Assessing Justin Jefferson’s Fit on Vikings Offense
I covered the picks/moves that the Vikings made Thursday night during day 1 of the NFL Draft and literally wrote my initial article about their first pick (at 22) nearly an hour before the pick was made. I was writing sarcastically because while I was worried that I was right, the point was that they would’ve learned nothing from their successes and failures from the past half-decade plus.
The main failure stemmed from the lack of investment in the offensive line, and so it’s hard to justify drafting Justin Jefferson (despite his monster 2019 numbers) when the draft class at receiver has been described as “historically deep” and when there are other positions of tremendous need elsewhere on this roster, namely, on the offensive line.
It’s that position group that has been the bane of the Vikings’ existence this past decade, and with a unit that was ranked 27th against the pass in 2019, my hope was that they’d draft a left tackle, left guard or right guard (especially after they bewilderingly let right guard Jeff Kline go despite the fact that he and right tackle Brian O’Neill were arguably the only bright spot on the line (albeit mainly in the run game)).
It’s that context that is inescapable when analyzing the pick of Justin Jefferson. Now, Jefferson looks like an amazing get if you’re simply going to Google and looking at his 2019 stats, or if you’re looking at his highlights on YouTube (or ignoring the above).
But, if you look at the above, and realize that the Vikings did nothing when compared to the 2019 roster to actually improve as a whole, that’s where the cracks in this pick begin.
Unfortunately, those cracks widen even further when you actually look at how Jefferson was able to reach 1,500 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2019.
First, let me explain the initial cracks. The Vikings traded Stefon Diggs to Buffalo a few weeks ago, and with the receiving corps before Thursday being comprised of Adam Thielen, Tajae Sharpe, Chad Beebe, Olabisi Johnson and a tight end in Irv Smith Jr. who lines up as a wide receiver from time-to-time, the biggest thing that this team needs that it lost with Diggs joining the Bills is his deep threat ability. Instead, they replaced him with a receiver in Jefferson who, according to Pro Football Focus, ran 98.6% of his routes from the slot in 2019.
In case you’re not the largest NCAA/LSU Football fan, slot receivers in spread offenses like the one run by LSU tend to… I’ll let purpleTERRITORY Media senior writer/draft expert DeShawn Vaugn explain:
As Vaughn states and as Jefferson’s highlight reel shows, Jefferson rarely encountered press coverage in college. So, that 98.6% of snaps that Jefferson ran out of the slot? That means that Jefferson rarely was bumped off the line, or rather, it means that he typically ran (as Vaughn put it) “free”. That’s not going to happen in the NFL and as Vaughn put it, as well, even guys who are used to press coverage from college have issues acclimating to the grown man ball that is the NFL.
It feels like at best the Vikings received a great possession receiver (as he’s not going to line up outside or break plays down the field) and as I yelled in the above video, the biggest void that still exists now that Diggs is gone is Diggs’ ability to bring in 40-plus-yard catches/stretch the field.
They could’ve traded down (and/or drafted an offensive lineman) and fulfilled that need with Denzel Mims, or they could’ve done the same and drafted University of Minnesota possession guy, Tyler Johnson.
It’s because of that that I have to grade this pick what it was. I remember the last time the Vikings used a first-round pick (around 22/23) for a wide receiver from the SEC that was relatively one dimensional.
Keep in mind that the Vikings could’ve traded down and taken KJ Hamler, a 4.27 guy who went at 46 to the Broncos. Hamler could be called one-dimensional but he actually (despite his size) lined up on the outside much more than Jefferson did in 2019 (to be fair everyone lined up on the outside more than Jefferson did in 2019).
He also was a YAC-monster who broke Saquon Barkley’s single-season yardage record and is a much bigger deep threat and game-changer than Jefferson was in college.
That might sound counter-intuitive as Jefferson had an amazing 2019, but it seems like the Vikings (like many fans who have commented on my reaction to the Jefferson pick) became enamored by those stats and didn’t really think about how exactly Jefferson amassed those numbers, whether or not he’ll be able to do the same in the NFL, and whether or not he improves the Vikings as a whole…
Then there’s whether or not the Vikings could’ve received the same output by trading down or using one of their other 13-picks on the position.
You know, the only proven receiver that is currently on the Vikings’ roster. If you’re reading this article you’re most likely a big enough Vikings fan to understand that Thielen is one of the best receivers in the NFL in general, but also/especially when it comes to lining up in the slot.
Pro Football Focus explained it this way when looking at his 2018 season (a season in which he tied Calvin Johnson’s record for consecutive 100-yard games to start the season):
“A more in-depth look into Thielen’s profound 2018 season provides even more evidence as to the type of player he is. He led the league in slot receptions and was one of the most efficient receivers on deep throws from the position.”
In fact, Thielen’s emergence from walk-on UDFA/special teams guy to one of the best receivers in the NFL mirrored his move to the inside. In 2016, his breakout year, Thielen was on the outside for about 70% of snaps. In 2017 and 2018? That number dropped to about 50%. PFF explains:
“In 2017 and 2018 combined, Thielen took 52.7 percent of his snaps from the slot — a marked difference from his early years. His seamless progression is almost unfathomable — he racked up more than 700 yards and seven touchdowns in 2018 from the inside (his first season taking more than 50 percent of his snaps from the slot), a feat Wes Welker accomplished just once in his 12-year career.”
Thielen’s prowess from the slot is well known to fans of the league, but it’s something that we’ve perhaps not completely appreciated until the Jefferson pick shined an extremely bright light on the position.
” On passes targeted 20 or more yards downfield to wideouts lined up in a slot position, Thielen was one of four to haul in three touchdowns while accumulating 150 yards or more. On shorter throws (10 or fewer yards downfield), Thielen was also a force as one of four receivers to reel in three scores while racking up 300 or more yards. As long as he’s on the field, opposing defenses have reason to worry.”
That means that not only have the Vikings essentially limited Thielen’s ability to line up in the slot but because of Thielen’s ability to get down the field FROM the slot position, they just shot themselves in the foot even further when it comes to stretching the field and Thielen’s ability to help replace what the team lost down the field when they traded Diggs.
That means that this pick doesn’t just not do much for the Vikings (year-to-year) but it might actually end up hurting them in the long run. That is, unless, somehow Jefferson is capable of moving to the outside as a pro.
I wonder whether or not that’s possible as you’d think that if Jefferson was incapable of doing that against players in college that a year or two from now will be working as insurance agents, that asking him to do it against the grown-ass men who play in the NFL is just a bridge too far.
Last night both of the draft experts (that were on the live stream) for us, Kirby O’Connor (who is also the managing editor for purplePTSD.com and VikingsTerritory.com) as well as DeShawn Vaughn (senior writer for purplePTSD.com/VikingsTerritory.com) thought that this pick might not be SO bad if the team ended up shoring up the offensive line, or trading for