A Look at the Ceiling: How Good Will Justin Jefferson Be?
The 2020 rookie receiver class was touted as one of the best in NFL history. Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, Jalen Reagor, Justin Jefferson, and Brandon Aiyuk were all drafted in the first round. We also had Tee Higgins, Chase Claypool, Michael Pittman, and many others drafted in the second round and later.
Many of these players had outstanding rookie seasons. But out of all of them, Jefferson shone the brightest. Jefferson broke the NFL record for most receiving yards by a rookie with 1400, on his way to a Pro Bowl and 2nd team All-Pro selection. He looked the part of an elite receiver his rookie season, and the expectations for his career have been set high.
Since the NFL merger in 1970, 19 rookie receivers have crossed the 1000 yard mark. Only five of the 18 receivers before Jefferson did not make a Pro Bowl after their rookie season. If we look at the rookies who crossed 1000 yards after 2010, every single one made a Pro Bowl after their rookie season except for Kelvin Benjamin. This puts Jefferson in very good company historically.
Furthermore, only five receivers on this list put up these numbers as a 21-year-old rookie. Amari Cooper, Keenan Allen, Mike Evans, and Hall of Famer Randy Moss are the other four. Jefferson’s rookie season has put him in the same conversation with many exceptional receivers, and so, it is only fair to expect similar production from him in the future.
Randy Moss and Odell Beckham Jr are arguably the only rookies who had a better season than Jefferson did last year. Moss is one of the best of all time, while Beckham started his career with three straight seasons with 1300+ yards and 10+ touchdowns before injuries derailed his production. These are the historical comparisons Jefferson has earned after his rookie season, and only time will tell if he will continue on this pace.
Jefferson had 1400 yards in 2020 which was third-best among receivers. However, that wasn’t the only category that he posted elite numbers in. Per Pro-Football-Reference, Jefferson was ninth with 15.9 yards per reception, tenth with 58 first downs, fourth with 11.2 yards per target, and sixth with 87.5 yards per game. If you only take his 14 starts, he had 95 yards per game, which would have been third best. Jefferson also finished with a 90.4 PFF grade, which was second in the league. It was also the second-best rookie receiver grade since 2006, with only Beckham being better. Per Next Gen Stats, Jefferson had the most yards over expected out of any skill position player in the league.
Jefferson used a combination of top-level route running and yards after the catch to get these results. Per Next Gen Stats, Jefferson was fourth in Average YAC over Expectation with 1.9 yards, and first in Yards per Route with 3.3. PFF also ranked Jefferson second with 2.66 yards per route run. Against press coverage, Jefferson was first with 3.4 yprr, and he was second in the slot with 3.0 yprr. A great breakdown of Jefferson’s route running was done by Brett Kollman on his Youtube channel.
Jefferson’s skill set is something that should carry over in future years as well. His intelligence pre and post-snap to adjust his routes were already among the best, despite only being a rookie. And if you aren’t yet convinced at how good Jefferson was his rookie season, consider this. He replaced Adam Thielen, who was a top 10-15 receiver, as the number one receiver on the Vikings. He was drafted to replace Stefon Diggs, and in his rookie season he put up a better season than Diggs ever had in Minnesota.
It’s fair to expect some regression next season from Jefferson. The Vikings want to be a run-heavy offense, and with a much-improved defense, that should be more of the case in 2021. 1400 yards is not an easy feat to achieve, especially when he’s splitting targets with Thielen in a run-first offense. However, even with lower volume, expect the efficiency to stay the same for Jefferson, if not improve. As we’ve seen, recent rookie receivers who have crossed 1000 yards usually continue to put up multiple other good seasons. Jefferson, who had more yards than any rookie, should continue to be in Pro Bowl and All-Pro conversations.
In 2014 we saw Beckham be a rookie sensation, and follow it up with elite production before injuries. We’ve seen Evans, Allen, and Cooper all be great receivers in the league as well. Michael Thomas broke the receptions record and won Offensive Player of the Year in 2019. These are the type of players Jefferson has put himself into a conversation with, and until proven otherwise, we should expect similar production out of him in the future.