The Vikings liked Justin Jefferson so much that they talked about trading up to get him last Thursday night. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was lobbying hard for Jefferson, so he was thrilled when the Eagles chose another receiver and let the former LSU star fall into the Vikings' lap.
It was an easy pick. Wide receiver was an obvious need after the Stefon Diggs trade, and Jefferson had a strong case as the best player available at No. 22 regardless of position. But what is Jefferson bringing to Minnesota? Here's a look at his background, strengths and weaknesses, and more, with help from Sports Illustrated's LSU beat reporter.
It's no secret that Jefferson was lightly recruited coming out of high school. The native of Destrehan, LA was a legacy recruit at LSU, with his older brothers Jordan (quarterback, 2008-11) and Rickey (safety, 2013-16) having played in Baton Rouge. Rivals had Justin as a two-star recruit. 247 Sports gave him three stars, but still had Jefferson outside of their top 200 receivers in the class of 2017. His only other offers were from Northwestern, Tulane, and Nicholls State.
"I was very small, undersized, lightly recruited, the whole thing," Jefferson said. "Definitely didn't think that this would be coming."
According to Glen West, who covers the Tigers for SI's LSU Country, most people assumed Jefferson was a walk-on when he showed up on campus.
"There aren’t many harder harder workers than Justin Jefferson," West said. "He had to start from the bottom on his way to Thursday night’s events. A popular story around the program is that when he first arrived as a freshman in 2017, most of the team thought he was a walk on."
"He’s used that underdog mentality to his advantage as not only did he put up phenomenal numbers on the field, but by 2018, he became a vocal leader for the team. He was Joe Burrow’s go-to guy for two years, something that wouldn’t have happened had he not put in extra work to perform his craft."
Jefferson didn't play as a freshman, but broke out as a sophomore with team-leading numbers: 54 catches for 875 yards. He took things to the next level in Joe Brady's pro-style offense last year, setting an LSU record with 111 catches and finishing with 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns as the Tigers won the national championship.
Jefferson is a highly advanced receiver who offers a little bit of everything.
He's right there with Alabama's Jerry Jeudy (taken at No. 15 overall by the Broncos) as the best route-runner in the 2020 receiver class. Jefferson has a somewhat unorthodox route-running style in which he sets up defensive backs with head fakes and hesitation moves, but it works; he is consistently able to get open and present a target for his quarterback. Jefferson's precise route-running will be crucial in Kubiak's offense.
Jefferson also catches everything, and at 6'1" and 200 pounds, is able to elevate and make contested catches through contact. To round out his skillset, Jefferson offers plenty of speed to stack corners on deep routes or pick up extra yards after the catch.
"I think whether it’s on the outside or in the slot, Jefferson will be able to leave a mark," West said. "He has deceptive speed, as we found out at the combine when he ran a 4.43 40-yard dash. He’s physical, is good at high-pointing the ball, and is an excellent route-runner, all traits receivers need to have success on the outside."
"There were times in 2019 where Burrow would throw it up for grabs because he knew Jefferson would come down with it. I think Kirk Cousins will build that trust early and be able to get Jefferson the ball in space."
When asked for a player comparison, West came up with two names.
"I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see a little Michael Thomas in Jefferson," he said. "He’s a catch machine, much like Thomas with the Saints, hauling in a program-record 111 receptions in 2019. I also see a little Marvin Jones in his game. The size and build are very similar. but I do think you’ll see Jefferson be a high volume receiver more to Thomas’s nature than Jones."
The biggest question mark when it comes to Jefferson's NFL future is his ability to separate from press coverage on the boundary. Jefferson played on the outside in 2018, but moved to the slot last season in Brady's five-wide sets and reaped the benefits. However, the Vikings are confident that he'll have the versatility to play both the slot and on the outside.
Even when he played outside in 2018, Jefferson didn't face much press coverage. He'll have to work on his release package at the line of scrimmage to ensure that he can separate from press. That's something that Diggs became incredible at over his Vikings career.
Jefferson should step into the Vikings' No. 2 receiver role behind Adam Thielen right away. Neither Tajae Sharpe nor Bisi Johnson offer anything close to the all-around skillset and athleticism of Jefferson, so it would be shocking to see him fail to secure that No. 2 job as a rookie. The pairing of Thielen and Jefferson will give Kubiak two skilled route-runners with the versatility to move all over the formation.
Jefferson won't be as good as Diggs in 2020 and won't provide the same type of deep threat for Cousins. However, he's got a chance to be an excellent No. 2 receiver right away and to quickly develop into a star in the NFL.
The Vikings found themselves a heck of a player.
Thanks to Glen West for helping out with this article. Follow him on Twitter @glenwest21.
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