Hold on. Relax. I’m not here to suggest in any way, shape, or form that Justin Jefferson isn’t good. That would be blasphemous. Nobody’s proposing he’s going to turn out to be a bust or saying that you shouldn’t be rooting for him. On the contrary, there’s every indication that Jefferson is a fantastic football player. In an unscientific poll I recently considered conducting, I found him to be the most popular professional athlete in Minnesota at the moment.
The state is simply over the moon about Jefferson – even more so than fellow young local stars like Kirill Kaprizov, Anthony Edwards, and Alex Kirilloff. In fact, when Jefferson threw out the first pitch before a game at Target Field earlier this week, a certain percentage of Twins fans in attendance half expected him to stick around and play for the hometown nine. Although come to think of it, given their performance this season, it couldn’t have hurt.
Anyway, go ahead and buy his jersey, laud him for his rookie stats, appreciate his style and panache. Heck, feel free to randomly hit the Griddy whenever the mood strikes you. It’s all good. He’s a fun player to watch and root for.
Admittedly, it may be too late for this admonition. Still, now that we have the Jefferson positivity stated for the record, I’d like to simultaneously urge everyone not to get carried away. Making an appointment for Jefferson to get fitted for his gold Hall of Fame jacket is still a smidge premature.
I feel like this needs to be said, not just to be a contrarian or a wet blanket, and not because Vikings fans (and Minnesota sports fans in general) need to adhere to strict fatalism and always anticipate the worst. Rather, this call for a modicum of caution is an effort to restrain some expectations before they get out of control. Perhaps it’s too late for that in certain pockets of Vikings territory, but if this warning can save even one fan from disappointment and heartbreak, it will have been worth it. It’s easy to understand why fans might already be too far out over their purple skis on Jefferson. I get it. But before you start careening down that double-black-diamond slope and begin chiseling his Hall of Fame bust, consider a few things.
First of all, Jefferson set the bar so high in his first season that some kind of regression to the mean seems inevitable. That would be true even if he didn’t play for a Minnesota sports team. When you set the NFL’s all-time rookie record with 1,400 receiving yards, math, probability, science, and things of that nature all suggest equaling or topping those numbers year after year isn’t a reasonable expectation.
History tells us the same thing.
Even the great Randy Moss, whom many Vikings fans assume Jefferson will become, went from 17 touchdowns as a rookie to 11 in his sophomore campaign. Anquan Boldin, whose NFL rookie receiving yardage record Jefferson broke, went from 1,377 yards as a rookie to 623 yards in his injury-plagued second season. Boldin would go on to record only one better yardage season in his 14-year career. Bill Groman, who still technically holds the rookie record for receiving yards with 1,473 for the 1960 Houston Oilers of the AFL, fell off to 1,175 the next season and then never again topped 500 yards.
Good old-fashioned regression isn’t the only thing to worry about with Jefferson. He also faced little to no adversity as a rookie. Everything he touched seemingly turned to gold. Of course, he’s talented enough to overcome hardships, but let’s see how this plays out before thinking his trajectory toward Canton will be a straight line. And this isn’t even about overcoming injuries or playing while hurt, though such things are inevitable in his line of work. Think about the fact that there weren’t preseason games last season, meaning no teams could get an early read on him. Teams had to wait for Week 1, and by the time enough tape was available, half the season was over. Defensive coordinators have had an entire offseason to look at tape now. Any team playing the Vikings next season will have plans drawn up to attempt to limit Jefferson’s impact. His ability to make adjustments to those adjustments will be crucial.
Third, what about a third wide receiver? Do we really think Bisi Johnson or Chad Beebe will concern opposing defenses if (God forbid) Adam Thielen needs to miss games due to injuries again? Truthfully, Whop Philyor and Ihmir Smith-Marsette are more intriguing players to me. Still, the bigger picture remains the same: The Vikings are basically two-deep at wide receiver right now and are banking on tight ends Irv Smith Jr. and/or Tyler Conklin to step up and help fill the pass-catching void. This flag is at least light red. Similarly, an injury to Kirk Cousins or Brian O’Neill, or the annual Dalvin Cook injury, would throw the Vikings’ offense off-kilter and impact Jefferson regardless of how healthy he stays.
If you’re so blindly optimistic to think that none of the above-noted issues could arise and serve to sidetrack Jefferson’s path to perennial Pro Bowls, then I’m afraid I can’t help you. Go ahead and enjoy your Jefferson Parade. Don’t let me rain on it.
However, if reality is more your thing, then just enjoy what Jefferson delivers to your Vikings or your fantasy football team or whatever. He’s absolutely great enough to have a long and spectacular career. Just remember that heaping piles of rookie-season success don’t always result in a Hall of Fame resumé. Just chill out a little on the expectations, and watching him over the long term will be less apt to end in disappointment. The Vikings as a whole always seem to deliver enough disappointment as it is; no need to compound the problem with their most popular player.