EAGAN, Minn. — Nothing went as expected for Minnesota Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson as a rookie in 2020.
His NFL career began in the midst of a pandemic that prevented him from a normal offseason. He didn’t have long to build chemistry with Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins or learn the ins and outs of being a Pro Bowl wide receiver from Adam Thielen.
He absorbed a playbook virtually and didn’t have a preseason game to test the waters. Dealing with the fluid landscape that came with COVID-19 interruptions and distractions threw wrench after wrench into his plans.
Jefferson didn’t even start until Week 3 of the 2020 season, yet he still performed at a record pace. The Vikings’ 2020 first-rounder had a historic rookie season, breaking decades-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).
So when Jefferson, 22, talks about the expectations to top last season, it’s no surprise that the challenges of 2020 are the catalyst behind his self-assurance.
“To be honest, my confidence,” Jefferson said about what will help him combat a sophomore slump. “Me having the season I had last year with so many different inconveniences. Now going into this year, having a whole year with Kirk and the rest of the guys on this team, I feel way more confident. I feel like I’m going to do even more, better than I did last year.”
Those inconveniences didn’t slow Jefferson. By the halfway point of the 2020 season, he had put up three 100-yard receiving games. Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur dubbed Jefferson a No. 1 receiver before he suited up for the eighth game of his NFL career, and praise from other coaches and players around the league ensued, often in the form of added attention from defenders.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, 606 of Jefferson’s 1,400 receiving yards came against press coverage (less than a 3-yard cushion), the most by any player last season. He made it tough for corners to cover him one-on-one, recording 100 or more yards on seven different routes.
It’s among the first things Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson noticed about Jefferson, whom he has known since the receiver was a preteen.
“He runs his routes like a savvy vet,” Peterson said. “He makes everything look the same. Most young guys can’t do that. I don’t know if it’s coming from LSU, being coached the right way, but he’s a guy like when I first got here, he’s a pro. When you have a guy that comes into the league at that age and gets it right away, he’s going to be very special.
“I believe it’s going to be kind of difficult to try to cover him differently this year. You just have to roll the punches and hope he drops them.”
So what’s in store for Jefferson in Year 2? Over the past 10 seasons, nine receivers finished with at least 1,000 receiving yards as a rookie. Six of the previous eight (excluding Jefferson) had 1,000 yards again in their second season.
Teams took notice as Jefferson developed into one of the most productive receivers in the league, averaging the second-most receiving yards per route run last season (2.76), behind the Packers’ Davante Adams, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Even with the expectations that come with those numbers, the Vikings aren’t expecting Jefferson’s production to level off. In the traditional sense – receiving stats – those numbers might dip, but being the best receiver on the field could mean Jefferson is absorbing coverage to free up others.
“I don’t think he’s going to have any regression or whatever that is because he’s in a great frame of mind out here,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “He runs, he loves playing football, he’s running great routes. What’s gonna happen, though, is these teams are probably going to start rolling coverage to him, double coverage to him, so in some of these instances, he just can’t get frustrated because that’s happening. But it’s a good thing, if he understands that he is really helping the team an awful lot.
“Now, his numbers might be better or worse, I don’t know, but he’s helping the team because one of those guys that’s doubling him now isn’t in the box for [running back Dalvin] Cook to run against or against [tight end] Irv Smith or against Thielen to go one-on-one with. So he needs to understand that, and we’re working on some of those things, obviously not the first day, but as we start getting going here a little bit more. Part of it is just him understanding that even though they’re double-covering me, I’m helping this football team.”
The way Jefferson performed under the most unusual circumstances as a rookie gives teammates confidence that a repeat is possible. After all, if he put up a historic season with all those inconveniences, what can he do in a more normal season?
“If he were to have the exact same season he had last year and do it like 12 or 13 times, he’s probably going to Canton, I would guess,” Cousins said. “I’m not saying that to put pressure on him. I’m just saying when you talk about ‘what’s the next step?’ it’s not changing who he is, it’s doing it again. And then doing it again, and then doing it again, and I think it’s more about consistency than it is about changing.
“So the challenge in football, and I’ve seen it happen in my journey watching guys going back to Michigan State, is just don’t just be a one-year wonder, don’t just be a flash for a couple years, don’t just be someone who has a good run. Be someone who can sustain it, and I think that’ll be the challenge.”