The Vikings’ most surprising roster hole, and what they might do to fix it (2024)

What is the biggest positional hole on the Minnesota Vikings’ roster? A friend asked the question earlier this week. It got me thinking.

Cornerback seemed like the right place to start. Shaq Griffin? Experienced. Byron Murphy Jr.? He’s athletic and could still have some untapped potential. But after those two guys? Uncertainty. Mekhi Blackmon, Akayleb Evans and Khyree Jackson are a bundle of hope, inconsistency and inexperience.

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Secondary depth is the most obvious answer to the question. Or is it?

There are several other contenders for this unfortunate category. How about the defensive line? The Vikings geared up in free agency for Christian Wilkins, but the Las Vegas Raiders stretched the market further than Minnesota was willing to go. The Vikings also liked Texas defensive tackle Byron Murphy II in the NFL Draft, but the Seattle Seahawks snagged him at No. 16. Harrison Phillips and Jonathan Bullard are reliable run-stoppers. Neither is a pass-rushing force.

The interior of the offensive line is another area of need. If the Vikings were over the moon about their options, they may have opted against signing Dalton Risner for additional depth. Depending on which side of the bed you woke up on this morning, you could convince yourself about Ed Ingram and Blake Brandel’s potential.

These are all “ifs,” spots that generate some consternation. None, though, are surprises. For years, the Vikings have whiffed on cornerbacks with premium draft picks. They have not used any such picks on defensive linemen. And the offensive line? These are the Vikings we’re talking about. What more needs to be said?

For the sake of content, need to let you know Kevin O'Connell is mic'd up.

📺: https://t.co/M2pqRk09UW pic.twitter.com/a5J3CQrnPG

— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) June 20, 2024

When presented with these positions, my friend replied: “What about their third wide receiver?”

In past years, this roster spot was as mindless as writing your name on a test. Scribble K.J. Osborn, then move on. Osborn, though, is no longer in Minnesota. A free agent this spring, he signed a one-year, $4 million contract with the New England Patriots.

The departure felt inevitable at the time. Osborn, who had the fourth-fewest targets per routes run among NFL receivers last season, wanted to play more of a primary pass-catching role. The Vikings, meanwhile, recognized they were massively invested in Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison and T.J. Hockenson.

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So they parted ways.

Free agency, the draft and spring workouts have come and gone. Attention paid to J.J. McCarthy, Sam Darnold, Dallas Turner, cornerbacks, defensive linemen and offensive linemen have distracted from an almost shocking void for a team that totes its passing attack as its identity.

There are some internal candidates for the role: Brandon Powell, Jalen Nailor and Trent Sherfield Sr., specifically. They have 166 combined career receptions in 13 total seasons. By comparison, Osborn tallied 158 catches in his four NFL seasons. Toss in the fact that the Vikings have used 11 personnel packages nearly 70 percent of the time in Kevin O’Connell’s first two seasons as head coach, and the friend’s question is apt.

What about their third wide receiver?

Training camp begins in nearly a month, so the Vikings have three potential paths they could pursue:

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Trade for a No. 3 receiver

Amari Cooper, Chris Godwin, Robert Woods and Noah Brown. These receivers all have one quality in common. In 2025, each is destined for free agency. All four might be accessible for that reason.

But they would come at different costs. And the Vikings have already mortgaged plenty of their future draft capital. They are in line for compensatory picks in 2025, but otherwise, Minnesota only has a first-rounder and a fifth-rounder.

Woods and Brown would be more doable than Cooper and Godwin from a cost perspective. They play for a Houston Texans team that boasts Stefon Diggs, Nico Collins, Tank Dell, John Metchie III and Ben Skowronek. Houston has an embarrassment of riches at the position. With free agency looming for Woods and Brown, and each player wanting more of the ball, why not move one of them for a late-round draft pick in 2026?

These two players also align with what the Vikings want at the No. 3 receiver spot. Both are capable at blocking in the run game, which was one of Osborn’s major responsibilities. O’Connell also coached Woods in Los Angeles in 2021.

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Another facet to a potential move like this? The Vikings have the cap space to absorb both players’ contracts. Woods has about a $9.7 million cap hit for 2024, according to Over The Cap, while Brown’s is about $3.5 million. The Vikings have about $26 million to spend and also could renegotiate contracts with either player. Making this type of move would also solidify Powell’s standing as the team’s punt returner (and potentially kick returner).

The Vikings’ most surprising roster hole, and what they might do to fix it (2)

Noah Brown of the Texans set a career high with 567 receiving yards last season despite missing seven games. (Troy Taormina / USA Today)

Sign a free agent No. 3 receiver

First, it’s worth noting that the Texans could ultimately cut Woods. They would save about $5 million in cap space by doing so. Minnesota could try to scoop up Woods if he hits free agency. This possibility also makes a pre-cut trade more likely.

But if that doesn’t work out, the Vikings could look to the free-agent market. The initial free-agent flurry ended months ago. There’s a caution sign attached to any of the remaining possibilities, but the Vikings cannot afford to be picky.

Among the current options, 28-year-old Hunter Renfrow is the most accomplished. He has 269 career catches and snagged 103 in 2021 alone. O’Connell could immediately plug him into the Vikings’ choice-route concepts.

Then again, Renfrow has graded out as a putrid run blocker over his pro career, according to Pro Football Focus. Pairing him with Jefferson and Addison, two speedsters who need to get out and run, would leave the Vikings with little confidence that any of their top receivers could hold up as blockers on the edge.

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Stay in house for the No. 3 receiver, getting as creative as possible

One afternoon last fall, former Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins shared that he’d texted Powell to tell him how much he believed in him. To let him know that he thought Powell could win consistently in one-on-one coverage and play a critical role in the offense.

Similarly, the Vikings staff thinks Powell is reliable. That he punches above his 5-foot-8, 181-pound frame. That he is versatile. But do they think enough of him to hand him the No. 3 receiver job?

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This decision would have interesting ramifications. First, the Vikings would likely have to target a free-agent punt/kick-return option like Jamal Agnew. And second, the Vikings would have to consider their overall depth. If Powell were injured, what would the state of the offense be with Nailor (if healthy), Sherfield, Trishton Jackson or Lucky Jackson as the No. 3?

If anything, going with Powell over an external option might signal a more stark offensive overhaul than we saw them undergoing. Last year, O’Connell increased the team’s usage of heavy personnel. They may lean further into that approach, especially wanting to surround Darnold (or eventually McCarthy) with a more robust running game.

On early downs, this approach makes sense. The problem is, in O’Connell’s two seasons with the Vikings, they rank second in the league (behind the Rams) in 11 personnel usage on third downs (92.2 percent). They need a third receiver who can make a difference

When push comes to shove, O’Connell typically wants three receivers on the field. And for that reason, more than any other, the lack of a steady option at the No. 3 receiver spot may be why this positional hole is so jarring.

The Vikings’ most surprising roster hole, and what they might do to fix it (4)

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(Top photo of Brandon Powell: Alex Slitz / Getty Images)

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Alec Lewis is a staff writer covering the Minnesota Vikings for The Athletic. He grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and has written for Yahoo, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Kansas City Star, among many other places. Follow Alec on Twitter @alec_lewis

The Vikings’ most surprising roster hole, and what they might do to fix it (2024)
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