The Minnesota Vikings struck gold by drafting Justin Jefferson in the first round of last year’s draft. The 21-year-old rookie set the NFL rookie receiving yards record with 1,400 yards on the season.
Despite Jefferson’s success, the Vikings have a pressing concern at wide receiver. Minnesota, lacking a third viable threat at wide receiver, tempered its expectations when rolling out Chad Beebe or Bisi Johnson in three-wide receiver sets last season.
Tajaé Sharpe garnered expectations of coming in and potentially competing for a top-three spot when he was signed last offseason. He was released 13 games into the 2020 season after seeing the field in just four games and 28 total snaps.
Sharpe’s struggles to carve out a role he was anticipated to take in 2020 leaves Minnesota returning to the draft board or free agency again to find a true third wide receiver the team hasn’t had since Jarius Wright’s departure. Beebe reaches restricted free agency, while Johnson was relegated as the No. 4 wide receiver on the depth chart by the end of the season after starting in the first two games in 2020.
Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Keenan Cole is gaining steam among fans and local analysts who could not only reinforce the Vikings’ depth at wide receiver but also cure the ills of the team’s league-worst punt-return unit.
Die-hard Vikings fan? Follow the Heavy on Vikings Facebook page for the latest breaking news, rumors and content out of Skol Nation!
Vikings Have Edge in Signing Keelan Cole
Minnesota hired former Jaguars wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell last month, a move that could give the Vikings some sway in signing Cole, who was coached by McCardell his entire career.
Cole, 28, was signed by Jacksonville as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2017. He led the Jaguars in receiving yards that season, securing 42 catches for 748 yards and three touchdowns in the Jaguars’ run to the AFC Championship. Caught in the spinning quarterback carousel of Blake Bortles, Gardner Minshew, Coddy Kessler, Nick Foles and Jake Luton, Cole’s numbers dwindled over the past few seasons.
The Jaguars also continued to draft wide receivers as Cole’s role remained in flux. However, he remained a steady contributor, averaging 40 catches for 56 yards and three TDs per season in his career.
Cole lacks the physical traits of becoming a true No. 1 wide receiver with a 6-foot-1 frame and 4.6 40-time, but the Kentucky Wesleyan product has leaned on what he can control to contribute in the NFL.
Here’s InsidetheVikings reporter Will Ragatz’s breakdown of Cole’s abilities:
When watching the tape, it’s hard not to get the feeling that Cole is an underrated receiver with a chance to shine in a better situation. He’s a sharp route-runner who can win on short, intermediate, and deep routes. He’s also got excellent hands and is able to make adjustments at the catch point. Cole can beat man coverage from the slot or the outside, and has a good feel for finding the open spaces against zones.
I love the idea of the #Vikings signing Keelan Cole to be their WR3 (and PR/KR?). He wins as a route-runner at all three levels of the field and is strong at the catch point.
Cole has impressed despite poor QB play in JAX; his efficiency numbers would climb with Kirk Cousins. pic.twitter.com/BCRt7bEwN2
— Will Ragatz (@WillRagatz) February 19, 2021
Cole Can Immediately be the Vikings’ Punt Returner
Cole would likely battle for the No. 3 wide receiver spot on the Vikings depth chart — but his ability as a punt returner would be unmatched.
On the final play of Ragatz’s film breakdown, Cole returned a punt 91 yards for a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers. That return alone produced more yards than the Vikings gained all season with K.J. Osborn and Chad Beebe — who combined for 69 yards on 16 returns.
Cole’s 15.6 yards per return is inflated by the play, however, he gained 49 yards on eight other returns last season. He’s also shown prowess on kickoff return, averaging 27 yards on eight returns in his career.
Cole is expected to garner interest in free agency and is predicted to reel in a two-year, $11 million deal with a $5 million signing bonus, per Ragatz. When Minnesota clear up cap space this offseason, that price could be attainable without diminishing cap space to address other positions.
Connect with Trevor Squire on Twitter @trevordsquire and join our Vikings community at Heavy on Vikings on Facebook.