nine seasons in the NFL, made the practice squad out of 2018 training camp after joining the Vikings as an undrafted free agent. He climbed to the 53-man roster midway through the season, but had just four catches for 39 yards as he battled injuries.

Now healthy, Beebe wants to prove he belongs and can be a playmaker in the Vikings offense,

“I’m far better as a wideout than I was coming in. I think a lot of that is due to being on practice squad for the first half of the season,” Beebe said. “I learned a lot going up against one of the best defenses in the NFL, and learning from two of the best receivers in the NFL. I was really able to do my best to perfect my craft.”

“I feel like the speed of the game has slowed down a little bit for me and I’m able to play at a faster pace,” Beebe added. “All that together makes a huge difference.”

Taylor was also a spring standout, as he ran with the first-team offense at times. The wide receiver has ties to Kubiak, who was Denver’s head coach from 2015-16 and a personnel advisor the past two seasons.

Taylor played in 26 games in 2016 and 2017, recording 29 total receptions for 351 yards and a pair of touchdowns in his career.

While Beebe offers lateral quickness as a potential slot option, Taylor can provide strength and size with his 6-foot-5 frame.

“I try to use my length to my advantage,” Taylor said. “I’m not slow by any means, but I’m not the fastest guy either, so a foot of separation for me is what I need to use my long arms and longer frame to try and reel in the ball. I try to use that as much as I can.”

Treadwell has the most NFL experience of any player, as the 2016 first-round pick has 56 catches for 517 yards and a touchdown in 40 career games.

Although Treadwell hasn’t had the easiest start to his career with four different offensive coordinators, he said this offseason that he doesn’t view 2019 as a prove-it season.

“I’m not going to put that on me, because I’ve done that before and been down that route and it kind of sets you out to be against everyone,” Treadwell said. “I don’t want to put myself in that category, it’s more about just being intentional … come to work and be willing to learn every day and be open to new things.”

Zylstra had one catch for 23 yards in his rookie season in 2018, which came after he led the CFL with 100 catches for 1,687 receiving yards the year before.

The Spicer native mixed in with the all three offensive units during spring practices and said he’s ready to make a jump in 2019.

“It was a big learning experience and nice to get that first year under your belt,” Zylstra said. “You see how the NFL is actually ran, how you need to study, how you need to take care of your body.

“I have two of the best receivers in front of me, so it was nice to pick their brains constantly,” Zylstra added. “That definitely boosted my confidence going into Year 2.”

The four wide receivers mentioned above will likely get plenty of opportunities for the No. 3 job, especially as rookies Dillon Mitchell, Bisi Johnson, Davion Davis and Alexander Hollins navigate their first NFL training camps. Jeff Badet, who spent the 2018 season on the practice squad.

But no matter who claims the job, the Vikings could use more production from that spot going forward.

Minnesota’s third option at wide receiver in 2018 was primarily Treadwell, who had 35 catches for 302 yards and a touchdown in his third season in the NFL.

Vikings.com took a look around the league at how other teams’ No. 3 wide receivers performed, and found Minnesota ranked in the lower third in most statistical categories.

The Vikings were tied for the second-fewest among touchdowns with one, while Minnesota ranked 24th in total receiving yards and 26th in total receptions by a third wide receiver.

On average, a No. 3 wide receiver on an NFL team produced roughly 33.5 catches for 416 yards and three touchdowns in 2018.

It is worth noting, however, that Thielen and Diggs became just the fourth set of teammates in NFL history to each have at least 100 receptions, 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns in the same season.

The battle for playing time behind Thielen and Diggs should produce some of the more intense moments in training camp and the preseason.

“It’s a competition, and the best guys are going to play, that’s point blank, period. But at the end of the day, you want to help make your teammates as good as you can and help make them better,” Taylor said. “In turn, they do the same, and it just makes everybody better. If one of us doesn’t make the team for whatever reason, or doesn’t get that third spot, you hope they’re still playing in the league somewhere else.

“I think the guys are genuinely and truly trying to help everybody so that everyone is on top of their stuff and has a chance,” Taylor added. “I firmly believe that if I don’t just straight up beat somebody out, then I don’t deserve the job anyway.”

Added Beebe: “At the end of the day, there’s always going to be competition, which I love. It’s only going to make me better, and the guys around me, too. We’ll see what happens.”

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