Jalen Nailor Could Be the Minnesota Vikings’ Secret Sleeper at Wide Receiver

The Minnesota Vikings saw K.J. Osborn break out to become critical depth. The next player to take on that mantle could be Jalen Nailor.

In 2021, the Minnesota Vikings saw K.J. Osborn, a fifth-round receiver who hadn’t played a single snap on offense his rookie year, emerge as a legitimate starting option as the third receiver. This year, Jalen Nailor could do something very similar.

Nailor has already taken meaningful snaps in minicamp and organized team activities (OTAs), and Minnesota seems willing to lean on him should something go wrong at receiver. Nailor’s improvement might make him a secret sleeper for the Vikings this year and beyond.

Jalen Nailor Wasn’t Set Up To Succeed

Last year, the Vikings didn’t invest much into the idea that Nailor could be a big-time contributor for them in his rookie year. After Bisi Johnson’s injury, Minnesota traded for Jalen Reagor and, on cutdown day, opted to keep three receivers on the practice squad.

Choosing to trade for an outside player instead of trusting the guy next up on the depth chart tells us a little bit about how the internal options are doing. The Vikings explained that Reagor was just too good of an opportunity to pass up, but the timing is suspicious — the trade occurred within two days of the decision to put Johnson on IR.

Nevertheless, Nailor found ways to get on the field late in the season. He only saw one offensive snap before Week 11, where he saw seven snaps against the Dallas Cowboys. Nailor saw occasional snaps in subsequent games and finished 33 snaps against the Chicago Bears. By the end of the year, he had taken 57 snaps with the team for 31 routes.

When Given Opportunity, Jalen Nailor Succeeded

What Nailor did and what Minnesota asked him to do tells us a little bit about how the Vikings see him. They didn’t restrict him to a type of route, like go routes or screen passes; they gave him the full gamut of routes, from curls and comebacks to slants and in-breaking dig routes. Nailor’s route distribution fits neatly in between Adam Thielen’s and Justin Jefferson’s last year.

Nailor was given the first-team role during OTAs when both Jefferson and Jordan Addison were out. In those practices, Nailor stood out as an explosive option who had improved his route running while maintaining his top-end speed, which might be faster than any of the other receivers expected to make the team.

The Vikings drafted Nailor to eventually develop into a big-play receiver and potential return man. But it was clear that the late-round draft pick needed to work on his hands and route running. Nailor’s intuitive understanding of play speed, loose athleticism, and spatial awareness give him the tools to be a good route runner, but he hadn’t turned those tools into a cohesive route-running package.

With a better release arsenal and an improved understanding of defensive leverage or route deception, he could very quickly turn into a solid route runner.

Nailor’s issues with drops in college didn’t show up in camp or on the field last year, and it hasn’t been an issue in spring workouts. If he’s added size to deal with the concerns about him getting muscled out of routes or losing contested catches, Nailor could turn into a viable third receiver over the long run.

Nailor Might Set Himself Up for a Long-Term Role

The Vikings have had camp breakouts with end-of-season highlights before that haven’t panned out — Alexander Hollins and Devin Aromashodu are testaments to that — but it’s a good sign for the prospects of a second-year player that has a long-term role available for him to claim.

Osborn will almost certainly have the third receiver role this year. But after this season, he’ll be a free agent. Barring an outstanding season, Osborn won’t find much in the market to guarantee his job as a starter, but there’s a good chance he could find a better deal elsewhere with more opportunity than in Minnesota.

If that’s the case, then Nailor might be setting himself up to take over that role in 2024 — and the best path to that is breaking out in 2023.

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