The Minnesota Vikings received some bad news earlier this week when Adam Thielen wound up on the COVID-19/Reserve list. With Thielen unlikely to play, it’s a good bet that Justin Jefferson will see a plethora of targets on Sunday, leading to a massive game against the Carolina Panthers.
But Sunday’s matchup is tougher than what it looks like on paper. Jefferson will be dealing with several factors, but if he’s able to cash them in to a stat line that can win fantasy football matchups, the NFL should induct him into the Hall of Fame on Monday morning.
One of the factors that are working against Jefferson is who will be around him in the Vikings’ offense. Injuries have taken a toll and while Minnesota is better off than the Denver Broncos are at the moment, there’s not a lot to take attention away from Jefferson.
Irv Smith Jr. has been ruled out with a groin injury, and with Thielen’s absence, they’ll likely turn to Bisi Johnson lining up opposite of Jefferson. There’s a good chance the Panthers haven’t been sitting in meetings wondering if Kyle Rudolph will get his annual one-handed touchdown grab, and unless Johnson finds his magical training camp form, Matt Rhule will deploy any means necessary to make sure Jefferson doesn’t get the ball.
While the Panthers’ meetings probably haven’t been filled with Chad Beebe’s highlight reel either, they’ve probably had a special guest. Offensive coordinator Joe Brady knows Jefferson better than anyone in the NFL as the two teamed up to make Jefferson the top target in college football last season.
You have to be good to haul in 111 passes, but you also need a coach to put that talent in a situation to do so. Brady did just that at LSU and put Jefferson in the slot as Joe Burrow’s security blanket. While internet draft gurus saw this as a weakness, Brady did it because he viewed Jefferson as the team’s top receiver. That’s impressive for a team that also had J’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall, who will both be high selections in next year’s draft.
If Rhule is smart, Brady has been sitting in with his defense to teach a “Jefferson 101” course before Sunday’s game. With all the attention in the world, Jefferson will step into a tough situation even before Kirk Cousins throws his weekly “WTF” pass.
But that doesn’t mention the biggest challenge Jefferson will be facing on Sunday — his own coaching staff.
Playoff hopes will be on the line for the 4-6 Vikings and that likely means they’ll turn to “Ultimate Mike Zimmer Football.” If this were a video game, it would be played on a Sega Genesis and feature only run plays up the middle. In other words, if Zimmer is going down, he’s doing things his way, which is giving Dalvin Cook the ball 30 times.
While Zimmer seems hellbent on destroying Cook before he even reaches the five-year extension the Vikings just signed him to, it doesn’t seem like he’ll have a change of heart to get Jefferson more opportunities.
Even with Thielen in the lineup, the Vikings have called Jefferson’s number just 6.6 times per game since entering the starting lineup in Week 3. Last week, in another advantageous matchup against the Dallas Cowboys, they thought it was adequate to only throw to Jefferson five times, which is nowhere near enough.
With the Panthers stopping short of honoring Jonathan Vilma by putting a bounty on him, a passing offense where he’s the only legitimate target and a coaching staff looking to replicate the 1998 Denver Broncos, the cards seem stacked against Jefferson from having the day he should have.
Of course, Jefferson isn’t an ordinary rookie, and on Sunday, he’ll get to prove just that. If he’s able to do so, they should carve his bust immediately for a career headed to Canton.