How Does Justin Jefferson Compare to Michael Thomas?

Photo credit: Mark J. Rebilas (USA TODAY Sports)

When Justin Jefferson fell to the Minnesota Vikings in last month’s NFL Draft, Mike Zimmer and his coaching staff were doing cartwheels after bringing the LSU product to Minnesota. On the surface, there’s plenty to get excited about when it comes to Jefferson, and anyone who watched his four-touchdown demolition of Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff knows that the Vikings are getting a quality prospect at a position of need.

But while fans and online draft gurus alike have spent plenty of time hyping up Jefferson ahead of his rookie season, coaches typically tend to shy the other way. Remember that shortly before taking the field for the Vikings in 2016, first-round pick Laquon Treadwell was billed as a Michael Irvin clone by Norv Turner, and that confidence was rewarded with one of the biggest draft busts in franchise history.

Maybe the Vikings like to play with fire or are trying to instill confidence in their new receiver, but offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has veered in the other direction. Speaking in an interview with the Vikings Entertainment Network last week, Kubiak had strong words for Jefferson and even compared his usage at LSU to another haunting figure of the Vikings’ past.

“I know a lot of people that know the young man, but I also know what he was asked to do offensively,” Kubiak said. “He was basically used in a role at LSU, a lot like [Michael Thomas] who’s had so much success moving around and playing inside.”

To be fair, Kubiak is still kind of new to Minnesota and while he didn’t run the offense last season, Kevin Stefanski’s efforts mirrored a late-90s type of offense that Kubiak ran with the Denver Broncos, Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens during his coaching career.

But why would Kubiak mention Jefferson in the same breath as Thomas, who Viking fans may still have visions of running next to Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs? Is history repeating itself as the same mistake they made with Treadwell? Or can Jefferson avoid the learning curve and be the Vikings’ own version of Thomas.

How did the Saints use Thomas?

One important takeaway from Kubiak’s quote was that he didn’t compare Jefferson to Thomas but instead noted that he was used in the same fashion as the Saints’ top weapon. From a statistical standpoint, this makes sense. While Jefferson was surrounded by more talent, most notably 2021 first-round lock J’Marr Chase, both Jefferson and Thomas were top targets for their respective quarterbacks.

Michael Thomas 2019 w/ Saints Justin Jefferson 2019 w/ LSU
Receptions 147 111
Yards 1,725 1,540
Touchdowns 9 18
Passer Rating when targeted (Jefferson converted to NFL formula) 123.3 154.1

But it’s also how Thomas was used with the Saints that could provide a look into what Kubiak is thinking. Thomas wasn’t a downfield burner in Sean Payton‘s offense and with a 4.57-second time in the 40-yard dash, it’s just not a smart thing to have him run fly patterns all day long.

Instead, the Saints focused on using Thomas mainly on short to intermediate routes, which have helped him rack up the second-most receptions (470) in the first four years of his career, behind only Jarvis Landry (481).

A look at Next Gen Stats confirms this, as Thomas’ route charts look like something a toddler drew on a wall during quarantine. Lots of lines occupy the first 20 yards of the field, but his deep routes are sparse with Pro Football Focus logging just eight of his 180 targets as deep passes.

Because of the reliance on the shorter targets, that means Thomas got a good chunk of his yards after the catch, leading the NFL with 588 (or 34% of his total yardage).

There’s also been a lot made of Jefferson’s usage in the slot (which we’ll get to in a bit), but that’s another place where Thomas flashes. Thomas ran 29.9% of his snaps in the slot, but ranked 10th in slot yardage (601), third in reception percentage (81.3%) and first in yards run per route in the slot (3.36).

Put it all together and Thomas is a mix of versatility and consistency that helps fuel the Saints offense.

Why Would Kubiak say this?

So that brings us back to our original point. Why would Kubiak utter the name of one of the most dominant receivers in the league when it comes to Jefferson, who hasn’t played a single professional snap? It’s because Jefferson can be used the same way.

Much like Thomas, Jefferson saw plenty of shorter routes that turned into longer gains last season. Jefferson’s average depth of target was just 9.4 yards last season, but he made up for it with his explosiveness after the catch.

With a 4.43-second 40-yard dash, Jefferson might be even more dangerous with the ball, and with 25 missed tackles forced (fourth in the nation), when he gets the ball in his hands he’s getting upfield in a hurry. It’s for that reason that Jefferson saw 93 of his 134 targets within 20 yards but still finished third in the nation in total yardage.

Of course, Jefferson played 92.8% of his snaps in the slot last season, but he wasn’t pigeonholed there his entire career. While his stats weren’t as great playing on the outside during the 2018 season, they were still respectable with 16.2 yards per reception and six touchdowns. That versatility is part of what Kubiak sees when he refers to Jefferson being used like Thomas.

“You don’t catch 111 balls in a season be it pro football or college football unless you’re a very bright player,” Kubiak said. “To do that, you have to have the ability to move around. You watch one play and [Jefferson] is in the backfield. He’s been in the slot a whole bunch. The year before he played outside a lot.”

This should be music to the Vikings’ ears when they wonder if Jefferson can produce early in his career. With Thielen and Jefferson being interchangeable, the Vikings should have more options when they want to run three-receiver sets. Although that number was a league-low 18% last season, the Vikings have upgraded the back end of their receiver room with the hopes that Bisi Johnson or K.J. Osborn can take major roles next season.

That versatility is something that the Vikings should take advantage of in order to get Jefferson off to a strong start in his NFL career.

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