With the 22nd overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Vikings took WR Justin Jefferson, out of LSU. Jefferson, like most of the LSU offense, had an explosive 2019 season as the team put up one of the best offensive performances college football has ever seen. In his Junior season, Jefferson put up a ridiculous 1540 yards and 18 TDs in 15 games before declaring for the draft.
The Vikings acquired the 22nd overall pick by trading Stefon Diggs. As such, Jefferson will be inextricably linked to Diggs throughout his career. While Jefferson will not be a one-for-one replacement of Diggs, his skillset includes a variety of assets that should help him contribute to the team right away.
I looked at 6 games from Jefferson’s 2019: @Texas, vs. Florida, vs. Auburn, @Alabama, vs. Georgia, and vs. Clemson. Below is a breakdown of what Jefferson brings to the football field:
Jefferson played almost exclusively in the slot in 2019. He is an effective storyteller as a route runner, and showcases the ability to use the appropriate type of break and release for the route he is running. He effectively threatens vertically before breaking his route. His lower and upper body work in unison on head fakes and jab steps to get DBs turned the wrong direction. He will sink his hips to gear down for hard breaks. He brought these skills together to create separation against top competition:
Against zone, Jefferson shows an understanding of spacing and works himself open:
One of the questions surrounding Jefferson as he enters the NFL is his ability to play on the outside. He played the vast majority of his snaps in the slot, and that may limit his role initially in the NFL as he transitions to a higher level of competition. Jefferson may not be ready to play outside immediately, but on tape he does show one skill that will be critical to his chances of playing on the outside: beating press.
While Jefferson did not play outside, he did have a number of snaps where he was on the line of scrimmage as part of a bunch formation. In these situations, he sometimes dealt with contact from the defender. He has shown a shoulder reduction to get past the defender, as well as work with his hands to swipe away the defenders hands. He uses footwork to get the defender turned the wrong direction against soft press. There is still more to develop here, including a swim move to beat press, but Jefferson shows good potential in this regard. He should be able to hold his own and not get stuck at the LoS against physical defenders.
Justin Jefferson had an absurd 92.3% contested catch rate in 2019, per PFF. Watching the tape, it is clear that Jefferson did not just get lucky in making those catches. He consistently shows good technique that allowed him to win contested catches.
Jefferson extends his hands away from his frame to catch the ball. This is key as it allows him leeway. As can be seen in the first play below, he doesn’t control the ball initially, but because he slowed it down with his hands, and was able to bring it in. Extending his hands outside of his frame also allows him to bring the ball in and shield it with his body through contact in contested scenarios. He has strong hands to pluck the ball from the air and can track the ball well, even outside of his frame. He makes tough plays over the middle.
Athletic Ability/After Catch
At the Combine, Jefferson tested as a very good athlete for a WR from an explosion and speed perspective. Take a look at the graph below from MockDraftable:
I believe Jefferson shows these attributes on tape. He has the burst to effectively get off the line and stack defenders. He is a long strider who eats up ground quickly. The plays below can translate to the NFL level in terms of speed.
Jefferson will be able to win deep at the next level, and will also be effective after the catch. He shows the burst to beat defenders’ angles (look at the plays on crossers against Texas and Florida below) and the long speed to finish. He has the change of direction and suddeness to make defenders miss one-on-one in the open field (plays against Alabama and Clemson). He has good vision to find space and can find the sticks to convert first downs (one of the Florida plays). Throughout the plays below, you can see him lowering his shoulder into contact and staying in bounds when he could have gone out of bounds.
Jefferson shows that he is a competitively tough player in the after catch plays above and with his ability to catch the ball through contact, and he also demonstrates the trait while blocking. He latches on to players and aggressively drives them backward. Jefferson shows good punch timing and frames his blocks well. He is maintains blocks and is able to prevent defenders from disengaging, moving them out of the path of the play.
Jefferson is inconsistent as a cut blocker. He demonstrates good technique in some cases (the Alabama play below), but there are instances of him missing or struggling to make an impact against larger defenders (the play against Isaiah Simmons of Clemson below).
