How Justin Jefferson became WR1 in Year 1
By: EJ Daniels
Justin Jefferson had a historical rookie campaign. Breaking Randy Moss’ rookie team record for receiving yards (1400 yds.) and also breaking the NFL mark held by Anquan Boldin. When the Vikings drafted Jefferson many touted him as Stefon’ Diggs replacement, but the performance that Jefferson displayed made teams around the league view him as a legit number one option.
Week 3 against the Titans was the first time Jefferson put the griddy into the eyesight of NFL fans. Going for nine catches one hundred and seventy-five yards and a TD, he displayed elite WR traits by beating the Titans CBs consistently and also taking a deep pass 71 yards for a TD. The most encouraging part of that performance was how often he was able to beat man coverage. Displaying a full arsenal of moves to create separation; from the sudden tempo changes of his footwork on slant routes to using great body control and hands to win in back shoulder contested catch situations. As a result, the Vikings fed him the ball and Justin Jefferson finished as PFF’s second highest graded WR (90.4)
As mind blowing as Jefferson’s season was, you have to ask what makes him this good, this quickly? The answer lies in his elite physical traits and his attention to the fine details of playing WR. Justin Jefferson has the uncanny mix of being as quick as he is fast. His first step on releases is elite and his footwork is very refined for a rookie. Where he takes his footwork to the next level is being able to manipulate the tempo and speed of his feet in relation to his route. His slant routes are masterpieces, as he can use quicker faster steps to create separation or use a one-foot hop to slow down the tempo of the route, emphasizing his quickness to be more sudden in fewer steps. The most consistent physical trait that is seen on tape while running his routes, and honestly the most important is the fluidity of his hips. The toughest thing for WRs to do is maintain speed and acceleration in and out of breaks. Jefferson shows excellent separation quickness on out breaking routes by quickly flipping his hips and not adding any wasted steps. The refinement of his routes can be best displayed on the comeback route he ran against Kyle Fuller in week 16.
The hip fluidity is displayed at the top of the route by quickly and violently dropping hips to get out of that break in a quick 2 steps which allowed him to come out the route downhill, under control, towards the sideline creating separation and making the catch. These rare traits made it increasingly tough to cover Jefferson and was indicative by him finishing as PFF’s 3rd highest graded receiver in single coverage (94.0 3rd among all WRs)
Justin Jefferson was a top three WR in his rookie year and had the numbers to prove it. His 90.5 PFF receiving grade was the highest in the last 10 season and the second best mark by a rookie all time set by Odell Beckham in 2015 (91.2). As we take a closer look, Jefferson added value in where he lined up. With 70% of his receiving snaps and 65% of his yards coming on the outside. Perhaps, his ability to consistently alter down and distance propelled him to be PFF’s fifth most valuable WR. With 68% of yards coming in the 10-20+ yard ranges Jefferson was an explosive play waiting to happen. Catching the third most explosive receptions of 15 yards or more (35), generating the most yards per target (13.2) and totaling the fourth most yards per reception (15.9). Jefferson’ quickness and explosiveness was most evident on what did after the catch. Gaining the eight most yards after the catch (450) and forcing the tenth most missed tackles among WRs
Prognosticating his performance going forward, all signs point up. Dominating like Jefferson did from the outside makes him so valuable. Where he becomes invaluable is his ability to be productive from every level of the football field. Indicative of his YAC numbers on shorter throws and with the majority of his production coming 10+ yards down the field. The best WRs in the NFL can alter down and distance on a given play and more importantly beat man coverage consistently. Receiving grade against man coverage is one of the most stable metrics for WRs year to year. With Jefferson’ ability to consistently create separation in a variety of ways because of his relentless detail to route running and the combination of quickness, acceleration, and explosiveness expect him to be one of the top separators year to year. These traits also help him add value after the catch. YAC/REC is also a stable metric for WRs year to year and the fact that Justin Jefferson adds value to every reception will put him among the league’s best.
Justin Jefferson recorded the greatest rookie season in the last 10 years. Getting Viking fans excited for what the future prospects of the offense can be. One of the things that is overlooked in Justin Jefferson’s season is that the Vikings threw the sixth-fewest passes in the league (516) this year and also didn’t feature Jefferson until week 3. While he had over 100+ targets you have to think of what his numbers could’ve been if the Viking were to adopt a pass-first mentality? With a plethora of receiving weapons the Vikings have at their disposal, they may want to at least explore a philosophy change that’s more pass-heavy to utilize their offense more efficiently. Subsequently, letting Justin Jefferson griddy all over the field as the WR 1 they drafted him to be.