With or without Adam Thielen, Vikings need more of Justin Jefferson

EAGAN, Minn. -- There are many things Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen does that make him great. This season, he has accounted for 55% of the Vikings' receiving touchdowns with a league-best 11 TDs, a mark that ranks third among all players over the past 10 seasons. Since 2018, he has become a trusted target for quarterback Kirk Cousins.

But there's one area in particular where Thielen is exceptional.

Cousins and Thielen have connected for 10 touchdowns in the red zone this season, the most of any quarterback-receiver duo, including two per game in back-to-back outings against the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys.

Thielen's status for Sunday's home game against the Carolina Panthers is up in the air after he was placed on the COVID-19/Reserve list on Monday. It's unclear whether Thielen tested positive for the coronavirus or was deemed a close contact, the latter of which could mean he'd be cleared to return in Week 12.

But Thielen's status should not have a drastic effect on Justin Jefferson, the NFL's leading rookie receiver with 848 yards (84.8 yards per game) and four touchdowns.

Jefferson should already see a greater spike in his usage than in recent weeks.

Since Week 3, Jefferson has played 79% of the Vikings' snaps. In that same span, Cousins has the highest completion percentage above expectation in the NFL.

Yet in a loss to Dallas, only five targets went Jefferson's way, three of which he turned into 86 yards and a touchdown. It was similar against the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions (four targets each game), with a 10-target spike coming in Chicago (eight catches, 135 yards). The Vikings won three of their past four but relied heavily on running back Dalvin Cook, who totaled 122 touches in that span.

Looking for ways to get Jefferson more involved checks several boxes. For one, he is already learning how to handle what comes with a bigger role and added attention from defenses.

"I feel like you've always got to have your bag of tricks, because as the season goes on, the teams are watching you more and more and cornerbacks are watching your routes more and more, your releases, everything," Jefferson said. "You just try to switch it up a little bit and bring out new stuff and mix it in with the old stuff so everything doesn't look the same.

"I've been working on my releases and everything over quarantine. I got really good at my footwork and being able to switch up my releases, and work those in with my routes."

It also lightens the load on Cook, who is on pace to eclipse 350 touches. More Jefferson should equal less wear on Cook. An offense with healthy playmakers benefits everyone.

With 4.43 speed, it's no surprise that Jefferson has developed into an explosive deep threat in the NFL. He is the league leader in yards per route at 3.25, which would be the highest rate by a rookie in the past 10 seasons, and 44% of his routes have been vertical.

On throws 15-plus yards downfield, Jefferson leads the NFL with 20 catches, 597 yards and 29.65 yards per catch. It took him all of 11 weeks into his career to become one of the league's best deep threats.

Those deep crossing or over routes have become Jefferson's bread and butter. While he ran 100 routes out of the slot at LSU last season, most of Jefferson's production has come lined up on the outside in the NFL (334 snaps as opposed to 141 in the slot) where he is bound to draw opponent's top corners.

"We don't feel like he gets typecasted into only a deep-play threat or only going to be running this type of route; I think it's going to be the whole route tree. It's going to be lining up in all different spots on the field," Cousins said. "We're going to ask him to do just about everything that you would ask a wide receiver to do, and that's going to involve fourth and short catches.

"And it'll involve first-and-10 play-action shots and everything in between. That's an advantage of having a receiver who has a lot of variety to his game and can bring a lot to the table."