Last season, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs became the first pair of teammates in Vikings history to eclipse 100 catches each in a season. Kyle Rudolph posted the second-best reception and yardage totals of his career, earning a new five-year deal in the process.
If all goes according to plan in 2019, the Vikings’ three leading receivers might have trouble matching their totals from 2018 — and unlocking the financial incentives that come with doing so. But it doesn’t seem as if any of them would be upset to see that happen.
The Vikings have spent the offseason coalescing around coach Mike Zimmer’s calls for more balance on offense, installing a system that figures to put two tight ends, or a fullback, on the field nearly as much as it uses three receivers. If it works, the scheme could be a far cry from a year ago, when Kirk Cousins tied a career high with 606 pass attempts as former offensive coordinator John DeFilippo sought ways to compensate for the Vikings’ inability to consistently open up running lanes.
Even if the offensive shift means less gaudy numbers for Thielen and Diggs, the Vikings’ pass-catchers are at least publicly saying they’re fine with the change.
“I think that’s a reason we feel so comfortable in this system: We know our identity. We know who we are,” Thielen said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to be great at it — it doesn’t mean we’re going to be bad at it. But at least we can go into the season knowing what our identity is, what our offense is going to look like on Sundays. Now, we have to go execute it.”
Though Thielen tied an NFL record with eight straight 100-yard games to open the season and caught a career-high 113 passes (tying for fourth in the league), his frustrations in particular showed up in three incidents at the end of the season: A shouting match with Patriots coach Bill Belichick on Dec. 2, an outburst captured by ESPN’s on-field microphones in Seattle on Dec. 10 and a much-publicized sideline disagreement with Cousins during the season finale Dec. 31.
Thielen said the exchange with Cousins was “not as big of a deal as it looked,” and added his relationship with the quarterback has gotten stronger through disagreements like that one.
“It’s like any relationship in life — you’re going to have disagreements, you’re going to have things you see a different way,” Thielen said. “But any kind of [relationship], or work friendship or whatever, is only going to get stronger through conflict, and if you actually talk about it and try to grow from it.”
When the Vikings played the Cardinals on Aug. 24, Cousins caught up with Peter Badovinac, his former Michigan State teammate who’s now Arizona’s assistant receivers coach. When the Cardinals’ young receivers ask Badovinac whose work they should study, he told Cousins, his answer is always Thielen.
“As far as a teammate and a player, and just the whole package, he’s probably as good as anybody I’ve ever been around,” Cousins said. “He’s a hard worker. He’s a lot of fun; he’s got a great personality. He doesn’t really have a weakness as a receiver. I trust him to run by people, I trust him to snap it down and have good agility and create separation. I trust him to catch tough catches, to run routes with discipline and detail. I trust him to catch screens and execute those well. He runs jet sweeps well, like a running back. He blocks in the run game. Every route in the route tree, he does well.”
When teams followed the Patriots’ lead and devoted extra defenders to Thielen and Diggs at the end of the season, though, the offense ground to a halt. They failed to eclipse 300 yards or score more than 10 points in each of their final three losses, and neither of their top receivers posted more than 76 yards in those games.
With a healthy Dalvin Cook, a revamped line and the addition of rookie tight end Irv Smith, the Vikings hope they’ll have more answers for opposing defenses than they did last year. Even if that means the numbers for their receivers are more modest at the end of the season, they’ll take the trade if it leads to more victories.
“For a guy that’s been to Pro Bowls and has made a lot of money, we’re all judged in this league on wins and losses,” Rudolph said. “It’s something that we all feel; he [Cousins] is not the only one. We’re trying to get to a place that this organization has never been before. In order to do that, you have to do something you’ve never done before. I think that’s our approach as a whole: You’ve got to do something you’ve never done before, or else nothing’s going to change.”