Vikings

Justin Jefferson Has Spent His Entire Career Proving Doubters Wrong

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Jefferson is the highest-paid non-quarterback in the NFL, the best wide receiver in the league, and on pace to surpass Randy Moss as the best receiver in Minnesota Vikings franchise history. He tied the record for reaching 5,000 yards the fastest and is the only receiver other than Moss to reach 5,000 yards before turning 25.

He’s a transcendently good football player, yet despite his success, he’s been doubted throughout his career.

It’s not as though Jefferson was a sixth-round pick like Tom Brady. The league viewed him as a first-round talent, and Minnesota took him with the 22nd pick in the 2020 draft. However, looking back on it with the gift of hindsight, he should have gone higher. Even the Vikings, who liked him enough to take him, were content waiting until pick No. 22 rather than moving up the board.

If Rick Spielman and the Vikings brass had any idea of the Hall of Fame-caliber talent they were pursuing, there would’ve been no price too high not to move up and snag him. Instead, they patiently waited down to the wire and got extremely lucky that the Philadelphia Eagles blew their pick on Jalen Reagor instead.

Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, and Reagor were all selected before the best receiver in football. We’ll give the Dallas Cowboys a pass for getting close with CeeDee, but the other three run the spectrum from underperforming disappointment to unmitigated disaster.

So, how did this happen? How was JJ so overlooked? How did the Vikings strike gold?

As I mentioned before, Jefferson is no stranger to being overlooked. Coming out of high school, Jefferson was only a two-star recruit who only had offers from Division II Nicholls State and his older brother’s alma mater, LSU. Jefferson grew up watching his older brother Jordan play quarterback for the LSU Tigers. As a senior in high school, he used his legacy to get an honest look from the LSU coaching staff, who could see past his rail-thin frame and recognize his impressive athleticism.

Although JJ may have been unheralded coming in, he quickly proved he had a lot to offer to the Tigers. By his senior season, he was a part of one of the most dynamic offenses in CFB history. He had over 1,500 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2019 and was particularly lethal in the College Football Playoffs with 23 catches for 333 yards and four touchdowns. Legend has it that Oklahoma’s slot corners still shudder at the sound of his name to this day.

Despite his collegiate success, Jefferson still entered the league with doubters and detractors. Whether it was his lack of pedigree out of high school or being overshadowed by his college teammate, Ja’Marr Chase, Jefferson was viewed by many as a complementary player. His scouting reports coming out of LSU came in various shades of skepticism.

“Needs more attention to detail with his routes. Too complacent to beat coverage with athletic ability. Unable to run away and separate from tight man. Size and strength across from him impede production. Will take time adjusting to press looks as a pro. Limited one-on-one prowess to win 50/50 throws. Separation talent just average outside.” — Lance Zierlein, NFL Network.

“He possesses solid receiving skills and solid physical skills, but he’s by no means an elite prospect. While Jefferson may end up in the first round of the draft, I think he’s best suited as a No. 2 receiver at the next level.” — Tony Pauline, Pro Football Network.

“Not a burner. May lack deep speed for the NFL. Leaner frame. May not be a big separation receiver. Could be better off as a No. 2 receiver. Could stand to fill out his frame. Should add strength.” — Charlie Campbell, Walter Football.

I bring up these receipts not just to dunk on the draft analysts. The draft offers a lot of uncertainty, and these guys made the best evaluation they could based on the evidence available. However, they were wrong in their prognostication that Jefferson would struggle to excel at the next level.

Jefferson is one of the best deep threats in the NFL because of his athletic ability and being one of the most elite route runners in the sport. He’s exceptionally good in contested-catch situations and is proven to be better at beating double teams than any receiver in the league today. Jefferson has proven that he’s not only a WR1 but also one of the most dominant WR1s we’ve ever seen. Arif Hasan from the Wide Left Substack made the following chart to display how unbelievably dominant Jefferson has been against double coverage.

In a weird way, Jefferson’s scouting report reminds me a bit of the J.J. McCarthy discourse this offseason. We shouldn’t have let the lack of reps for Jefferson on the outside be evidence that he is unable to operate anywhere but the slot, just like Vikings brass has argued that McCarthy’s lack of reps throwing the ball late in games or downfield shouldn’t immediately lead to the conclusion that he’s unable to do so. That may be a lesson worth learning for any of us when forming pre-draft opinions: Analyze the reps that are there rather than drawing conclusions from the reps that aren’t.

My other hot take on Jefferson’s analysis is that he is a prime example of people being way too locked in on their preconceived perception of a player going into their evaluation. They saw Jefferson’s recruit pedigree and that he operated out of the slot in LSU’s high-flying offense and pigeon-holed him as a system player out of the slot. They overlooked his production and obvious skillset and placed him in a box with other guys who had fit his profile in the past.

Luckily for Vikings fans, the league was wrong. The Vikings struck gold, and now they’ve locked this generational superstar in as the face of the franchise for years to come. Now the haters are doubting Jefferson again, and whether he was worth the money he’s earned. Whether this contract will hamstring the franchise for years to come.

I, for one, can’t wait to see if Jefferson can prove the doubters wrong again.

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