How Jalen Reagor Can Help the Vikings

The Vikings traded for the much-maligned Jalen Reagor, forever known as the wide receiver picked before Justin Jefferson in the 2020 draft. Jefferson has become arguably the best receiver in the league, and the most productive over his first two seasons, while Reagor is the 4th least productive first-round receiver that has played in at least 24 games in his first two seasons.

The Vikings traded the Eagles a 2023 7th round pick, and a 2024 conditional 4th round pick if certain conditions are met. Otherwise, it’s a 5th round pick. It’s not the $100 the Vikings paid to claim Cris Carter from the Eagles many years ago, but it’s not a lot for a first-round pick entering his third year either.

While Reagor has had a lackluster career as a pro, he entered the 2020 draft as a 2nd round prospect according to the Consensus Board, ranked 41st overall. He went 21st overall to the Eagles. But whether a first- or second-round pick, you’d expect more from a receiver than what Reagor has delivered, which has been about the same as fifth-round pick K.J. Osborn in two seasons.

But for the Vikings, the question is whether this reclamation project can help the Vikings win games. Because let’s face facts: most first-round busts remain first-round busts with their second team as well. Laquon Treadwell, Kevin White, Cordarrelle Patterson (as a WR), etc., etc. – the list is a long one.

But the answer may well be yes. Here’s why.

Reagor Has Elite Traits

First, Reagor has first-round traits to work with. Reagor’s official forty time at the Combine was 4.47” – nothing special. But at his makeshift pro-day during Covid, he was eight pounds lighter and ran an unofficial sub-4.3” 40. Of course there are the usual caveats with pro-day measurements vs. Combine measurements, but looking at his tape, he’s faster than 4.47”. He may not be Randy Moss fast (as his pro-day 40 times would suggest), but he’s faster than just about any cornerback that will cover him, so that’s something teams will be aware of. If you split the difference between Reagor’s Combine and his worst Pro-day 40 time, use his pro-day 3-cone and short shuttle times, and his Combine vertical and broad jump results, you get a wide receiver with elite speed, agility, and explosion RAS scores. The point here is that Reagor has first-round traits, except he’s a little short for a WR at 5’10.5”.

But Reagor was more than a raw, traits-based project receiver coming out of TCU in 2020 according to Dane Brugler with The Athletic in his draft review of Reagor:

STRENGTHS: Shifty athlete with the sudden movements out of his cuts/breaks…vertical speed to eat up cushion and leave man coverage defenders in his rearview…excellent job isolating and attacking the football with “my ball” mentality…quick hands to snag…stem athleticism catches defenders off-balance…leaves corners flat-footed on double-moves…elusive in the open field with the vision to create big plays…flashes a secondary burst to pull away…short, but muscular and an animal in the weight room…dynamic in the return game, averaging 17.0 yards per punt return in college with a pair of scores (24/409/2)…intense competitor and “one of the hardest workers” on the team, according to his coaches…one of the most productive pass-catchers in TCU history.

WEAKNESSES: Shorter than ideal and appears maxed out physically…strong hands, but streaky focus and looks to get upfield before securing…registered eight drops in 2019…needs to improve his route discipline and body position downfield…loves to compete, but his blocking was below average…needs to better protect the football as a ball carrier…below-average production as a junior.

SUMMARY: A two-year starter at TCU, Reagor was the “Z” receiver in offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie’s up-tempo spread scheme. He finished his career second in school history in touchdown catches (22) and sixth in receiving yards (2,248), despite an underwhelming 2019 campaign where his production suffered with a true freshman at quarterback (TCU ranked 90th in the FBS in passing offense). A passionate competitor, Reagor is a high-performance athlete with the elusive traits and dynamic speed to be a home run threat before and after the catch. Focus drops were a persistent issue on his tape, but he doesn’t wait for the football to find his hands, his hands go find the football. Overall, Reagor must improve the details of his routes and consistency of his catch radius, but he shows the instant juice and explosive athleticism to separate at the NFL level, projecting as a high-ceiling starter with impact potential as a returner.

