After trading Stefon Diggs, the Vikings are left with a void at WR. Adam Thielen is a great option as a #1 receiver, but the cupboard is barren after him. Tajae Sharpe and Bisi Johnson are not players who should see starting snaps on an NFL team. With that in mind, the Vikings will need to address receiver early in the 2020 NFL Draft this weekend, hopefully multiple times.
The Vikings have multiple needs, so there’s a chance they won’t go for a WR in the first two rounds. In a very deep receiver class, there are a number of strong WR options in the mid rounds. Van Jefferson is one of the players they should be looking at in that area. Jefferson has the skills to contribute immediately if he’s the first WR the Vikings take, but also has the ability to compliment another player if the Vikings choose to attack the WR position in the draft and take two players in the first two days.
Playing in the SEC, Jefferson faced top competition. He lacked production, but on the tape he performed well against it. Look at the plays below against top recruit (and honestly probably the CB I would take above anyone in this draft if he was eligible) Derek Stingley Jr.
Or you can ask Stingley’s teammate, potential first round pick Kristian Fulton. He called Van Jefferson possibly the toughest receiver he faced, and that included premier talent like Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, CeeDee Lamb, Tee Higgins, Devonta Smith, and Jaylen Waddle.
I studied five games from Jefferson in 2019 (Miami, Tennessee, Mizzou, Georgia, and LSU). Here’s a scouting report and breakdown of his traits:
Jefferson is one of the most polished route runners in this class. His body is in alignment from eyes to arms to waist to feet when running routes. He can tell a story with his routes and sells the vertical portion of his routes well. He can gear down quickly and makes sharp breaks. Against press he can get corners to declare with their hips and turn them around. All of these things can be seen in the video below:
Jefferson shows good hand usage against press and at the top of his routes. His body works in coordination with itself and his rips and swipes are well times. Particularly in the slot, he shows the ability to freeze corners and then burst by and stack them. These traits can be seen in the video below:
Jefferson doesn’t really have any route running negatives. There were a couple of issues with timing that ideally I would like to ask him about. There are a few plays throughout these games where he releases significantly later than the other receivers. I don’t have one clipped but it’s probably about two steps. This is definitely designed that way, but I thought it was interesting. There are also a few plays where he takes an inordinate amount of time to set up his stem. This may have something to do with timing as well, as the reads in the two plays below begin with the other side of the field. If the plays below are supposed to have normal timing, he’s taking too long to get into his stem because he’s trying to dance around like you might see on a camp one-on-one video:
As evidenced by his route running savvy, Jefferson is an intelligent football player. He sees the field well both as a route runner and with the ball in his hands. Before the snap, I have seen him communicate defensive movement multiple times. Obviously I can’t speak personally to his ability to pick up an offense, but all of the signs on tape indicate that he is a smart player that shouldn’t have a problem with the transition to the NFL. Jefferson is also a high-energy player who hypes up his teammates and himself after big plays.
I love this play below, where he figures out and points out the blitzing corner, Florida has the perfect play call on with the screen to that side. It was great recognition by Jefferson.
Jefferson shows aggression and tenacity as a blocker but has room to improve. When the ball goes to his side he will latch on to and push back CBs. See below:
His punch timing is iffy, and he can get knocked back or beaten on extended reps. There are instances of him overextending past his base and losing his balance. On running plays that aren’t to his side, he can will often run a decoy route or stalk block a defender. He can get lazy with this and this could become a problem if the play bounces back this his side.
In general I like Jefferson as a blocker. The effort and willingness is there. He has some coaching points needed but should be able to improve relatively easily. I mentioned that he doesn’t give full effort when he’s on the backside of a run or totally out of a play because some people may take issue with that but honestly it doesn’t concern me at all. He understands his roles and he executes them.
After Catch Ability
Jefferson lacks the athleticism to be a strong after catch receiver. With the routes he was asked to run and where he was targeted, he didn’t get many after catch opportunities. However, when he does have the chance to run after the catch, he understands his limitations and is able to use his field vision to maximize his after catch gains. He turns upfield quickly after catching the ball and splits defenders. He can find lanes if they are there on screens, although he was not often used as a screen option. He knows where the sticks are and can get to them. If multiple defenders are in position to tackle him, he cannot make them miss and won’t end up picking up excess yardage. For an NFL player, he would be below average at picking up yardage after the catch.
Jefferson struggles at the catch point. He has some concentration drops, but primarily has issues catching attempting to make catches outside of his frame and 50/50 balls — particularly ones high in the air. Outside of his frame he lacks timing on the catches and seems to fail to get both of his hands on the ball. On 50/50 balls, he might have an issue that he gives away that the ball is coming to the corner and also doesn’t have the jumping ability to leap over defenders. At 6’1″, he is not much taller than many outside starting corners in today’s NFL. Take a look at the plays below:
With the above being said, Jefferson does do a good job of holding on to the ball when he has control of it. He may struggle to bring the ball inside of his frame, but if he does and gets hit, he will usually hold on. He does a good job of using his body to shield the ball from the defender and absorb contact to complete the catch. He can also catch balls that are thrown low and in the dirt that he has to cradle. Where he struggles are throws that are high and outside his frame.
