Back in Week 1, during the first meeting of the season between the Vikings and Packers, Justin Jefferson was still trying to get his feet underneath him in the NFL. He had played well throughout training camp, but in a shortened offseason without preseason games, he hadn't stood out enough to earn a starting job. Instead, it was Bisi Johnson who started alongside Adam Thielen in the opener.
During that game, a 43-34 Vikings loss, Jefferson and Johnson split snaps pretty evenly. Johnson, who had the benefit of a full year in the offensive system and a rapport with Kirk Cousins, caught three passes for 56 yards while Jefferson was held to two catches for 26.
Nearly seven weeks later, Jefferson looks – and feels – like an entirely different player. He had a breakout 175-yard game in his first career start in Week 3, and was named the NFL Rookie of the Week for his 166-yard performance in Week 6. The LSU product has exceeded 100 receiving yards in three of the past four games and is on pace to set numerous rookie records. Perhaps more importantly, his confidence level has grown every single week.
"Week 1, I wasn’t really too sure of the NFL, of how fast it was or anything," Jefferson said this week. "Now, I have a couple games under my belt, so I have a feel for the NFL. I know what’s going on. I know the tempo of it and everything. Me going out there and playing my own game, it fits right in.”
Jefferson no longer feels like a rookie trying to figure things out in this league. He carries himself like a seasoned veteran, and he has the results to back that attitude up. Jefferson is not only on pace to surpass the historic rookie seasons of players like Anquan Boldin and Randy Moss, he's playing like one of the best receivers in the league, regardless of experience. The first-rounder is 11th in the league in receiving yards and is currently Pro Football Focus's highest-graded wideout.
"I’ve grown a lot," Jefferson said. "We looked at [the film] the other day of the first game, and I look totally different. I have so much confidence now. I have so much swagger to my game now."
Jefferson has put the NFL on notice with his play. From weeks 3 to 6 prior to the Vikings' bye, his 467 yards were 85 more than the next-closest receiver. During that span, he averaged a ridiculous 15.6 yards per target. Jefferson has shown off nearly a complete skillset, winning with speed, precise route-running, and contested catch ability. Those were all traits that made him a first-round pick out of LSU, but what's been even more impressive is that he's answered all of the questions or doubts people had about his game, too.
There were detractors that said Jefferson was "just a slot receiver," expressing concern about his ability to win at the line of scrimmage against press coverage. That hasn't been an issue. Jefferson has used a hesitation, head-fake style of release – one also employed by elite receivers like Stefon Diggs, Keenan Allen, and Davante Adams – to get cornerbacks off balance and create quick separation.
"He’s really come a long way," said Packers coach Matt LaFleur. "This guy is going to be a legitimate No. 1 receiver in the league, if he isn’t already. He is explosive, you can tell he’s a smart football player, he’s got great hands, he’s tough, he’s competitive. I think they got themselves a really good player in him."
Now, the challenge is sustaining this level of production. That means minimizing games like Week 5, where Jefferson was held to two catches for 23 yards in a primetime loss to the Seahawks. Defenses have plenty of tape on the rookie now, and they'll be focusing ample attention on him every week going forward.
If defenses adjust, it'll be up to Jefferson to adjust back. For as great as he's been over the past four games, there's always more improvement to be made in terms of understanding NFL defenses and how to attack them. Jefferson is constantly working with Vikings wide receivers coach Andrew Janocko and trying to add to his game both physically and mentally.
"I’m proud of him, the way he’s stepped up to the plate, the way he’s helped the offense and brought us a spark, and really handled a lot mentally that we’re throwing at him with plays and formations and adjustments," Cousins said. "Coach Janocko has done a great job, too, of bringing him along and staying on him and holding him accountable."
Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who played a big role in the Vikings' selection of Jefferson at No. 22 overall, has also been thrilled with his growth and development so far.
"It’s really fun to watch the progress of this young man," Kubiak said. "This guy really loves to play. Every great player I’ve been around practices hard, practices consistent. That’s what we’re seeing from him right now. I know we’ve got a long way to go but it sure is fun to watch here these first six weeks. Just want to keep him healthy and have him on the field all year long. I think if we’re able to do that, I think you’re going to see a young man grow up really, really quick. Really proud of Justin up to this point and want him to keep going."
Next up for Jefferson is a big test: a rematch with the Packers. After not doing much to affect the outcome in Week 1, he's fired up for the chance to help lead the struggling Vikings to a major road upset. It'll be his first game at Lambeau Field and yet another opportunity to show just how far he's come during his rookie year.
Chasing Moss (and Boldin)
Jefferson is off to a historic start to his career. His 537 yards are the most in Vikings history through six career games, ahead of Randy Moss's 527 from 1998. If he stays on this pace, he'd not only break Moss's team rookie record of 1,313 yards, but Anquan Boldin's NFL rookie record of 1,377.
“It’s a good goal to have," Jefferson said of surpassing Moss. "It’s a good thing to beat, but I’m more focused on the team and trying to win some games this year.”
Jefferson has a chance to set or tie several rookie yardage milestones this week. With 85 yards or more, he'd break Boldin's record for receiving yards through seven career games. And with another 100-yard game, his fourth, he'd tie Moss for second in Vikings history in that department (Sammy White has the franchise record with five such games).
Jefferson will have his hands full this week whenever he lines up against the Packers' Jaire Alexander – unless Green Bay's top corner shadows Adam Thielen all game. Alexander was a first-round pick in 2018 and has blossomed into one of the best corners in the league. He's PFF's top-ranked CB with a 90.8 grade, two full points ahead of second place.
Jefferson has no fear about potentially seeing that matchup.
"I’m good enough to go against these type of guys in the league," he said when asked about Alexander. "I’m well capable of making those big plays and really just going out there and play my own game. Just do what I’ve been doing, playing with confidence and playing with that swagger.”
The Packers' usual No. 2 corner, Kevin King, looks unlikely to play this week so Jefferson could see plenty of Josh Jackson (55.1 PFF grade) if Alexander does shadow Thielen.
Make sure to bookmark this site and check back daily for the latest Vikings news and analysis. Also, click the follow button in the upper right-hand corner of this page (mobile users, tap the bell icon – you may have to click ‘News’ first), leave comments below, and follow me on Twitter.