Since being drafted by the Eagles, and while at TCU, Reagor has shown some good route running ability. He has shown a good release off the line of scrimmage, good sell in his breaks at the top of the stem, and the speed to generate separation as well. His drop rate in two seasons with the Eagles was 7.2%, a little higher than you’d like but just 1% higher than Justin Jefferson’s first two seasons at 6.2%.

But in both his last season in college, and while with the Eagles, Reagor’s production suffered from poor quarterback play.

Reagor’s Development, Usage, and Quarterbacks less than Ideal

As a rookie, Reagor suffered a shoulder injury on the last day of training camp, but still started the first two games for the Eagles. He caught 5 passes for 96 yards including a 55 yarder in those first two games. Then Reagor tore a ligament in his thumb, was placed on IR, and missed the next five games. By the time he came back, the Eagles were becoming a dumpster fire, with Doug Pederson under fire and Carson Wentz in meltdown. The Eagles would go on to lose seven of their last eight games before cleaning house in the off-season.

2021 brought new coaches, new quarterback, and a new run-based scheme. None of that was ideal for Reagor, who made it worse by showing up to training camp out of shape. Not a good way to start when suddenly competing now for more limited targets with new first-round pick Devonta Smith, along with TE Dallas Goedert, and even Quez Watkins. So, despite not missing a game in 2021, Reagor had about the same number of targets as his injury-shortened rookie season. And, like Carson Wentz in 2020, Jalen Hurts ranked near the bottom in accuracy, especially on deep (20+ yard) passes, which given his speed is Reagor’s forte. His targeting changed from 60% over 10 yards down the field in 2020 to 60% under 10 yards down the field in 2021.

In two seasons with the Eagles, Reagor was targeted 25 times on deep routes, with a total of 4 receptions and 1 drop. There were 8 contested catch opportunities he didn’t catch (most with poor placement), and the rest (12) were off target. On intermediate (10-19 yard) routes, Reagor had 16 receptions on 29 targets. Zero drops, 4 contested catches he didn’t make, and the rest (9) were off target. Below are some examples.

Above in his rookie year, Reagor gets a good release, nice route (defender draws a flag), gains separation, and Jalen Hurts throws it way low for an incompletion.

Here Reagor beats Patrick Peterson, has two steps on him entering the end zone, but Hurts both throws late and underthrows Reagor, allowing Peterson to break it up.

Above is Reagor in motion, running past the DB, but Hurts waits so long to throw Reagor actually slows down, then speeds up again and draws a DPI penalty, but had Hurts thrown on time, this could’ve easily gone for a 75-yard touchdown.

A couple weeks after this last play last year, Reuban Frank, an Eagles beat writer, had this to say about Reagor:

Jalen Reagor has gone eight straight games without a catch of at least 25 yards. He doesn’t even run deep routes anymore. The idea seems to be: Try to get Reagor the ball on high-percentage throws and let him use his speed to get big-time yards after the catch. But it’s not working. Reagor’s 8.3 average this year ranks 107th out of 108 receivers with at least 10 catches, ahead of only 36-year-old Dany Amendola of the Texans.

He went on to blame Reagor for not making plays, but he was right that the Eagles switched to using Reagor primarily for bubble screens, perhaps because Hurts was so poor in deep ball accuracy.

PFF

The above graphic from PFF compares Jalen Hurts and Kirk Cousins in throwing accuracy last season. Cousins was one of the most accurate passers in the league (and has been for years), while Hurts is one of the least accurate. The comparison is particularly stark in deep ball accuracy, the last point on the line charts at the bottom. The horizontal green line represents the NFL average, and you can see how Hurts and Cousins diverge substantially on deep (20+ yard) pass accuracy compared to league average. The dark grey line is accurate + frame passes- those that are either perfectly placed and hit the receiver in stride or hit the frame of the receiver and are accurate, if not perfectly placed, passes. The light grey line is only the accurate+ or most accurate or perfectly placed passes.

