Week 1 is a Tone Setter for Year 2 of Justin Jefferson

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel (USA TODAY Sports)

It’s finally here, folks. The 2021 season is upon us and the Minnesota Vikings start the year Sunday on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals. Even though the Vikings offense will be without tight end Irv Smith Jr. and rookie first-round pick left tackle Christian Darrisaw, fans have every reason to be giddy over Minnesota’s Core 4 of Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, and Kirk Cousins.

With Cook firmly entrenched as one of the best running backs currently residing on planet Earth, Sunday’s matchup against the Bengals is a golden opportunity for Jefferson to officially assert himself into the “Best Receiver in the League” discussion. Coming off a season which saw the former LSU receiver set the record for most receiving yards by a rookie in NFL history, Jefferson still finds himself as a mere afterthought when the best receivers throughout the league are discussed.

Davante Adams. Tyreek Hill. Stefon Diggs (Sorry, not sorry). DeAndre Hopkins.

These are the names that initially come to mind whenever the question of Best Receiver in the League is broached. And if Jefferson can take a jump from Year 1 to Year 2, it won’t be long until he’s unapologetically included in that list.

Empty stats for a below .500 team won’t help Jefferson with getting on that list, however. What all four of those receivers have on their resumes are league-leading stats that also play a critical role in winning games for their respective teams. Who could possibly forget what Hopkins pulled off last year during his first season in Arizona?

At no fault of his own, Jefferson’s impact on winning was hardly felt last season — having recorded 100-plus receiving yards in a Vikings victory on just four occasions. To make matters worse, three of those four occurrences were against the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Detroit Lions. Those three teams combined to go 10-38 last season.

For context. Adams, Hill, Diggs, and Hopkins each recorded 100-plus yards in victories six times in 2020.

With Cincinnati’s desire throw the ball early and often with Joe Burrow and his receiver triplets — Burrow led the NFL with 41.1 pass attempts per game before going down in Week 11 — the Vikings could very well find themselves in a Week 1 shootout. Granted, Danielle Hunter‘s return against a less-than-flattering Bengals offensive line could throw a wrench into Zac Taylor’s (Go Big Red) offensive game plan.

But should the Bengals find success with Burrow through the air, Minnesota will have to dial up no. 18 in order to keep pace. And with Cincinnati already being without their top corner — former Viking and borderline first-round-bust Trae Waynes — Jefferson should have little problem feasting on the Bengals secondary.

Regardless of how the game flow goes on Sunday, it’ll be interesting to see if first year offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak continues to force feed Jefferson with targets — another prerequisite for anyone who wants to be in the Best Receiver in the League discussion. While it took the Vikings far too long last year to make Jefferson a true focal point of the offense, Klint’s old man Gary Kubiak finally came around and gave Jefferson 66 targets over the final six weeks of 2020.

It’s also important to note that while the Vikings obviously want to run the ball with extensive volume, Cook saw a noticeable drop in efficiency on the road in comparison to at home. Cook’s yards per carry dropped by over a full yard in road games last year.

Don’t get me wrong, 4.5 yards per carry is still more than respectable. But with Jefferson’s mismatch against the Bengals secondary, Kubiak certainly doesn’t need to go overboard with the run game if it’s not operating at a high level.

If Jefferson can come out and light up the Bengals secondary en route to a much-needed Vikings road victory, look out. Because Jefferson will be well on his way to an All-Pro campaign in Year 2.

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