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The Beautiful Rookie Season of Vikings Receiver Justin Jefferson

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Is This Man Really a Rookie?

There is no other way to put it other than to say that Minnesota Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson is “the real deal”. During the 2019 NFL season, Minnesota wasted impressive talent en route to a bad year for Kirk Cousins and the Vikings offense. However, in 2020, the Vikings have been able to improve their air game, finding stability amidst a productive year on the ground.

Last year, one of the best pass-catching duos was aboard in Minneapolis. However, despite having Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, the Vikings finished merely 23rd in passing yards. The unit did so much damage that even the sixth-best running group managed to get the offense’s production to just the middle of the pack. To make matters worse, Diggs, their number one playmaker, seemingly wanted out of Minnesota.

Enter new Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson

The following offseason saw a huge change happen up north. Firstly, Minnesota traded Diggs to the Buffalo Bills in exchange for a first-round pick in the 2020 Draft. It was scheduled to be the 22nd overall, which the Vikings used to draft Jefferson out of LSU. Jefferson was thought to be amongst the best high-profile prospects in the draft. Yet, few had anticipated him to be as successful as he has been through 14 weeks of football. This could have been predicted, though, as his career in the SEC was very impressive.

Thanks to this selection, the Vikings have climbed the rankings in both passing offense and overall offensive production. As of Week 14, Minnesota has gained the 17th-most yards per game through the air. Furthermore, the team is seventh in total yards per game – up from 16th a year ago. With the continuing dominance of Dalvin Cook, even a slight improvement through the air has resulted in great offensive capabilities.

So, needless to say, trading an important receiving asset turned into a productive and fruitful deal, perhaps for both teams. Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson has become Minnesota’s most-reliable target in the air game…as a rookie, but what part of his performance raises his productivity to such high levels?

College Workload Sets up Pro Success

It’s no secret that Jefferson has excelled as a top receiver during his last year with the Tigers. However, his workload gave so much credibility to his other numbers that he was set up for success more than any pass-catcher in the draft. This includes the big trio of first-rounders – CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy, and Henry Ruggs III.

Jefferson finished his senior year as the top pass-catcher in NCAA Division I with 111 receptions. Meanwhile, catch percentage is not available for college football stats on most websites. Nevertheless, such an impressive workload goes to prove his consistency. This went on to set his success as a trend that could continue on the pro level.

Here is another piece of evidence of how useful workload is in the pre-draft player analysis. Jefferson was one of just four Division-one receivers with more than 100 receptions in 2019. All four declared for the draft and, eventually, reached the NFL. Michael Pittman has recently stood out for the Colts, building up his bid for the best receiver in the draft.

Devin Duvernay, at the same time, hasn’t had that role. However, he proves that a high workload in Power-Five play makes for efficiency in the pro game. Duvernay has caught 19 of 24 targets – 79 percent. Only Baltimore’s James Proche, who has had just 3 targets all season, hasn’t enjoyed the same success rate.

This could be an eye-opener for front offices around the NFL to evaluate the potential for consistency more efficiently. Jeudy, the closest to Jefferson in terms of receptions, had nearly 30 less than the LSU powerhouse. Lamb had 62 while Ruggs had 40 in a split receiving core with Jeudy in Alabama. Both Ruggs and Jeudy might deserve the benefit of the doubt due to their equal role with the Tide. Nonetheless, all three had fewer catches than Jefferson and Justin has outplayed all three thus far in 2020.

Ironically, Ruggs and Jeudy did marginally worse than Lamb when compared to Jefferson. Ruggs has caught merely 60 percent of his 38 targets. Moreover, Jeudy’s figures are even more head-scratching – he has a 49% catch percentage on 86 targets. Lamb was the closest of the three with 61 catches on the same number of targets as Jefferson. Yet, Jeudy and Ruggs have been much worse than Jefferson, despite being drafted higher.

Efficiency Is the Name of the Game

As mention above, Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson has made about as flawless of a transition to the NFL as humanly possible. He has been better than almost any rookie receiver and far better than any pass-catcher on the Vikes’ roster. The figures that show the improvement he brought to the team most avidly? Once again, workload and efficiency.

Jefferson currently leads the team in targets and receptions and has a catch percentage of over 70.0%. While Thielen has played a game less overall, Jefferson has started a game less than Thielen. This balances out their role, proving just how valuable to the Vikings offense he has been in 2020. Cousins relies on Jefferson on almost a quarter of his passing attempts. Minnesota only has two receivers with more than 30 receptions. Therefore, his performance has perhaps been the biggest catalyst en route to their impressive 2020 improvement.

His turnout is also dramatically more positive when you compare it to the pass-catcher he replaced. Last winter, Stefon Diggs had 94 targets and 63 catches for the whole campaign (one missed game). In addition, he had a catch percentage of 67.0%. This is solid but still three points below Jefferson’s accomplishment. This time around, Jefferson is just two targets behind with three games to go. Therefore, it is a certainty that Jefferson will have a bigger role while being more efficient. This has had the biggest impact on the Vikings’ air resurgence. Furthermore, this will continue to be that way if Jefferson keeps up his catch percentage and workload rates.

Therefore, the factors of workload and efficiency have stood out as the prime for a WR’s transition. General managers and front offices have not always thought that way and Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson further proves that fact. He has been able to catch an exceptional amount of throws while taking on the biggest workload within the team. This amounted to a considerable statistical improvement in the passing unit as a whole. Moreover, it also establishes him as a consistent pass-catcher whose success should be sustainable.

Thanks for reading my article discussing the Rise of Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson. Follow me on Twitter @TeodorTsenov for more of my content and follow @OT_Heroics!

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Teodor Tsenov is a writer in the NFL Department of Overtime Heroics. Teodor joined the media in March 2020, previously writing for Franchise Sports UK. Also a second-year International Sport Management student at The Hague University of Applied Sciences in Den Haag, the Netherlands. Originally from Sofia, Bulgaria.