Truth be told, even Justin Jefferson wouldn’t have put up anywhere near the same numbers under the same conditions as Reagor had in Philadelphia.

And so the story of Reagor’s career has been injury, dumpster fire team, poor comparisons to Jefferson, shows up out of shape with new coaches not tied to him, lots of resources devoted to WR group (Devonta Smith, AJ Brown), poor quarterback play and poor scheme for wide receivers, traded to Vikings.

Reclamation Project for the Vikings

The good news with Reagor is he showed up in shape for training camp this year and had his best training camp and preseason of his young career. He’s also out of a poisonous environment in Philadelphia, moving to a more receiver-friendly scheme and a much more accurate quarterback in Kirk Cousins, with some high-quality receivers and wide receivers coach in Keenan McCardell to learn from. In fact, McCardell’s own career as a pro started slow in Cleveland and didn’t take off until he joined the Jaguars, became a 1,000-yard receiver, and made his first Pro Bowl.

The other thing that may be a positive for Reagor is he’s not under pressure to be Justin Jefferson anymore. He can work his way to being a complement to him.

Reagor will likely begin his career with the Vikings as WR4 and likely punt returner. He’ll also begin with 28 games under his belt in the NFL, and despite his lack of production, he has flashed at times and shown plenty of ability. Below are his highlights from both seasons with the Eagles.

The main thing to take away from Reagor’s highlight reel is that he has done some things well, and unlike some other first-round receivers that haven’t had much production, Reagor looks like he has the skill set to be a lot more productive than he has been. It may be a matter of consistency, it certainly seems a matter of poor quarterback accuracy, and it may also be a matter of a more positive environment and better scheme, but Reagor looks to be a receiver that could benefit from a new situation.

How the Vikings May Use Reagor

Besides Reagor, the Vikings reportedly made a trade offer for Denzel Mims (4.38” 40 time) and made inquiries for receivers with a few other teams as well, so they were definitely looking to upgrade their receiver group. It’s interesting because while there has been a regime change, wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell is a holdover from the old regime. It’s unclear if it was McCardell or Wes Phillips or Kevin McConnell that were looking for more from their depth receivers, but speed appears to have been a key consideration.

It may take a few weeks for Reagor to get up to speed in the Vikings’ offensive scheme, but there are several ways the Vikings can use Reagor to help the offense be more productive.

Justin Jefferson Distraction

Everyone knows Justin Jefferson is the best player on the team and the biggest offensive threat. He’s the favorite to lead the league in receiving yards this year. And so he’s going to draw the attention of every defense the Vikings face for years to come. Opposing defensive coordinators will begin their game planning for the Vikings with the goal of not letting Justin Jefferson beat them- trying to minimize Jefferson’s impact. That may mean playing a safety over the top of Jefferson, otherwise giving Jefferson extra attention from defensive backs, and/or having their best cornerback shadow Jefferson throughout the game.

The Vikings offensive scheme will make that more difficult, but the best way to combat that is with another home run receiver threat. Adam Thielen remains a top route runner and master of finding the open space, but at age 32, he’s not a real over-the-top receiving threat anymore. He may fake his way past defensive backs at times, but he’s not going to win many foot races down the sideline anymore. Similarly, K.J. Osborn, who ran a 4.48” 40, doesn’t have the speed or route running ability at this point to be a bona fide deep threat.

Enter Jalen Reagor. He’s got the speed to run past single coverage and is a home run threat on deep routes. He can get deep quickly to occupy a safety, opening up deep crossers for Justin Jefferson. As much as opposing defenses will want to focus on Justin Jefferson, letting Reagor go deep against single coverage could prove costly as well- and will give defensive coordinators pause as they devise their game plan.

