Following up a sensational debut is an inherently difficult task. Whether it's an artist with a Grammy-winning album, a director with a brilliant film, or an NFL wide receiver with a 1,400-yard rookie season, the second act comes loaded with the pressure of expectations. Anything short of the bar they've set can be seen as a disappointment, even when the bar was placed at a level most people in their profession never reach.
Justin Jefferson knows that. He's heard about it ever since he shattered records in his incredible debut season for the Vikings, and the first press conference of his second training camp featured plenty of questions about a potential "sophomore slump" and how to avoid it.
The 22-year-old from LSU likes to think about it a different way. All of the things he accomplished in 2020 happened in a uniquely challenging year to be a rookie — no OTAs in the spring, no preseason games, all kinds of unusual protocols caused by COVID-19. Then, once the regular season rolled around, he wasn't a starter until the third game.
Jefferson's point is this: imagine what he can do in a year where none of that will be an issue.
"I just feel way more comfortable going into this season," he said. "I didn't know what to expect last season, then me starting Week 3, I mean, everything was just so inconvenient last year. Now going into this year, having a whole year with Kirk and the rest of the guys on this team, I feel way more confident. I feel like I’m going to do even better than I did last year.”
A traditional offseason, one he spent working on his perceived weaknesses and strengthening connections with his teammates, was a welcome change for Jefferson. But that doesn't mean he's just going to show up and replicate or exceed the success he enjoyed as a rookie. Now that's he's shown what he's capable of, he's not going to take anyone by surprise in 2021. Opposing defensive coordinators are going to do everything they can to slow him down.
That might take the form of things like double coverage and schemes designed to limit his effectiveness. The risk defenses run by taking that approach is that Jefferson plays on an offense loaded with other dynamic weapons: Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, Irv Smith Jr., and new addition Dede Westbrook, among others.
Thus, what could end up happening this year is that Jefferson's volume statistics dip slightly due to increased defensive attention, but the Vikings' offense gets better as a whole.
"Teams are probably going to start rolling coverage to him, double coverage to him, so in some of these instances, he just can't get frustrated because that's happening," Mike Zimmer said. "Now his numbers might be better or worse, I don't know, but he's helping the team because one of those guys that's doubling him now isn't in the box for Cook to run against or against Irv Smith or against Thielen to go 1 on 1 with. Part of it is just him understanding that even though they're double covering me, I'm helping this football team. And then you've gotta be able to move him to try to get some of the doubles off of him, try to split some of the doubles, and there's ways to beat doubles too."
At the same time, the presence of those other weapons may actually prevent teams from doubling Jefferson, even if they'd like to.
"Good luck, because we've got three, four, five other weapons," fellow LSU product Patrick Peterson said. "I think you'll have to play him honestly, and if you do try to double him you'll just open the door for (the others). I believe it's going to be kind of difficult to try to cover him differently this year. You just have to roll with the punches and hope he drops them."
Regardless of what kind of coverage he faces, Jefferson is talented enough to continue producing at an All-Pro level in his second season. Nothing he did in 2020 suggests that his performance was a fluke. He dominated with crafty releases off of the line of scrimmage, using subtle adjustments to fool corners. He's already one of the best route-runners in the NFL; Jefferson has seemingly perfected his basketball crossover-esque style of setting up changes of direction. Add in his 4.4 speed, ability to elevate for contested catches, and playmaking prowess after the catch, and he's got virtually the entire package.
The thread that ties everything together and allows Jefferson to maximize his physical tools is how smart he is. His understanding of leverage and what corners are trying to do against him is well beyond his years. Peterson has covered elite receivers in the league for a decade, so he knows one when he sees one.
"Justin, although he's in his second season, he runs his routes like a savvy vet," Peterson said. "He makes everything look the same. When you have a guy that comes into the league at that age and gets it right away, he's going to be very special."
The numbers Jefferson put up as a 21-year-old rookie in a weird COVID year were absurd. He finished fourth in the NFL in receiving yards despite being 18th in targets. He was second in the league in yards per route run, second in PFF grade among wide receivers, and third among WRs in Football Outsiders' DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement). Those statistics are all backed up by what he put on tape.
There will be plenty of people who primarily focus on receiving yardage, and as mentioned earlier, there's a chance that number goes down this year. It's hard to reach 1,400 yards in an NFL season; only five players have done it in back-to-back years since 2010.
But then again, who knows? If he stays healthy, Jefferson could go from 14 starts last year to 17 this year. Randy Moss and Odell Beckham Jr., two other rookie receivers who took the world by storm, each increased their production by 100 or more yards in their second season (Moss went from 1,313 yards to 1,413 and OBJ went from 1,305 to 1,450). Jefferson also has room for positive regression in the touchdown department, as he only scored seven times last season while Cook and Thielen racked up TDs.
Jefferson has spoken a lot about his increased confidence this year, but don't mistake that for overconfidence or cockiness. Yes, he's now an NFL superstar and arguably the face of the Vikings' franchise, but he's still going to work hard and stick to what got him here.
"I haven’t seen him change at all," said offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak. "His demeanor and mindset is the same. Such a humble guy, quiet worker. He asks good questions and he takes coaching. If he makes an error, he fixes it. He doesn’t make the same mistake twice."
The focus for Jefferson this offseason has been working on his balance and body control, specifically "being stronger in my stance and getting in and out of my breaks," he said. He worked out with other precision route-runners like Stefon Diggs and Jarvis Landry this offseason, and now he's working closely with receivers coach and former longtime NFL wideout Keenan McCardell on things he can add to his game.
Jefferson is still getting better, which is a scary thing to think about. But putting together a sophomore campaign that lives up to the standards of his debut won't be about making any drastic changes. It'll be about continuing to do what made him so great the first time around.
"If he were to have the exact same season he had last year and do it like 12 or 13 times, he’s probably going to Canton, I would guess," Kirk Cousins said. "I’m not saying that to put pressure on him, I’m just saying when you talk about ‘what’s the next step?’ it’s not changing who he is, it’s doing it again. And then doing it again, and then doing it again and I think it’s more about consistency than it is about changing. That’s what I’ve challenged him to do, that’s what he’ll be challenging himself to do, but I think the key is also don’t try to change anything or reinvent yourself. You’re a great player and just keep doing it."
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