With news that the Minnesota Vikings are officially hiring Kevin O’Connell as their new head coach, it is now clear the team will take on a different identity. Some assistants from the Los Angeles Rams’ staff are coming over, so it is fair to assume that the 2022 Vikings will have a similar feel to the Rams. And after Cooper Kupp won Offensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP, it is fair to assume that O’Connell and Co. will do their best to feature Justin Jefferson as much as Kupp.
Does that mean that O’Connell will use Jefferson just like Kupp? It’s certainly possible. But through Jefferson’s first two seasons, he hasn’t been utilized much like Kupp at all. Jefferson lined up in the slot only 31% of the time in his rookie season and 30.3% in 2021. Meanwhile, Kupp lined up in the slot 62% of the time in 2020 and 65.5% of the time in 2021.
A shift inside wouldn’t be out of the question for Jefferson. He lined up almost exclusively in the slot on his 2019 LSU team that won the National Championship. In his first two games as a rookie, Jefferson lined up his college position 40 times, catching five passes for 70 yards. In Week 3, Jefferson caught seven passes for 175 yards and a touchdown while lining up outside on 79.3% of the snaps.
Conventional wisdom was that Jefferson had to move to the outside to succeed in the NFL. But it’s entirely possible that Jefferson was also acclimating to the NFL in his first two games. Rookies from the 2020 draft class didn’t have the luxury of an NFL preseason. Because of this, Jefferson couldn’t showcase his ability in these games like Stefon Diggs did in 2015.
That isn’t to say that the answer to Jefferson replicating Kupp’s production is based solely on lining him up in the slot. Green Bay Packers wideout Davante Adams plays on the outside almost as much as Jefferson, but he still managed to get 15 more receptions than Jefferson on only three more targets in 2021. But with a Sean McVay touch on things, it is likely that Jefferson is lined up all along the formation more than he has through two years.
Jefferson and Kupp also found their receptions in vastly different ways. Kupp was targeted 189 times in the regular season, 26 more times than Jefferson. But Kupp caught 145 passes, 37 more than Jefferson. So even though Jefferson’s 15 yards per reception was more than the 13.4 that Kupp put up, Kupp was much more efficient per target. His 10.2 yards per target was a half-yard more than Jefferson’s. That comes despite Jefferson’s average depth-of-target being 13.3 yards, compared to Kupp’s only coming at 8.6 yards, per Pro Football Reference.
We can see the contrast in pass distribution when looking at where, exactly, these passes were being thrown. According to PFF, Kirk Cousins targeted Jefferson most often in the intermediate (10-19 yards downfield) center of the field 23.9% of the time in 2021. The next-highest volume of throws came in the short (0-9 yards) center at 17.2%. The third-highest, and only other area he posted double-digit percentages, was the deep (20-plus yards) at exactly 11%.
On the other hand, Kupp was targeted the most in the short center of the field (22.8%), short right (14.3%), and short left (13.2%). That accounted for 50.3% of all of his targets. And that doesn’t include passes he caught behind the line of scrimmage: 14.8% of all his targets, versus Jefferson’s 12.9%.
When looking at almost every depth of target, Kupp outpaces Jefferson. On passes behind the line of scrimmage, Kupp averaged 7.55 yards per route run, far better than Jefferson’s 4.38. Kupp averaged 12.95 yards per route run in the intermediate game, a full 1.05 yards higher than Jefferson’s impressive 11.90. And in the deep game, Kupp averaged 24.78 yards per route run, far more than Jefferson’s 13.41.
The only place Jefferson outpaced Kupp was in the short game, beating Kupp out by .06 yards per route run for a total of 6.55. This shows that Jefferson is entirely capable of attacking defenses the way Kupp has. The two receivers have similar receiving percentages in the short area, but 61.3% of Jefferson’s targets were 10 yards and beyond.
Does this mean Jefferson has to turn into a slot receiver to find more targets? As discussed before, Green Bay has split Adams out wide almost as often as Minnesota the past two years. But Adams has been targeted a lot like Kupp has. He hasn’t been targeted behind the line of scrimmage as much as Kupp or Jefferson (only 9.6%). But he was just as effective as Kupp in the short game. Like Kupp, about half of Adams’ targets (49.4%) were in the short game. But Adams averaged 7.06 yards per route run, a half-yard more than Jefferson.
Of course, Adams’ coach is Matt LaFleur, and he worked with McVay during the 2013 season in Washington. With two different receivers in 2021, the two head coaches could incorporate them into their game plans and make them focal points. That meant getting them the ball often, even if it wasn’t always in ways that got featured on ESPN highlights. That continued through the playoffs, with both Kupp (53.7%) and Adams (63.6%) seeing an uptick on targets in the short game.
With O’Connell bringing his own flair to Minnesota, expect a similar emphasis on getting his star receiver the football. Jefferson has already set numerous records over his first two seasons. But fans can agree that it doesn’t always feel as if he is a focal point or even part of the game plan at times throughout his young career in Minnesota. If O’Connell can bring the same sort of plan to Minnesota, Jefferson could be more efficient – and in turn, more dangerous – than he has been in his early career.