Vikings

What Does it Mean for the Minnesota Vikings Offense if Justin Jefferson Struggles in Year 1?

Jan 13, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; LSU Tigers wide receiver Justin Jefferson (2) against the Clemson Tigers in the College Football Playoff national championship game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings took LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson with their first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, and the talented young pass-catcher comes into a situation where he’ll be asked to contribute to the offense immediately. The Vikings took him with the pick they received from trading away Stefon Diggs, and they need Jefferson to provide some of that big-play ability the team has lost with Diggs now playing in Buffalo.

There’s no doubt Jefferson is a talented football player, but what if he struggles his rookie season and fails to meet the lofty expectations the Vikings have of him? Here are some reasons why that could happen and the ramifications it would have on the Vikings’ offense and the team in general.

Defining Disappointment

To define what a season of struggles for Jefferson would look like, the best thing to do is travel back to the past. The Vikings have missed on some first-round wide receivers in recent years, and if Jefferson’s stat line resembles theirs in their first seasons, that is a good benchmark to go by.

One player that was is in a strikingly similar situation to Jefferson was Troy Williamson back in 2005. The Vikings had traded a star receiver, in this case, Randy Moss, to the Oakland Raiders and used the pick they got in that deal to take Williamson at seventh overall. Williamson didn’t have great size but was a burner who many figured could make huge plays like Moss did because of his blazing speed.

He couldn’t.

Williamson struggled mightily out of the gate and finished his rookie season with 24 receptions for 375 yards and two touchdowns. The Vikings were hoping for much more from the rookie, but it turned out to be a sign of things to come. He fizzled out with the Vikings after three seasons.

Another major disappointing rookie season from a Vikings’ first-round receiver was from Laquon Treadwell back in 2016. At the time Minnesota had a young quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater who was just coming into his own. They wanted to get him a shiny new target to grow old with and figured the big-bodied receiver from Ole Miss was a can’t-miss.

Turns out, instead, he was a can’t-catch, as Treadwell struggled to hold onto the football in the rare circumstances when he actually saw a target. He finished his rookie season with an embarrassingly low one reception for 15 yards.

If Jefferson plays like Williamson or Treadwell in his first season, it will be disappointing for a player who was supposed to make a much larger impact as a rookie.

Why Could Jefferson Disappoint?

The biggest reason Jefferson could disappoint is that he’s coming in so far behind schedule and will be asked to do so much. He has already missed OTAs, mini-camps and now finds himself on the Vikings reserved/COVID-19 list. This is a list for players who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or have been in contact with someone who has. Depending on how his test turns out, Jefferson could miss five days or more.

For someone coming in already behind, having to miss at least five days of practice would be a major set back. He wouldn’t be able to work closely with his coaches and will lose valuable reps in practice that would help him build rapport with Kirk Cousins.

This could cause him to be slow to pick up the offense, and also slow to acclimate to the speed of the NFL. The Vikings are asking Jefferson to provide explosive plays in the passing game, and it’ll be extremely difficult for him to achieve that if he is sitting at home in quarantine rather than participating in practice with his teammates.

If he does lose time, that gives a huge opportunity for players like Bisi Johnson and Tajae Sharpe to surpass Jefferson on the depth chart. In a season where there already has been no mini-camps and no preseason games, the Vikings will be forced to go with the players who are ready to help the offense in Week 1. If Jefferson misses time, that could delay his development and he may not be ready to see meaningful snaps until at least midseason.

ramifications of Jefferson struggling

If Jefferson does miss time and is slow to pick up the offense, the Vikings offense will have to adjust accordingly. They will look for other ways to make explosive plays down the field. Players like Irv Smith Jr. will be looked to to stretch the field, and he could even see some time at wide receiver in certain looks. The team may also opt to run the football more, and throw the ball to Dalvin Cook even more than they did in 2019.

The wide receiver depth chart would also shuffle. Sharpe or Johnson would slide to that No. 2 role, with the other playing the slot. The negative trickle-down effect is that neither of these two players are known for their explosive playmaking ability. Sharpe averaged 13.2 yards a reception last year and Johnson a paltry 9.5. Defenses will be aware of this, look to double-team Adam Thielen and attempt to take him out of the Vikings’ passing attack. If they are successful, the Vikings offense could really struggle to push the ball down the field and rack up points. The lack of offensive firepower in the passing game will result in fewer points scored, and eventually lead to quite a few tallies in the loss column.

Another negative that would be associated with Jefferson struggling in Year 1 would be the constant barrage Mike Zimmer, Rick Spielman and even the players may get about trading away Diggs for an unproductive rookie. Zimmer and Spielman have thick enough skin to deal with this, but eventually the constant questioning could get old and lead to some frustration among those in the front office. Minnesota could also secretly regret the choice to trade Diggs, and it could even cost Spielman a contract extension.

Conclusion

Jefferson could struggle and be slow to pick up the offense if he continues to miss time. If this happens, the Vikings offense will suffer, as it’ll allow teams to double team Thielen, making Sharpe and Johnson the top options in the passing game.

This could result in fewer points scored for the offense and that’ll lead to losses. The media could be all over the Vikings for letting Diggs go in favor of a struggling rookie, and the Wilfs could agree with them, which could lead to Spielman’s tenure as the general manager coming to an end.

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Jan 13, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; LSU Tigers wide receiver Justin Jefferson (2) against the Clemson Tigers in the College Football Playoff national championship game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

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