Many pundits touted Jefferson as the most pro-ready wide receiver in his draft class and with the departure of Stefon Diggs, his skill set and situation spell the perfect storm for production, according to Bleacher Report, which listed seven rookies that have the best chance to have breakout seasons.
“Jefferson was widely hailed as one of the most pro-ready wideouts in the class after his junior season at LSU. He put up 1,540 yards and 18 scores while playing the second option to Ja’Marr Chase, at least in terms of yardage.
Now Jefferson will play a similar safety-net role for the stat-happy Vikings as the second option to Adam Thielen with Stefon Diggs gone. Diggs’ absence leaves a 94-target hole, and Kirk Cousins has attempted at least 540 passes with 4,000-plus yards in four of his last five seasons. And don’t forget Dalvin Cook in the backfield.
Given the attention drawn elsewhere, Jefferson should be unusually free for production compared to other rookie wideouts and has the ability to win his matchups and secure his role early.”
Jefferson was the only wide receiver on the list that included three other members of the 2020 national champion Tigers in Kansas City Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen and Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow.
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Jefferson Snubbed on OROY Candidates List
Despite the high praise, Pro Football Focus isn’t sold on Jefferson. As one of the top sites in football analytics, PFF released its Top 10 Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates list this season and named five wide receivers — none of whom were Jefferson.
PFF ranked Jefferson the ninth-best wide receiver in the 2020 draft class:
“We here at PFF aren’t nearly as high on Justin Jefferson as other scouts and media outlets for three primary reasons: (1) most of his production was schemed through underneath routes or from finding a hole in the zone (815 such yards led the FBS by nearly 100), (2) he faced press coverage on just 17% of his routes in 2019 and (3) when he did go up against defensive backs in single coverage, he performed poorly, producing just the 60th best receiving grade in 2018 and failing to crack the top 100 on such plays in 2019.”
The questions surrounding Jefferson center on his game speed and size and how he’ll handle NFL press coverage. Despite shattering expectations at the combine, it wasn’t enough to catapult him among the top-three wide receivers drafted, and instead, he fell to the Vikings.
Will Jefferson Rise Again?
While the critique of a rookie wide receiver before he’s even stepped on an NFL practice field may be splitting hairs, memories of former Vikings first-rounder Laquan Treadwell still haunt the franchise and leaves room to speculate on Jefferson.
But Jefferson is no stranger to being underestimated. He’s the only first-round pick in the past eight years who was an unranked ESPN recruit and signed with an SEC program out of high school.
ESPN’s Courtney Cronin wrote about Jefferson’s rise to prominence in great detail, which includes overcoming his small stature, an unimpressive 4.88 40-yard dash time and failing his freshman English class. Once he joined LSU, Jefferson developed into one of the nation’s top prospects, leading the NCAA in catches (111) and contested-catch percentage (92.3) due to his knack for attacking the ball and separating from coverage.
His success was a piece of the system LSU put into place, which is what the Vikings have planned for him within an offense that has an accurate quarterback in Kirk Cousins and two Pro-Bowl caliber weapons, Adam Theilen and Dalvin Cook.
With the pandemic delaying training camps, Jefferson’s offseason development could be stunted. But the work ethic is there with a winning pedigree and — given the situation in Minnesota — he’s poised to have plenty of opportunities.
Follow Trevor Squire on Twitter: @trevordsquire