The Minnesota Vikings will be without one half of their dynamic duo at wide receiver following Adam Thielen’s season-ending ankle injury that required surgery on Tuesday. Thielen’s absence means a larger role for K.J. Osborn, the Vikings’ fifth-round pick from the 2020 NFL Draft.
The next two games will serve as a fantastic audition for Osborn to prove that he’s not only a quality option to play while Thielen is out with injury, but that he’s a player who can potentially replace him as a long-term starter in the not-too-distant future.
Thielen is under contract with Minnesota for three more years but his cap figure nearly triples in 2022 from $6 million this season to $17 million. He’ll turn 32 years old in August, too. All signs are pointing toward a sooner than expected end to Thielen’s tenure with the Vikings: he’s expensive, aging, and now injured, and with a young and ascending (and cheap) option like Osborn on the depth chart, it may be time for the Vikings to go younger.
Osborn has been productive when given a chance to play this year. He has 46 catches for 584 yards and five touchdowns following a rookie season in which he didn’t log a single reception. He’s played nearly the same number of snaps as Thielen in 2021 (684 for Osborn compared to 757 for Thielen) and is averaging nearly two yards per catch more. He trails Thielen by just 142 receiving yards. Thielen has more touchdowns (10), but that’s an expected result from the chemistry he’s built through the years with quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Osborn has all the traits that are required to be a consistently productive receiver in the NFL. He has good size (5-foot-11, 203 pounds) and ran a 4.48 40-yard dash prior to the 2020 NFL Draft. He jumped nearly 38 inches in the vertical jump and eclipsed 10 feet in his broad jump. He’s an explosive dude and he’s proven this season that he’s capable of making plays downfield against NFL defenders.
Osborn flew under the radar as a draft prospect, in part, because of the loaded class of wide receivers in 2020. It’s understandable, too. With players like CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy, and his Vikings teammate Justin Jefferson all in the same draft year, Osborn was far from a priority draft pick. But The Draft Network’s Joe Marino saw some intriguing traits in the Miami Hurricanes pass-catcher prior to his senior season. Check out this snippet from Marino’s write-up in August of that year:
“(Osborn has) the ability to win at every level of the field. Proven deep threat that can get behind the secondary, he can uncover quickly from the slot and is fearless over the middle while also showcasing dynamic skills in space as a runner. Decisive, creative, and physical post-catch with outstanding field vision. Ball skills and hands are outstanding which have both been challenged given the erratic quarterbacks he’s played with. Love his ability to track over the shoulder and adjust. Runs well-timed routes with good pace while making good adjustments on the fly.”
In what’s effectively been Osborn’s rookie season, he’s proving Marino’s evaluation to be correct.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in him,” Cousins said of Osborn after he filled in for Thielen in Week 13 against the Detroit Lions, “and it’s no surprise that he played at a high level.”
Obviously, there’s a big difference between coming off the bench and catching a defense by surprise versus being a starter whose opponent has a full week to prepare for. This is when Osborn will really be tested; the next two games will prove if he’s a legitimate NFL starter or a quality backup who can make splash plays when needed.
I wouldn’t bet against Osborn being that legitimate starter and forcing the Vikings into a difficult decision with Thielen this offseason. Minnesota’s last two games are against the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, giving Osborn a chance to become something of a Vikings hero against their two most-hated rivals. If he produces, he’ll win over the fans, and that’ll help make the transition to 2022 even easier.