After a disappointing rookie season where he struggled as a returner and did not line up as a wideout, Minnesota Vikings wide receiver KJ Osborn made massive strides in his sophomore campaign. Osborn was an integral piece on a Vikings offense with weapons like Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, and Tyler Conklin. Not only that, but the Vikings’ offense is transitioning into a pass-heavy scheme that will likely create opportunities for Osborn.
With all these factors in mind, should we expect an Osborn breakout in 2022?
A little over a year ago, asking this question would have undoubtedly drawn a few laughs. After Osborn’s rookie season, it was fair to wonder if he’d even make Minnesota’s 53-man roster.
However, Osborn would silence that notion quickly after he showed up to spring practices in 2021 as a much-improved player. His progress caught the eyes of Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer, eliciting praise from the general manager and coach when asked about the wide receiver room, according to Will Ragatz.
When training camp rolled around, Osborn continued to carve his way into the WR3 role, battling the likes of Dede Westbrook, Olabisi Johnson, and Chad Beebe for first-team practice reps.
By the end of the offseason, a lot of fans and media thought Osborn had earned the right to be awarded 2021 Mr. Mankato.
However, none of the off-season talk and excitement would matter if Osborn did not produce during the regular season, and produce he did.
Osborn hit the ground running in 2021, racking up 14 receptions for 193 yards and a touchdown in the first month of the season. Not only had he already outperformed his rookie season, but after three weeks of football, he had more receiving yards than Thielen.
Throughout the rest of the season, Osborn made an impact, recording a reception in 16 of the Vikings’ 17 games.
But two catches stuck out the most from 2021: The 62-yard touchdown catch Osborn had in Week 14 against the Pittsburgh Steelers and, of course, the game-winning overtime touchdown in Week 6 against the Carolina Panthers.
Osborn ended the season with 50 receptions for 655 yards and seven touchdowns. A type of season that likely showed incoming head coach Kevin O’Connell enough to utilize him in his modern offense.
What to expect in 2022
Now that O’Connell has taken over, the Vikings’ offense should look considerably different than it did last year with Klint Kubiak calling plays.
So what does this mean for Osborn? Will he see an increase in targets?
It would be hard to imagine that he will not. O’Connell’s offense will almost certainly be more pass-heavy, considering he comes from the Sean McVay coaching tree.
Because of this, Osborn could easily match his receiving totals from last year or even eclipse them. However, it’s unlikely he will have another explosion of improvement similar to last season because he will still have a limited role.
Kirk Cousins has multiple receiving options in Minnesota’s new offense. Osborn will be competing for targets with Jefferson, Thielen, and Irv Smith Jr. – oh, and do not forget about Dalvin Cook, who can be expected to get 20 touches of his own throughout a game.
Furthermore, Osborn benefited substantially from injured teammates this past season. When Smith went down in the preseason, it left a void in the passing offense that someone needed to fill. Osborn capitalized on his opportunity.
However, if Smith can stay healthy this upcoming season, he will likely assume the hybrid TE and WR3 type role we saw from him last offseason, where he was using his size and athleticism to create mismatches on the outside.
Additionally, Thielen missed four games during the regular season and left the Detroit Lions game in Week 13. Osborn stepped into the WR2 role in those five games but was not very successful, only averaging 44.4 yards per game during that span.
Even with the expected increase in the Viking’s pass volume this coming season, it’s hard to envision Osborn being due for another astronomical leap in production.
But that is not because last year was a fluke, or he simply can not improve anymore as a player. Instead, it’s because Thielen and Smith are returning to this offense. Those two players, along with Jefferson and Cook, will likely leave Osborn with an only slightly increased role from this past season.