Vikings Looking to Get Justin Jefferson More Involved in the Offense
Coming into this season, Vikings rookie Justin Jefferson was faced with the daunting task of replacing one of the league's best receivers.
It was never fair to expect the 21-year-old LSU product to come close to matching the production of Stefon Diggs, especially with a truncated offseason and no preseason games with which to get acclimated to the NFL. But it has still been startling to see Diggs tied for the league lead with 239 receiving yards as a key part of the 2-0 Buffalo Bills while Jefferson has gotten off to a fairly slow start with the 0-2 Vikings.
Heading into Week 3, Jefferson has caught five of his six targets for 70 yards, dropping one pass. He has done everything asked of him and shown several flashes of the talent that made him a first-round pick in April's draft. There are two main reasons for his limited statistical production: the Vikings simply haven't run many offensive plays, and when they have, Adam Thielen has commanded roughly a third of Kirk Cousins' targets.
As they look to bounce back from an ugly start on both sides of the ball this weekend against the Titans, the Vikings know getting Jefferson more involved is a good way to inject some life into their offense. Cousins' passer rating when targeting him is 115.3, which is far and away the highest mark on the team. It's a small sample size, but good things have happened when the ball has gone Jefferson's way.
“I think Justin’s done a good job," Mike Zimmer said. "He’s still getting in the mix, he’s still learning – like a lot of our young guys, the learning curve is steep – but he’s very, very talented, and when he does get the ball in his hands, I think you see that.”
Back in April, the Vikings were over the moon when Jefferson fell to them with the 22nd overall pick. He blew up with a 1,500-yard, 18-touchdown season in 2019 for the national champion Tigers, and quelled any concerns about his speed by clocking a 4.43 40 at the combine. Zimmer, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, and GM Rick Spielman loved his route-running and contested catch skills, as well as his versatility to play on the outside or in the slot alongside Thielen in Minnesota's offense.
Early on in training camp, it became clear that Jefferson was as good as advertised. Even before the pads came on, he had built a highlight reel filled with impressive catches. Kubiak described Jefferson as "exactly what we drafted," lauding his work ethic and intelligence. He continued to make plays during the couple weeks of camp that were open to the media.
Given all of the hype that comes with being a first-round pick, there are undoubtedly those who are disappointed by Jefferson's minimal involvement in the offense so far. His six targets give him two fewer than Bisi Johnson – the 2019 seventh-round pick who is his primary competition for snaps – and tie him with backup running back Alexander Mattison for third-most on the team. But considering Jefferson's undeniable talent and the improvement that will come as he continues to get more and more comfortable in the offense, bigger days are ahead.
"He’s such a great guy, a great teammate and somebody who wants to be great," Thielen said. "Those are the guys you want in your room. Those are the guys you want to be around, that love to play the game and are continually trying to get better. So I’m excited for him to get more opportunities to show what he can do and show what he showed us all through training camp and so far this season in practice."
Time of possession has been a major issue for the Vikings so far. They set a franchise-low with an 18:44 mark against the Packers in Week 1 and only boosted that number to 21:35 last Sunday. As a result, the offense ranks dead last in the NFL in total plays and Cousins trails everyone but Lamar Jackson in pass attempts among quarterbacks who have played two full games.
"I think you’re going to see more and more of him," Kubiak said of Jefferson. "Much like Dalvin [Cook], much like Adam, you want to get touches for those type of football players. And with the amount of plays we’ve been running, touches are hard to come by. So we’ve got to go find some snaps."
If the Vikings are able to sustain drives and run more plays starting on Sunday, more opportunities will naturally come Jefferson's way. But another big part of it is continuing to develop a rapport with Cousins. It's been pretty obvious that the Vikings' quarterback only truly trusts Thielen right now, as he's been tentative to force things to other targets like he has to his No. 1 option.
Jefferson knows that it takes time to build that trust. He's been working with Cousins for just a couple months because of the unique nature of this offseason, so there's still plenty of room for growth in that connection.
“It starts at practice," Jefferson said. "Just being at practice and finding that connection with Kirk, for him to really just rely on me through the tough times and those contested throws. As long as I’m out here making those plays, he can get more comfortable with throwing the ball to me.”
It'll be interesting to see if Kubiak and the Vikings make a concerted effort to get Jefferson more involved going forward. He's played on just 61 percent of the offensive snaps so far, trailing both Thielen (92 percent) and Johnson (71 percent) among the wide receiver corps. Johnson has a year of experience under his belt and is a good player, but Jefferson has significantly more upside and big-play potential.
This Sunday's game could be a good time for a breakout performance. The Titans have allowed the tenth-most passing yards per game in the early season and rookie slot cornerback Chris Jackson ranks dead last out of 108 qualifying corners in PFF grade. Jefferson played almost exclusively out of the slot for LSU last year and has seen plenty of his snaps come from that alignment so far.
The Vikings, who have scored just one touchdown prior to the fourth quarter in two games, need to generate a spark on offense. Getting the ball in the hands of their first-round pick is a good way to do that.
"I'm here to make those big plays and bring a lot of excitement to this organization," Jefferson said. "We just have to do a lot more different stuff to get the ball in different peoples' hands and let the playmakers work."
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