Good things happen when Justin Jefferson has the ball, yet he was only targeted nine times in Week 8 and 9 combined. Opponents have taken notice of Jefferson after his seven-touchdown, 1,400-yard rookie campaign last year. Jefferson says he can tell whether they are treating him or Adam Thielen as Minnesota’s No. 1 receiver. My guess is that many of them see Jefferson, 22, as the biggest threat.
Jefferson enters Minnesota’s Week 11 matchup against the Green Bay Packers with 774 yards and four touchdown receptions. He may eclipse his touchdown mark from last year, but he’s unlikely to pass his yardage total. Consider that he didn’t break out until Week 3 last season, and the Vikings are playing an extra game this year.
It’s not unheard of for superstar rookies to have lower numbers in their second season. But he’s not having a sophomore slump. The Vikings’ offense is stalling out after the scripted first drive, the offensive line is giving up pressure, and Kirk Cousins has a tendency to check down.
Jefferson’s lack of targets against the Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens is giving some fans anxiety. Not only do good things happen when Jefferson has the ball, but he’s here because another star receiver wasn’t involved enough in the passing game.
Stefon Diggs became fed up with Minnesota’s run-first offense. He delivered the Minneapolis Miracle in 2017 and signed a five-year, $72 million contract the next year. But when Cousins’ arrival in 2018 didn’t result in a more modern, pass-first offense, Diggs pushed his way out. So it’s only natural to have some concern about Jefferson’s involvement in the offense.
Jefferson demurs every time he’s about his targets.
“Every week, I just go out there and do the best I can, making the most of the plays that are thrown my way,” he said when asked about how he follows up a nine-reception, 143-yard performance last week against the Los Angeles Chargers.
“I mean, I feel like that’s more of the quarterback and the OC to determine if they want to keep coming to me with the ball or how they want to have the game plan. I just play ball.”
Offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak was asked about Jefferson’s targets in Week 8 and 9 and acknowledged that the Vikings have to get him more involved.
“Yeah, you don’t want to come out of a game, and Justin has those [target numbers],” he said. “He’s well deserving of getting the ball more.”
In Mike Zimmer’s press conference after the Chargers game, a reporter pointed out that Kubiak said he wanted to get Jefferson more involved.
“He shouldn’t be telling that to the media,” he said Zimmer, referring to his OC. “But I did talk to Justin this week, and I told him we were going to get him the ball.”
It’s perplexing why Jefferson’s involvement in the offense is being treated as a state secret. He’s one of Minnesota’s two star receivers. He broke Randy Moss’ rookie receiving record last year. It’s unfair to compare him directly to Moss, but he’s entered that stratosphere with his play. And it’s not like teams didn’t game plan around Moss when he was here. He just beat them.
Jefferson is doing his part. He’s living with his brother, Jordan, a former LSU receiver, and watches tape with him. Jefferson picks Patrick Peterson’s brain on how corners will play him and uses his hyperbaric chamber to recover. There are many Louisiana-born players in the league, and he leans on many of them for advice.
When Cousins throws the ball Jefferson’s way, he usually makes something happen. Opposing defenses can focus on him, but that’s not the sole issue. He can do his part to get open but is at the mercy of the play that is called, the O-line, and Cousins’ willingness to throw deep. He’s a big-game player capable of lighting up Green Bay’s secondary. But if Week 11 looks like Weeks 8 and 9, it can be hard to tell if that’s on the Vikings, Jefferson, or their opponents. Ideally, the question won’t even need to be asked.