On the field, Jefferson appears to be a high-character player with his competitive toughness, and he displays football intelligence as well. His ability to integrate his technique in route running, when catching the ball, and field vision after the catch all speak to that. It’s notable that Jefferson was also very effective at extending plays after the initial structure of the play broke down. Joe Burrow was great at escaping the pocket and making plays happen if the initial play wasn’t there, and Jefferson consistently works with him on tape, whether it’s breaking deep or moving with him across the field, including a signature play for Burrow in the SEC Championship against Georgia.
The Vikings use a lot of rollouts in their offense to create time. Often the route design will create initial separation, but when that doesn’t work Jefferson can be trusted to continue to work to get open and hopefully make something happen.
Justin Jefferson is a polished route runner who effectively tells a story and uses good technique to get separation. He primarily ran routes out of the slot and will have a transition if asked to play outside at the NFL level, but shows the ability to beat press from an inside alignment which bodes well for his chances of succeeding outside. He shows excellent hands technique and consistently shields the ball with his body through contact, ending up with a very high contested catch rate. He tracks the ball well and makes difficult catches outside of his frame. Jefferson is an above-average athlete for the NFL and this shows in his ability to create vertical separation and run after the catch where he shows the burst to defeat defenders’ angles, the vision to find space and convert first downs, and the elusiveness to win in the open field. Jefferson finishes runs after the catch and displays he is a competitively tough player with the ball in his hands, while going up for catches and absorbing contact, and while blocking. He shows an effective punch while blocking, frames and pushes back defenders well. He is inconsistent as a cut blocker. Throughout his game, Jefferson demonstrates a high level of football intelligence and works with his QB to extend plays.
Jefferson is an interesting addition to the Vikings because he profiles very similarly to a player they already have on the roster — Adam Thielen. Both players are roughly the same size, are good route runners, and great at catching balls outside of their frame and contested catches. Jefferson probably adds a bit more after the catch than Thielen does at this point.
Obviously, Jefferson has not played a snap in the NFL, so it’s not a sure thing that he will reach Adam Thielen’s level. However, it does create an interesting dilemma for the Vikings because Jefferson and Thielen are both players who can be used most effectively in the slot because they are given a two-way go in that scenario and can use their suddenness and route-running ability to its full extent. You could also play them at Z. Thielen is a very versatile player, and can beat press at the line of scrimmage, but playing him at X is not his optimal role. I believe Jefferson has the potential to play on the line of scrimmage and beat press as well, but there’s not really proof of that in college and therefore I wouldn’t start him in that role either. It will be interesting to see how the Vikings address this with their current roster, and the answer may to play Thielen there, which could decrease his impact. The only other real option is Tajae Sharpe because Bisi Johnson is also in that Z/Slot mold.
It should be noted that Jefferson did play as an outside receiver often prior to 2019. I don’t want to suggest that I don’t think he can play there, but I think optimally early on in his career he should be used on the inside or off the line of scrimmage to ease his transition to the NFL level. This would create a conflict with Thielen.
Even though Jefferson shares the same optimal role as Thielen, that doesn’t mean he isn’t valuable to the team. Like having Stefon Diggs on the roster, who was also a similar player to Thielen (but an even better route runner, better against press, and a better deep threat), the Vikings can use both players effectively because their skill sets don’t pigeonhole them into one specific role.
In losing Diggs, the Vikings lost a player who primarily was asked to attack one-on-one matchups deep on the outside. Jefferson will not replace that role, but he will be able to do a number of other things to contribute early on, particularly over the middle and after the catch. Thielen may be able to take over some of the Diggs role, but the team will not be as explosive vertically in 2020. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; they can win in other ways.
Vikings fans may be scarred by memories of past first round WRs. Jefferson is not Troy Williamson. He shows great hands throughout his tape. Jefferson is not Cordarrelle Patterson. He shows refined route running technique and the ability to consistently create separation. Jefferson is not Laquon Treadwell. He shows more than adequate, even very good athletic ability on the football field and was able to separation and make plays after the catch against top competition.