Justin Jefferson Joins the Minnesota Vikings with Big Shoes to Fill

Photo credit: Brian Spurlock (USA TODAY Sports)

Stefon Diggs was one of the most efficient wide receivers in the NFL last season.

That’s not an opinion. It’s a fact. Regardless of how you measure wide receiver efficiency, Diggs ranked near or at the top of the entire league.

However, the Vikings traded Stefon Diggs during the free agency period and left a massive hole at wide receiver. That’s an exceptional combination of reliability and explosiveness that needed to be replaced.

Minnesota used the 22nd overall pick, which it received in the trade for Diggs, to draft LSU standout Justin Jefferson. The 2019 national champion broke records while teamed up with Joe Burrow at LSU. Jefferson’s skillset shined against elite college football competition week in and week out.

For the Vikings offense to maintain (or improve) its effectiveness in 2020, Jefferson will need to fill some big shoes left by Diggs.

Diggs and quarterback Kirk Cousins represented one of the best deep ball connections in football last season. They connected for six touchdowns on throws made more than 20 yards downfield, which led the NFL. Diggs also led the NFL in catches (16) and yards (635) when targeted 20 or more yards downfield.

A lack of targets ultimately limited Diggs’ production and kept him from recording elite numbers that rival studs like Michael Thomas and Julio Jones. Diggs finished the 2019 season No. 2 in the league in yards per target (12.0), miles ahead of names many recognize as superstars.

Diggs creates separation all over the field with precise route running, there’s no doubt about it. It’s especially noticeable on deep routes — as many Vikings fans saw in 2019.

But even when Diggs doesn’t create adequate separation, he’s still a viable target. He leads the NFL in contested catch rate since 2017 (61.1%).

So, essentially, throw to Diggs and good things usually come of it. Unfortunately, the Vikings never figured that out.

It’s totally unfair to expect Jefferson to come in and replace Diggs. For the last couple of seasons, Diggs has primarily played on the outside for the Vikings. Jefferson was almost exclusively in the slot at LSU. Minnesota used two receivers or less more often than any team in the NFL last season, which will force Jefferson to adjust to an outside role if he is indeed the No. 2 option behind Adam Thielen. And, for what it’s worth, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has said the Vikings will line Jefferson up all over the field.

With all of that said, Jefferson and Diggs are more similar than you might think.

Diggs excels at virtually every skill that a wide receiver needs to be successful. However, a couple of them stick out — particularly the precise route running on deep patterns and the body control in contested catch scenarios.

Jefferson shined at LSU in both of those areas as well. He recorded the second-most receptions of 15 or more yards over the past two seasons (61) and showed the ability to separate down the field. Is his downfield separation at the level of Diggs? No. Very few people on the planet can say their downfield separation skills are at Diggs’ level. But Jefferson does use the subtle movements and quick footwork necessary to create space.

The former LSU Tiger also showed an extraordinary ability to win contested catches, similar to Diggs. Jefferson has a knack for contorting his body in a way that shields defensive backs from the ball and allows him to haul it in cleanly. He had the highest contested-catch rate among draft-eligible receivers in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Jefferson and Diggs can both separate and they can both high-point the ball when they need to in contested situations. Both of those skillsets should carry into the NFL quite well for Jefferson.

At LSU, Jefferson’s role was much different than the one Diggs played for Minnesota last season. Diggs lined up outside most often and ran a lot of downfield routes to provide Cousins with deep-ball opportunities. Meanwhile, at LSU, Jefferson and Burrow connected primarily on timing routes that utilized Jefferson’s skills out of the slot in plus matchups.

Will Jefferson be able to replace Diggs? The short answer is no. One of the reasons for that is how different their roles were last season. If the coaching staff is simply going to plug Jefferson into Diggs’ 2019 role, there would be a significant learning curve for the rookie. And let’s be honest, Diggs’ controlled speed in and out of cuts is just too good to match.

Diggs’ deep ball efficiency will not be matched. That’s unreasonable to expect. But in terms of overall production, the Vikings needed to find a reliable No. 2 option that can win if defenses choose to focus their attention to Thielen. And Jefferson is that guy.

The star potential is there. Of course, that’s been said about every prospect that has ever entered the NFL Draft. But Jefferson dominated at the absolute highest level against defensive backs that are now in the NFL. If he can assimilate to a new role with an increased rate of outside snaps, he can be a lethal weapon for Cousins and the Vikings.

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