The Minnesota Vikings entered into an intense battle toward the end of last season. The action on the field riled their fans into a frenzy and turned them into keyboard warriors on social media. With a race that was going down to the wire, the Purple faithful did their best to inspire the masses and help etch their names in history.
We’re not talking about a battle for a Lombardi Trophy or even a playoff spot. It was a battle for the 2020 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award.
Jefferson had smashed every record imaginable during his rookie season but lost out on the award to Justin Herbert. On Sunday, Jefferson and Herbert’s Los Angeles Chargers will go head to head. It’s still interesting to see who could have the most long-term value for their team.
Jefferson’s rookie campaign was about filling Stefon Diggs’ shoes. After Diggs tweeted his way out of Minnesota, the Vikings were begging for someone to replace his production in the offense. The Vikings tried to fill the role in free agency, but Tajae Sharpe wasn’t it. Bisi Johnson proved to be a fairly average seventh-round pick, and K.J. Osborn was a year away from being a contributor. Neither player was a game-breaking wide receiver.
That’s where Jefferson came in, putting up 175 yards and a touchdown in his first career start. With Adam Thielen on the opposite side, Jefferson quickly filled Diggs’s role, and the Vikings ranked fourth in total yardage last season. He could have done more if Minnesota had been more aggressive.
But it’s interesting to look at what Jefferson could do on a team like the Chargers. Picking sixth in the draft, Los Angeles probably never considered taking Jefferson — especially with the departure of Phillip Rivers. But it’s hard to argue that the Chargers couldn’t use a weapon of Jefferson’s caliber.
Los Angeles is currently rolling with a wide receiver corps that has Keenan Allen and Mike Williams as its focal point. Allen was a second-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and has worked his way into becoming one of the most consistent receivers in the NFL. Williams was the seventh-overall pick in 2017 and has had to work through several injuries.
While both have their flaws, the Chargers have done an excellent job of ensuring their weapons get the ball in their hands. Brandon Staley especially emphasized getting Williams the ball, putting him into the Michael Thomas role in Joe Lombardi’s offense.
After averaging 10.2 targets per game over the first five games, Williams looked like Jefferson should in the Vikings’ offense. Then again, it could be about who was getting him the ball.
A majority of Jefferson’s yards last season came when the Vikings were in desperation mode. Kirk Cousins had to force the issue with a leaky defense ranking 30th in points allowed, and Jefferson cashed in with 1,400 yards in his rookie season. I don’t mean to take away from Jefferson’s game-changing ability, but it’s fair to wonder what he could do if he had a quarterback of Herbert’s caliber.
Herbert also set an NFL rookie record, throwing for 4,336 yards and 31 touchdowns last season. His air yards per attempt have remained at 7.6. He continues to get better, throwing 16 touchdowns and six interceptions so far this season.
While the interception numbers are a little higher, Herbert can use his arm strength and accuracy to get the ball to his receivers. After Jefferson was targeted just nine times over the past two games, it’s blissful to ponder what he could do with more work and a quarterback willing to throw him the ball deep.
The Vikings never had a chance to take Herbert, but they did have an opportunity to take a swing at a similar prospect in this year’s draft. Trading up for Justin Fields or taking Mac Jones at 14 could have given the Vikings a quarterback to pair with their star weapon. However, they decided to invest on the offensive line with Christian Darrisaw.
Perhaps this looks better if the Vikings weren’t mothballing Wyatt Davis, but an aggressive quarterback has more value than an elite receiver. Thielen is a UDFA and Diggs was a fifth-round pick, so there’s always a chance you can find a top pass-catcher later in the draft. The same can’t be said for the quarterback.
Maybe Jefferson can have a big game and find some sort of revenge for being passed over for Rookie of the Year. But even if he does explode, he may be wishing he had a quarterback like the one the Chargers have on their sideline.