Oct 10, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter (99) and defensive tackle Armon Watts (96) and middle linebacker Eric Kendricks (54) and defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson (94) in action during the game between the Detroit Lions and the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Left up to VikingsTerritory, our staff would nominate Minnesota Vikings wide receiver K.J. Osborn as the team’s “most surprising” breakout player in 2021.
Some would tap Kirk Cousins for the moniker, but VikingsTerritory has known for several seasons that Cousins is about the 11th-best signal-caller in the business. No surprises on Cousins’ 2021 performance for us.
On Osborn, the second-year Miami alumnus has seized the WR3 role for the Vikings, a spot previously ignored or not emphasized by the Vikings like other NFL teams. Minnesota has been arguably WR3-less since Jarius Wright left town four years ago.
So, we say Osborn – particularly after his Week 6 heroics in walking-off the Carolina Panthers.
But the national view for “most surprising” player is different.
Bleacher Report picked a surprising player from each NFL team in an analysis on Wednesday. Players like Mike Williams from the Los Angeles Chargers and Trevon Diggs of the Dallas Cowboys fit the bill. For the Vikings, per Bleacher Report, the most surprising player in 2021 is defensive tackle Armon Watts.
Watts has been afforded playing time amid the injury absence of Michael Pierce – who may or may not play this Sunday versus the Cowboys. Here’s how Alex Kay from BR described Watt’s surprising ascension:
“The Vikings are battling back from a rough start to the season—losing three of their first four games—reaching .500 before their Week 7 bye. One reason for the team’s turnaround is the play of defensive tackle Armon Watts. The third-year pro has emerged as a standout along Minnesota’s defensive line when it was needed most. After nose tackle Michael Pierce went down with an elbow injury, head coach Mike Zimmer simply trusted Watts to capably man the position and slotted him in as a starter. The decision has been amply rewarded, as the 25-year-old is shining with an increased workload. PFF has graded Watts out at a star-like 81.5, better than all but five interior defensive linemen, for his performance across 154 defensive snaps this year. He’s been credited with 13 tackles—10 of them solo—one sack and one forced fumble in that span. Once Pierce returns, Minnesota will have one of the NFL’s deepest defensive tackle rotations thanks to Watts’ play over the last few weeks.”
Just like Osborn, Watts was in the category of “let’s see if this guy even makes the team” during training camp and the preseason. Kudos to both men for establishing themselves at a time when fans perceived them as roster-bubble guys.
The rise to recognition for Watts is especially imperative because the Vikings 2020 defense was lousy. It wholly disabled the Vikings from reaching the playoffs in 2020. Minnesota’s defense ranked fourth-worst in the NFL per points allowed last year, and so far in 2021, the Mike Zimmer-led defense is steadily returning to form. They’re still allowing big plays at bad times – that needs to stop – but on the whole, the Vikings defensive ranks sixth in the NFL for defensive DVOA. Not bad for a unit that ranked 18th last season via the same metric.
When Pierce returns from injury – he’s played fabulously, too – Watts has earned a place in the Vikings defensive rotation. In 2020, Watts was used out of necessity. Now, he’s stealing snaps from big names like Sheldon Richardson.
Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. He hosts a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, which airs every Wednesday with Raun Sawh and Sally from Minneapolis. His Viking fandom dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ and The Doors (the band).
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