Justin Jefferson wasn’t shy in setting lofty 2020 goals. The Minnesota Vikings’ first-round pick pledged to himself that he’d catch 60 balls for 1,000 yards and six touchdowns. Turns out the mark was too easy. Jefferson met all three by Week 13 and spent the final quarter of the season padding his Rookie of the Year candidacy.
His 88-catch, 1,400-yard, seven-touchdown season sets a high bar to clear in 2021, but Jefferson is already making one thing clear: He’s not going to leave any yards on the field due to drops.
In a self-produced behind-the-scenes video of one of Jefferson’s offseason workouts in Miami, the 22nd overall pick made the following claim: “I ain’t dropping no balls next season,” he said. “Just watch. No drops. Zero. Put my check on it. Put my whole life savings.”
If, say, Chad Beebe or Bisi Johnson made this claim, it would be more easily accomplished considering their low target share. But a player like Jefferson? It would be a rarity, considering his anticipated workload.
In the past 15 years that Pro Football Focus has tracked drops, only two receivers with 100 or more targets have gone a full season without a drop: DeAndre Hopkins in 2018 and Larry Fitzgerald in 2019.
However, Jefferson showed he has great hands in 2020. Pro Football Focus pinned four drops on him, and several were still tough catches. In his debut against the Green Bay Packers, Jefferson dove for a pass along the side that bounced off his chest, but he also had coverage draped on his back. His drop against the Seattle Seahawks came on an overthrow where Jefferson went airborne and had the ball go through his hands. Against the Carolina Panthers, Jefferson arguably had three difficult yet catchable balls thrown his way — two overthrows and an underthrow — though he was only pegged for one drop.
The only incompletion that was not partially a result of bad ball placement came against the Dallas Cowboys when Jefferson’s drop during a fourth-quarter two-minute drill preventing the Vikings from moving the chains. It was a notable miscue, but it was a rare one for Jefferson. His drop rate (4.3%) was 11th best out of 32 receivers with 100-plus targets.
The day after the Panthers game, where Jefferson had three balls bounce off his hands, head coach Mike Zimmer razzed him in practice.
“He never [drops passes],” Zimmer said. “I said to him, ‘I don’t see you dropping balls,’ and he said, ‘You won’t see it again.’”
Jefferson wouldn’t have a drop in the final five games.
The former LSU star had the lowest drop rate of any receiver with 100 or more targets among rookies. The last first-year wideout with a lower drop rate under that criteria was Michael Thomas (4.2%) in 2016.
Expand it to rookies with 50 or more targets and Jefferson drops to third behind Jalen Reagor (3.1%) and Darnell Mooney (3.2%). Still, though, he was far and away better than some of his other first-round peers who played big roles in their respective offenses. CeeDee Lamb dropped nine balls for the Cowboys, and Jerry Jeudy dropped 12.
Jefferson is now on record saying he wants to run smoother routes in 2021 and drop zero passes. He also believes that a starting job in Week 1 will put him on a greater trajectory for receiving yardage. It took Jefferson until Week 3 last season to crack the starting lineup.
“Who knows what I would’ve did with [starting in Week 1],” Jefferson said. “I guess I’ll just wait until next year to start out from Week 1, and hopefully I get more yards than I did this year.”
These are ambitious goals. Then again, Jefferson had no trouble exceeding them in Year 1.