In September 1990, the Vikings claimed Cris Carter off waivers, taking a chance on a player who was cut by the Philadelphia Eagles while battling addiction.
Carter caught 27 passes for the Vikings that season while learning the offense and straightening out his life. Statistically, he remained an underachiever.
Anthony Carter was the Vikings’ star receiver, and led the team with 70 catches for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns in 1990. Hassan Jones had become the No. 2 receiver, catching 51 passes for 810 yards.
The Vikings featured an established star and a player on the rise at the position, so what happened during the team’s 1991 training camp proved fascinating. To anyone paying attention, it quickly became obvious that Cris Carter was about to become the Vikings’ go-to receiver.
In 1991, Carter led the team with 72 catches for 962 yards. Anthony Carter fell to 51 catches for 553 yards and Jones to 32 catches and 384 yards. Cris Carter was on his way to becoming a Hall of Famer.
We may be witnessing a similar shuffle for the Vikings this month. Last season, Adam Thielen became the first Viking to reach 1,000 receiving yards since 2009, following a season in which he would have reached 1,000 yards if the Vikings had thrown the ball to him more in the season finale. He is, statistically, the Vikings’ star wideout.
Stefon Diggs proved a capable complement, with 64 catches for 849 yards, but Case Keenum clearly preferred throwing to Thielen. Thielen led the team with 142 targets. Diggs was targeted 95 times, while playing two fewer games than Thielen.
During Kirk Cousins’ first training camp, he often seemed intent on getting the ball to Diggs. In three preseason games, Diggs had seven catches on 12 targets, while Thielen had four catches on nine targets.
During camp, Diggs signed a five-year contract valued at $72 million; Thielen is in the midst of four-year deal worth $19 million.
All of this evidence may prove to be circumstantial, but it’s hard not to get the feeling that Diggs is about to become the Vikings’ most productive receiver, if Diggs and Cousins stay healthy.
“I think he’s had a really good camp,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said of Diggs. “We have to continue to look for ways to get him the ball, but I think he’s got a chance to have a really good season.
“Hopefully, he stays healthy. He’s running good routes. He’s catching the ball well. He’s working really hard. So … hopefully.”
Another sign of Diggs’ rise: Cousins seems willing to throw to him even when he’s not open. Twice in the preseason game against Seattle, Cousins targeted Diggs downfield on the right sideline. On the first attempt, Diggs was blanketed and Cousins underthrew, giving Diggs no chance to make a play. On the next, Cousins threw a “back shoulder” pass for a completion, allowing Diggs to work free while the ball was in the air.
Unlike college quarterbacks, NFL passers are not always given the luxury of waiting for a receiver to get open. They often have to throw the ball while the receiver appears to be covered. To do so effectively requires trust and cohesiveness between a quarterback and receiver. There are early signs that Cousins and Diggs are developing that kind of relationship.
Thielen is 28, in his prime. Diggs is 24, and entering his prime. There is no indication that Thielen will regress at this stage of his career. He runs excellent routes, runs well after the catch, is willing and able to catch the ball in traffic and times his leaps exceptionally well.
But this may prove to be Diggs’ turn to take the statistical lead. He’s the most talented receiver on the roster, and the Vikings didn’t give him $72 million to be the latest incarnation of Hassan Jones.
Jim Souhan’s podcasts can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org