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Rookie Spotlight: Justin Jefferson



Tanishka Mhaskar
May 7th, 2020
Photo: Matt Sharpe (@darlingsharpe on Twitter)

Stefon Diggs forced his way out of Minnesota, so the Vikings used the 22nd overall pick to draft LSU wideout Justin Jefferson. The Vikings liked Jefferson so much that they almost traded up in the mid-teens for him. When he fell right past Philadelphia and into the laps of Minnesota, the Vikings didn’t hesitate for even a second to call it in. So, who exactly is Justin Jefferson?


Background: 



Jefferson was a zero star recruit per ESPN, but he landed a scholarship at LSU due to his two older brothers Jordan Jefferson (QB) and Rickey Jefferson (S). Most people saw Jefferson as a walk-on at LSU. He didn’t play his freshman year but he broke out as a sophomore, posting 54 catches for 875 yards. As a junior, he continued his excellence from 2018, racking up 111 catches for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns.


Jefferson’s work ethic does not go unnoticed. He came to LSU as a scrawny, undersized no-named freshman, but he left LSU as one of the top college wide receivers, setting records along the way. LSU director of strength and conditioning Tommy Moffitt said, “I’ve told every scout that I talked to that was the most intriguing thing about him--his mental toughness. I mean tough.”


For Jefferson, his craft was dependent on his weight. He channeled his quiet determination and minded his own business en route to doing everything his coaches said. And doing it all well. Jefferson had one touch for four yards his freshman year, but his focus was in the weight room, where he gained a whole twenty pounds. 

That was when Jefferson started to believe. He started to think bigger, leading to his breakout season. Jefferson thought bigger every day, every month and every year. Post sophomore year, he said, “going into my junior year, I wanted to be the best receiver to come out of the draft. I had that weight on my shoulders the whole season.”


Now, Jefferson believes that he is the best receiver coming out of this draft class. Last week, on The Zach Gelb Show, Jefferson said, “I felt like I was the best receiver in this draft class, and being the fifth receiver off the board, it kind of was a shocker. But also having that on my shoulder going into this next season with Minnesota, I’m definitely excited to show the world what I have.”


Jefferson proved the world wrong once in college. Don’t be surprised if he does it again in the pros. “It’s all mindset,” Moffitt said. “Yeah, there’s a lot of guys that are far more talented than he is and don’t have near the success he had because of the mental part."


Strengths:



Justin Jefferson is arguably the most precise route runner in the draft class. In Gary Kubiak’s West Coast offense, route running will be vital to success. He will quickly become the best friend of the quarterback due to a couple of things: catch radius, speed and explosiveness.


Jefferson caught 92.3% of his contested catches in 2019, far by the highest rate in college football. He’s been fortunate to play with Heisman trophy winner Joe Burrow and saw the most amount of accurate passes (69%) thrown to him, but now he gets to play with Vikings QB Kirk Cousins who is one of the most accurate in the business.


Jefferson will make an early impact as a possession receiver in the middle of the field. His speed is deceptive. While he doesn’t look awfully fast, he ran a 4.43 second 40-yard dash (slightly faster than Diggs) and possesses all the traits to be successful in the NFL. Additionally, Jefferson excels at finding holes in the defense. He’s slippery and explosive. Jefferson manages to get away from the defender and rack up yards after the catch. 


The work ethic that Jefferson brings to the table is prevalent in his run blocking as well. He is willing to initiate contact and doesn’t hesitate to make his presence felt known. The weight and muscle that Jefferson had to gain in college was detrimental to his run blocking abilities. 


Vikings Fit: 



Some might expect Jefferson to come in and replace Stefon Diggs right away. There’s two things wrong with that: Jefferson is good enough to make a name for himself, and both wideouts possess completely different skill sets. 


Jefferson and Diggs are both amazing route runners, but Diggs is more of an explosive, deep threat guy outside the numbers. He’s flashy. Jefferson plays better on the inside than on the outside, and he’ll be a solid over the middle, intermediate route runner in the middle of the field. 

While Jefferson struggles against press man coverage, a skill that Stefon Diggs perfected during his time in Minnesota, he will be a consistent option over the middle of the field. He will be Kirk Cousins' most effective and reliable possession receiver.


It hurts to lose your number one wide receiver, but it’s certainly easier if you’re the Vikings and you have two number one wide receivers. Many forget the records that Adam Thielen was breaking before he got injured. Thielen can be that deep threat that Minnesota lost with Diggs. In fact, Thielen played more snaps on the outside than on the inside last year before going down. 

The Vikings might move Thielen into Diggs’ role and slide Jefferson right into Thielen’s old role. It gives the Vikings and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak a lot of flexibility. If the Vikings cater to Jefferson’s specific skill sets, he’ll be a home-run hitter.


There’s a misconception that Jefferson can only play in the slot. He can play anywhere. Before former offensive coordinator Joe Brady got to LSU, Jefferson was an outside receiver who led his team in receiving yards. He was effective too, averaging over 16 yards per catch.


According to NFL analyst Brian Baldinger, “[Joe] Brady came in and said to him, ‘We’re going to get five [receivers] out every play this year. [Joe] Burrow can read defenses and get the ball out. How about if you go in the slot? You’ll just kill teams in there.’ And that’s exactly what he did.” 

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