NFL players love to share lofty goals when they return to training camp. Adrian Peterson always wanted to rush for 2,500 yards in a season. Fans appreciated the confidence, but to achieve that goal, he would have had to shatter Eric Dickerson‘s mark by 395 yards. You had to appreciate the confidence, but his declarations felt empty.
But sometimes, fans can meet a lofty goal with appreciation and excitement because, while it’s unprecedented, it still feels attainable. On Monday, Minnesota Vikings wideout Justin Jefferson told Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press that he wanted to become the first receiver to eclipse 2,000 yards in a season.
“I think I can,” Jefferson said. “Hopefully, everything goes right, and I can get that 2,000. That’s my goal.”
The expectation all offseason has been that new head coach Kevin O’Connell can instill a modern offense that tailors to the Vikings’ playmakers on offense. The former Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator oversaw an offense that helped Cooper Kupp explode in 2021 with 1,947 yards receiving on 145 receptions. Certainly O’Connell can elevate Jefferson’s stellar play, right?
Jefferson has already outpaced every other wideout in NFL history through his first two seasons. He shattered Odell Beckham, Jr.’s previous record of 2,755 yards with two games remaining in the 2021 season. Jefferson finished with 1,616 yards in 2021 after a 1,400-yard output in 2020.
Total yardage outputs aren’t a perfect comparison between 2020 and 2021 because the league expanded to 17 games last year. But we can look at Jefferson’s jump in yards-per-game from 87.5 in 2020 to 95.1 in 2021. That’s a year-to-year increase of nearly 10.9%.
With that same jump, Jefferson would finish the 2022 season with roughly 103.7 yards per game. Over 17 games that would be around 1,763 yards, well below Kupp’s 2021 total, let alone 2,000 yards.
But we can look deeper to see the change in Jefferson’s play. How is it that Kupp could average 10.2 yards per target in 2021 to Jefferson’s 9.7 yards per target despite having an average depth of target of 8.8 yards, according to Pro Football Focus – well below Jefferson’s depth of target (13.3 yards)?
The short answer is that the Rams targeted Kupp more often and more efficiently than the Vikings targeted Jefferson. In his 2022 Football Preview Book, available for purchase here, Warren Sharp broke down every team’s most frequently used player when facing short (1-3 yards), medium (4-7 yards), long (8-10 yards), and extra-long (11+) distance from first-, second-, and third-downs.
Of the 12 combined distances, Jefferson was Minnesota’s most-used player only three times. That came on second-and-extra-long (30% success rate), third-and-medium (65% success rate), and third-and-long (56% success rate). While his success rate on the latter two is high, his low success rate on second-and-extra-long is a microcosm of a larger problem the Vikings had under Mike Zimmer. Running back Dalvin Cook was the most-used player among these 12 down-and-distances. He was the go-to player on first- and second-down in every distance from 10 yards and under.
In LA, Kupp was the go-to player in seven of these 12 down-and-distances. Outside of first down, the Rams targeted Kupp more than anyone on any distance beyond three yards. The success rate when throwing to Kupp was almost overwhelmingly positive, save for third-and-medium and third-and-long, where he only had a 38% success rate on 21 targets.
But while the Vikings successfully threw to Jefferson within 10 yards, K.J. Osborn actually saw more targets on third-and-11-plus yards. He had 10 targets, netting only a 10% success rate. On the other hand, Kupp had six plays of the same kind. He produced an 83% success rate on these.
This isn’t to say the Vikings need to force-feed Jefferson all the time as the Rams did with Kupp. The Vikings employ a better running back than the Rams had on their roster and can get creative with other players. But the Rams used their best offensive asset to constantly stay ahead of the sticks. On the other hand, the Vikings leaned on Jefferson to bail themselves out of disadvantageous scenarios.
The Rams targeted Kupp 191 times for a 75.9% catch rate. The Vikings targeted Jefferson 167 times for a 64.7% catch rate. Just getting Jefferson the ball in early downs for efficient chunks of yardage should easily push Jefferson past his 95.1 yards-per-game average in 2022.
Even eclipsing Kupp’s 114.5 yards-per-game average in 2021 isn’t unheard of. Former Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson set the single-season receiving record with 1,964 yards in 2012, a 16-game season. He averaged 122.8 yards per game during the record-breaking year. Jefferson could surpass the mark with five yards per game fewer than Johnson — and with even more rules favoring the passing game.
Justin Jefferson is on the verge of becoming, or may already be, a superstar in the NFL. A record-breaking season would put him in the middle of the discussion as the league’s best receiver. He believes he is already the league’s second-best receiver, even ahead of Kupp, who was in the running for league MVP in 2021. “Coop is good,” said Jefferson, “but I’ll say he’s behind me.”
The confidence is admirable, but production would leave little doubt in the minds of coaches, players, and fans across the country. Jefferson has high hopes for 2022, but those goals could very well become a reality when the 2022 season ends.