Z and Slot Receiver

Reagor can play all three receiver positions but makes sense at both the Z and slot receiver positions with the Vikings, complimenting Justin Jefferson as either the X or slot receiver. If opposing defenses want to focus on defending Justin Jefferson, that could leave Jalen Reagor in favorable matchups downfield.

Below is a play from the Rams’ playbook last year under McVay and Kevin O’Connell. It’s a scissors/flood concept with several variations. The one below the Rams ran against the Packers last season (and three other variations that game). It worked because the safety focused on Cooper Kupp- the F receiver below, allowing the Z receiver on the trips side, Van Jefferson, to run a post route in single coverage with the slot cornerback- Chandon Sullivan.

The concept is to create a high, intermediate, and low route option on the trips side for the quarterback. In this case, the Y receiver (TE) Tyler Higbee runs a shallow in-route that occupies cornerback Eric Stokes playing off-coverage, while Van Jefferson runs a deep post route against the slot corner Chandon Sullivan. The safety on that side, Darnell Savage (#26), opts to focus his attention on Cooper Kupp, running the intermediate out route, leaving Jefferson in single coverage with Sullivan on the post route.

One can imagine Justin Jefferson in Cooper Kupp’s role, Jalen Reagor in Van Jefferson’s role, and Irv Smith Jr. in Tyler Higbee’s role in this play. If the safety is drawn to defending Justin Jefferson, that leaves the speedy Reagor in single coverage on the deep post route- hopefully with the same result.

Of course there are any number of plays where Reagor could present a dilemma for opposing defenses preferring to key on Justin Jefferson. The key is to use Reagor in routes that will make them pay for focusing on Jefferson. And if Reagor can make them pay on occasion, that may force defenses away from a focus on taking away Justin Jefferson. It becomes a pick your poison proposition.

Jet Sweeps / Bubble Screens

While defenses tend to sniff out jet sweeps and bubble screens if they become overused or telegraphed from past tape, running them on occasion does help keep defenses honest and force them to defend the width of the field. Using Reagor on jet sweeps or bubble screens can take some of the wear and tear off of Jefferson, who’s run them on occasion in the past. Reagor has the speed and some ability to pick a gap and accelerate through it on jet sweeps and has had some success with them.

Punt Returner

Those looking for a more reliable punt returner than Ihmir Smith-Marsette may not be 100% confident in Reagor- he’s had a few muffed punts. But he’s also had some nice punt returns and appears to be more of a threat as a punt returner than Smith-Marsette was in limited reps. Reagor has returned a total of 35 punts, 31 of them last season, so he instantly becomes the most experienced punt returner on the Vikings. Overall, Reagor has averaged 9.2 return yards per punt return attempt, which compares favorably to both K.J. Osborn last season, and Ihmir Smith-Marsette in preseason this year.

Run Blocker

While it may be a bit premature, Reagor has also improved his run blocking. His run blocking PFF grades generally got better last season with the Eagles, especially the latter half of the season, although with ups and downs. And in preseason this year, he graded very well as a run blocker. That’s the kind of thing that should he be able to do consistently, can help him see the field more often.

Future Development

If Reagor can right his career course in Minnesota, and there is reason to believe a change of scenery may be just what he needs, he stands a good chance of moving up the depth chart in time. While I expect initially he’ll see more limited action, if he’s able to make the most of those opportunities, he could eclipse K.J. Osborn as WR3 in the not-too-distant future, or at least take increased reps as the third wide receiver on the field.

If Reagor can continue his development from there, he could eventually be in a position to take over for Adam Thielen as WR2.

For now, the Vikings have Reagor, 23, for the remaining two years of his rookie contract, with a fifth-year option available to them as well. It could be that if Reagor puts things together with the Vikings, instead of being compared to Justin Jefferson, he could end up being a perfect complement to him. Reagor has a good situation for advancing up the depth chart with the Vikings, but he’s got to take advantage of every opportunity if he’s to fulfill his potential.

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