Jefferson has some athletic limitations that hurt him in terms of contested catches. There are also areas he needs to improve, particularly with his hands on passes outside of his frame and timing in contested situations. Still, he does show some beginnings of good catch technique, like shielding the ball from the defender. Jefferson is still a work in progress in terms of catching the football, and it hinders his game right now. However, if his route running ability is any indication, he can very effectively learn to integrate advanced skills into his game. Let’s hope he’s able to with catching the football.
Jefferson shows baseline level athleticism. He missed the Combine with a Jones fracture in his foot that is now reportedly fully healed. That may have been a blessing in disguise, as on tape he looks below-average as an athlete for an NFL WR. Teams should not double-count Combine numbers, but it often seems like that happens with players who have great or poor Combine performances, and Jefferson seems like he would have had a poor one.
The biggest issue with Jefferson is that he lacks vertical speed. He does not really threaten corners deep and that hurts his versatility and viability as an outside player. As discussed in the route running section above, he actually can make up for that on comebacks and backshoulder throws by using his route running ability to create space, but it’s hard work for him. You can see that in the video below:
I also wonder how twitchy Jefferson is as an athlete. He wins more with savvy, shiftiness, and deception as a route runner than he does with suddenness. From an explosion perspective, he’s not a particularly impressive jumper, and isn’t super explosive out of his cuts.
Still, Jefferson has good body control and that makes up for his athletic limitations. He is great at stopping, which is really important for the position. It sets him up well for his breaks. He may never become an elite NFL receiver, but he should be able to be a steady NFL contributor.
At 23, Van Jefferson is an older WR prospect. He lacks eye-popping production but had his best game against top competition (8 catches for 73 yards and 2 TDs against LSU). He does a good job of creating separation through nuanced route running with good body alignment, foot control, and hand usage. He primarily lined up on the line of scrimmage and routinely beat press. He shows the ability to stack aggressive corners, but lacks the long speed to separate deep against patient players. He projects best as a separating slot receiver but could play outside in a pinch, showing acumen on deep comebacks and back shoulder fades. Jefferson struggles to catch outside his frame and does not consistently win 50/50 balls. He has the ability to shield the ball with his body and withstand contact once he has control. Jefferson has good field vision to maximize his after catch yardage but lacks the twitch/strength to make defenders miss and is therefore limited in after catch ability. Not typically used as a screen/gadget player. In the run game, Jefferson primarily used decoy routes/stalk blocking. He could get lazy when the ball didn’t go his way. When the play design is run towards him, he is very aggressive attacking and latching on to players as a blocker. His punch timing hands when blocking could use improvement. Jefferson demonstrates high football intelligence. He displays good spatial awareness, showed good timing, and recognizes defensive tendencies. He is a high-energy player who is quick to congratulate teammates and celebrate his own successes.
For the Vikings’, I think they could use Jefferson’s versatility and play him at X and the slot. Jefferson played almost exclusively on the line of scrimmage at Florida. When he was to a single or two receiver side, he was outside and on the line. That’s typically where an X receiver will align. The Gators also ran a lot of 3×1 receiver sets, and when Jefferson was on the trips side, he was typically the middle receiver of the three and lined up on the line of scrimmage.
As an outside receiver, Jefferson is somewhat limited because he does not threaten corners over the top with his deep speed. It’s possible to work with this, because through his route running Jefferson shows the ability to force corners to respect the deep route, and that opens up comebacks and back shoulder fades. He’s not going to bust out 40+ yard TDs, but will consistently win in the intermediate range.
As a slot, which I think is his best role, I would actually put Jefferson on the line of scrimmage. He clearly showed the ability to beat press, and provides you more options from the slot. His route running savvy will allow him to win going inside or outside, and he also showed the ability to win vertically from the slot. Typically seam routes are shorter routes than outside vertical routes and Jefferson has a better chance to win those if the CB is concerned with him breaking his route underneath.
Jefferson needs to improve his catching ability. This may also limit his ability to play on the outside. However, I believe that his ability to create separation is good enough that it may mitigate some of his hands issues early on. If he can learn to catch outside of his frame and in contested situations, he can become a really good receiver.
Van Jefferson would fit as a receiver for the Vikings because they need a player alongside Adam Thielen who can beat press and man coverage. Jefferson will be able to do that immediately as he enters the NFL. He lacks after the catch ability, but should immediately contribute as a receiver on short and intermediate routes, and could be a third-down chain mover. On the high end of his ability, he could turn into a reliable slot option that always seems to be open, like a Jarvis Landry (he’s more athletic than Landry) or Julian Edleman. At the very least, you’re getting a smart and technically sound receiver who shows toughness.