The dust has settled from the 2020 NFL Draft, and by most accounts, draft gurus across the internet have applauded what the Minnesota Vikings were able to pull off. By accumulating late-round picks, the Vikings were able to get younger and add depth at several areas that had been depleted during free agency.
For a team that saw Mike Zimmer grumble that “football is a young man’s game” during his post-season press conference last January, that should be considered a victory. But there’s still something that they could have done better when it comes to their first-round strategy.
The discussion around the 22nd overall pick in the draft revolved around finding a receiver to replace Stefon Diggs. While the Vikings played coy praising the depth in this class, it came out after the draft that offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s top choice was Justin Jefferson, who the Vikings wound up taking with that selection.
Jefferson is a fine player and could have a productive career, but the Vikings could have done better by trading up for CeeDee Lamb.
Before I get into why that’s the case, we need to take a look at Jefferson and see what he does well. Last season at LSU, Jefferson obliterated opposing defenses as part of one of the greatest offenses in the history of college football. With 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns (including four against Lamb’s Oklahoma Sooners in the College Football Playoff), Jefferson knows how to get the ball and make big plays once it’s in his hands.
But his previous season with the Tigers didn’t go as well. While the reason could be pinned to playing with Joe Burrow before he was “Joe Burreaux,” the Tigers also made a big change with the arrival of co-offensive coordinator and passing game consultant Joe Brady.
As a sophomore, Jefferson played 79.3% of his snaps on the outside, according to Pro Football Focus. While his 16.2 yards per catch are appealing to a team like the Vikings that values efficiency over volume, his stats weren’t as spectacular with 875 yards and six touchdowns.
Last season, Brady opted to move Jefferson into the slot and the chains were off. Jefferson played 92.8% of his snaps in the slot and led the nation with 1,518 yards from that position. For those of you running to grab a calculator, that’s 98.6% of his production from the slot, which means the Vikings should just throw him in there and reap the benefits, right?
Actually, the Vikings don’t like running plays with a slot receiver. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Vikings ranked last in the NFL with 18% of plays featuring three-receiver sets. To add to the problem, the Vikings ran 53% of plays with two wide receivers, which means they’re projecting Jefferson to be a boundary receiver.
Part of the reason for this is that the Vikings might not have had three good receivers to trot out there (apologies to Laquon Treadwell, Chad Beebe and Bisi Johnson), but when they did run slot, that job belonged to Adam Thielen, who ran a team-high 32% of his snaps from the slot.
This doesn’t mean that Jefferson can’t produce from the outside, but putting him out there and running him at the same 31.9% rate that Diggs ran deep routes (20 yards or more) last season isn’t playing to his strengths. In fact, Jefferson caught 31 passes on slants, in-routes or crossing routes, which accounted for 626 (or 40%) of his yardage last season, according to PFF.
Which brings us to Lamb, who stepped on campus and dominated the Big 12 as a freshman. Much like Jefferson, Lamb was playing with the creative mind of Lincoln Riley at the controls, but that doesn’t account for assets such as getting open, catching the ball and making a big play.
Last season, Lamb wound up posting similar numbers with 1,325 yards with 14 touchdowns, but his success came from everywhere on the field. Running just 26% of his snaps in the slot, Lamb (3.36) almost doubled Jefferson’s (1.74) yards per snap from the slot and still had enough to be a better threat downfield.
|Stat||Justin Jefferson||CeeDee Lamb|
|Deep Target Completion Percentage||9-for-18 (50%)||12-for-22 (54%)|
|Deep Target Yards||316||527|
|Deep Target QB Rating||112.3||139.2|
|PFF Deep Receiving Grade||85.3||92.1|
To trade for Lamb, there would have been the obstacle of leapfrogging the Cowboys in the draft, but it would have taken a repeat of the 2013 deal where the Vikings traded up to draft Cordarrelle Patterson.
Assuming the Vikings would have had to deal with the Atlanta Falcons at No. 16 (1000 points), Jimmy Johnson’s trade chart points out that the Vikings could have given pick Nos. 22 (780 points), 89 (145 points), 132 (40 points) and 169 (24.8 points) to be in the ballpark of making a deal.
It’s unknown if the Falcons would have still landed A.J. Terrell with that pick, but the Vikings, in theory, would have given up Jefferson, Cameron Dantzler, Troy Dye and Harrison Hand to land Lamb, who some believed was the top receiver in the draft.
Taking Jefferson is more of a lateral move for a team looking to make big ones that put them over the top in the NFC. While Jefferson can still be a productive receiver, Lamb will likely make a bigger impact in Dallas and would have been a better and more explosive fit for what the Vikings want to do on offense.