EAGAN, Minn. – Nothing went as expected for Minnesota Vikings recipient Justin Jefferson as a 2020 rookie.
His NFL career began amid a pandemic that kept him from a normal off-season. He didn’t have long to build up the chemistry with quarterback Kirk Cousins of the Vikings or to learn the pros and cons of a Pro Bowl wide receiver from Adam Thielen.
He virtually absorbed a game book and had no preseason game to test the waters. Dealing with the flowing landscape that came with disruptions and distractions from COVID-19 threw key after key into his plans.
Jefferson didn’t start until week 3 of the 2020 season, but he was still playing at a record pace. The 2020 Vikings first-rounder had a historic rookie season breaking decade-long franchise records held by Hall of Famer Randy Moss. He finished with 1,400 receiving yards, the most by any rookie in the Super Bowl era (since 1966).
With Jefferson, 22, talking about expectations of surpassing last season, it’s no surprise that 2020’s challenges are the catalyst for his confidence.
“My confidence to be honest,” Jefferson said of what will help him fight a sophomore slump. “I have the season that I had last year with so many different inconveniences. Now that I have a full year with Kirk and the other guys on this team this year, I feel a lot more confident. I have the feeling that I will do more, better than last year. “
This inconvenience didn’t stop Jefferson. By the halfway point of the 2020 season, he had played three 100-yard reception games. Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur named Jefferson the number one recipient before signing up for the eighth game of his NFL career.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, 606 of Jefferson’s 1,400 yards were against press coverage (less than a 3-yard pillow), the most by any player last season. He made it hard for the corners to cover him one-on-one by recording 100 or more yards on seven different routes.
It’s one of the first things Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson noticed about Jefferson, whom he has known since the recipient was a teenager.
“He drives his routes like an accomplished vet,” said Peterson. “It makes everything look the same. Most young people cannot do that. I don’t know if it comes from LSU that he’s being trained properly, but he’s a guy like when I was here, he’s a professional. If you have a man who comes into the league at that age and makes it right away, he’ll be very special.
“I think it will be difficult to cover it differently this year. You just have to roll the punches and hope that he will drop them. “
So what’s next for Jefferson in year 2? In the past 10 seasons, nine receivers finished rookie at least 1,000 yards. Six of the previous eight (excluding Jefferson) returned to 1,000 yards in their sophomore season.
The teams became aware of this as Jefferson became one of the league’s most prolific receivers, averaging the second most receiving yards per run last season (2.76) behind Packers’ Davante Adams, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Despite the expectations that come with these numbers, the Vikings don’t expect Jefferson’s production to level off. In the traditional sense – receiving statistics – those numbers could go down, but being the best receiver in the field could mean Jefferson absorbing coverage to set others free.
“I don’t think he’s going to go backwards or whatever because he’s in a great mood out here,” said coach Mike Zimmer. “He runs, he likes to play football, he runs great routes. What is going to happen, however, is that these teams are likely to start rolling him, double reporting, so in some of these cases he just can’t be frustrated with that happening. But it’s good when he understands that he’s really helping the team.
“Well his numbers could be better or worse, I don’t know, but he’s helping the team because one of those guys who are now doubling him isn’t in the box.” [running back Dalvin] Cooking to run against or against [tight end] Irv Smith or against Thielen in one-on-one. So he has to understand that, and we’re working on some of these things, not the first day of course, but when we start here, we’ll get a little more going. Part of it is just that he understands that I am helping this soccer team even though they double cover me.
The way Jefferson performed as a rookie in the most unusual of circumstances gives teammates confidence that replay is possible. If he has a historic season with all of these inconveniences, what can he do in a more normal season?
“If he played the exact same season as last year and did it 12 or 13 times, he would probably go to Canton, I would guess,” said Cousins. “I’m not saying this to put pressure on him. I’m only saying when you talk about it, what’s the next step? it doesn’t change who he is, it does it again. And then again, and then again, and I think it’s more about persistence than change.
“The challenge in football, and I’ve seen it return guys to Michigan state on my trip, is not to be just a year-long miracle, not just be a lightning bolt for a few years. Don’t just be someone who is on a good run. Be someone who can take it and I think that will be the challenge. “