Why Justin Jefferson Will Win Rookie of the Year

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PS- For the fourth time in less than 25 years, the Minnesota Vikings have a tangible opportunity to boast one of their own as the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. In 1998, it was Randy Moss. Nine years later, Adrian Peterson bludgeoned the NFC North – and everyone else – to seize the trophy. And most recently, wideout Percy Harvin brought home the OROY bacon in 2009. That 1998 to 2009 stretch was truly remarkable for Vikings offensive rookies.

Teleport to 2020, and the pandemic season is hosting another timeslot for a Vikings rookie. This time, that man is a wide receiver from LSU. Justin Jefferson has accrued 1,039 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. Most impressively, the 21-year-old is not even the first option on his team. The standard-bearer for the Vikings offense is Dalvin Cook. A running back will probably hold this title indefinitely in a Mike Zimmer-led offense. Zimmer prefers to run the football, play defense, and get the hell out of the stadium with a 24-10 or so victory. Cook is the guy that can be showcased in such games.

If he’s bottled up, Kirk Cousins typically turns to Adam Thielen, a sound strategy. Because Cook demands feverish attention upfront and Thielen cannot be overlooked downfield, Jefferson has emerged as a machismo-infused rookie phenom. His reliability this early in his career is already akin to the departed-to-Buffalo Stefon Diggs. Jefferson is as sure-handed as his predecessor and arguably a bit more dynamic once the ball hits his hands.

Can Jefferson hold off Justin Herbert, the other suitor for the OROY accolade? Probably.

Not Necessarily a “Quarterback Award”

Onlookers tend to view any highly prestigious individual award in the NFL as a “quarterback award.” For the MVP race, that is usually true. That last non-quarterback to become an NFL MVP was Adrian Peterson, a member of the 2012 Minnesota Vikings. Yes, eight years ago.

Indeed, the MVP award typically lands in the trophy case of a quarterback. This is indisputable. But the Offensive Rookie of the Year award is a different story. The recipient – for some reason – is lumped in with the “it will be a quarterback” forecast. There is no evidence to suggest that OROY voters favor signal-callers.

The last seven OROY recipients are as follows: Eddie Lacy (2013), Odell Beckham (2014), Todd Gurley (2015), Dak Prescott (2016), Alvin Kamara (2017), Saquon Barkley (2018), and Kyler Murray (2019). Does that list strike you as a quarterback-heavy class of players? No. Because it isn’t.

In fact, a cogent argument can be made that the other Justin – the Herbert one – is the man facing the long odds.

The Other Justin

Let’s be clear: Justin Herbert thunderously aces the eye-test as a marvelous rookie quarterback. Barring injury (like draft classmate Joe Burrow), Herbert is going to be a prolific lifer in the NFL. The Chargers organization should be elated.

Yet, at a 3-9 record, voters will not flock to Herbert’s feet to shower him with OROY accolades. The media does not enjoy individual players that put up gaudy numbers for bad teams. A man named Kirk Cousins from the years 2015 to 2017 can tell you all about it.

Herbert has the individual numbers to win the award. But he would be much more of a slam-dunk candidate if his team’s record was 9-3 instead of 3-9. Herbert will finish the season with around 30 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Will voters really take notice of that when his team is 5-11? If so, Kirk Cousins needs an apology or retroactive due process.

Los Angeles finishes its 2020 campaign with games versus the Atlanta Falcons, Las Vegas Raiders, Denver Broncos, and Kansas City Chiefs. There are two losses, at least, in there somewhere. Ask yourself if you see a 3-13, 4-12, or 5-11 quarterback brandishing an OROY trophy.

If the answer is “no,” Jefferson wins the damn thing.

Purple Jefferson Must Avoid Quiet Games

It is quasi-mandatory that Jefferson avoids a disappearing act. On the docket for the Vikings are the Buccaneers, Bears, Saints, and Lions. Those four clubs combine for an average-to-difficult forecast of passing defense. The Buccaneers secondary is lackluster, the Bears are always a problem, the Saints are very good at defending the pass, and the Lions are the Lions.

Jefferson can perhaps afford a game where he notches only 30-ish yards. But shutouts will heavily damage his OROY candidacy. After the first two weeks of the season reflected in the rearview mirror, Cousins began targeting Jefferson fairly often. It would “feel” odd if Jefferson was left out of the gameplan down the stretch.

For an ironclad OROY case, Jefferson probably needs 200 more receiving yards, 2-3 more touchdowns, and a Chargers record of 2-2 during the rest of 2020.

All of that is doable.