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Justin Jefferson is not-so quietly putting together one of the best seasons ever for a rookie wide receiver. What you probably didn't know is he's actually putting together one of the best, most efficient seasons for any receiver.
Dynasty managers of Justin Jefferson have to be ecstatic with the boom weeks that Jefferson has produced. Putting this into perspective, John Bauer (@TheBauerClub) highlighted how a Y/RR clip of 2.00+ in a receiver's rookie year results in a 91.67% hit rate for the rest of their career. Jefferson's 3.23 Y/RR is the second-highest mark ever. His Defense-adjusted Value Over Average is 54.4% is good for 1st in the league. His catch rate of 78% is good for seventh. His Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement clip also ranks him 1st in the league. His yards after catch per reception (YAC/R) ranks 6th among his peers. His Average YAC/R Above Expectation ranks 2nd in the league. Bottom line: he's been absolutely dominant.
Justin Jefferson is a top-20 receiver in PPR leagues, depending on your scoring format. But somehow, if you've started him every week, you've had some disappointing weeks. Why is that? How can Justin Jefferson put up one of the greatest WR seasons ever and still disappoint? Let's dive in.
Justin Jefferson has been good for fantasy in just 4 of his 10 games this season, but in those games, he's been, overall, pretty damn stellar for fantasy. He has finishes of WR2, WR28, WR1, and WR11. How is he doing it? Clinical, yet unorthodox, route running. This comes from his Week 3 breakout:
This is his best play of the season, and it's fairly simple. As soon as Jefferson realizes he has the soft coverage, he turns on the jets (pun intended) and absolutely cooks the coverage. That third picture exemplifies the moment it was over; the catch was going to be made if Cousins could get it there. Spoiler alert: he did. The result was four yards of separation that was continuing to grow at the catch point. But what makes this catch special is his yards after the catch. Jefferson is virtually impossible to bring down on the first attempt. The picture directly above shows when this play should have ended, but he shakes both defenders and walks it in for a 71-yard score.
This next one is from his dominant Week 10 performance, and while it's a little more difficult to see (because what the hell was happening with the coaches film in this game??), it's just as, if not more, nuanced than the 71-yard TD. Jefferson starts his weird, rocking break right here. He side steps out, before taking a 3-yard stride selling a break to the corner of the end zone.
And here's where we see that. He sells the break to the end zone with the stride. He then put the corner on his heels and cuts back on a dime. Cousins properly recognizes that Jefferson is about to be wide open, and he has already started his wind up. The only surprising thing about this play is that Jefferson didn't break the tackle and find the end zone. Jerry Jeudy gets praise for his route running. It's time to put Jefferson in the conversation of best route runner in this class (and both of them in the conversation for best route runner in the league).
Jefferson's route tree has definitely expanded since the start of this season, but he really makes his money on simple out routes. He doesn't even create a ton of separation, but his style of route running seems to freeze opposing corners for a split second, and Kirk Cousins, even with all his flaws, throws one of the better sideline balls in the NFL. In this fashion, Jefferson has simultaneously operated as a slot receiver getting the underneath stuff and a field-stretcher.
Here's another quick out route. While the set-up is spectacular, it's worth noting that the Bears defense had 9 weeks of film showing almost exclusively all out routes. There's no reason Jefferson should've been able to make the corner bite this much. But he did.
Unfortunately, I cut this video a bit too late, so you miss the release that gets Jefferson to the outside. Essentially though, the corner has been cooked on quick outs the entire game up to this point, so he hesitates just a touch. Jefferson puts a quick hesi on him and breaks outside. But the most important part of this video is how he is able to stave off the coverage with his arm. A lot of the concern, warranted or unwarranted, regarding Jefferson was focused on his inability to play outside. This play, which comes from the Week 3 boom, shows that he is more than capable of being just as dominant on the outside as he is from the slot.
Once again, the bottom line from his boom games is that he's virtually better than every receiver in the NFL. I tried picking bad reps out of these games and truly could not find any. The kid goes 110% every play; he's the Chris Carson of wide receivers, except he has the draft capital to make that effort a little unnecessary. The fact that he still puts the effort in is what separates him from his peers.
The sad fact about Justin Jefferson is the inconsistency in his production; it's incredibly frustrating for fantasy managers, but the oddity here is that Vikings fans can't be too upset: the point differentials when Jefferson receives 5 or more targets compared with him seeing less than 5 targets are within 1 point. To simplify: Jefferson's production isn't tied to team success. "Well if that's the case, how can you say he's been dominant?" Normally, wide receiver production on bad teams is correlated more to losses than wins (more throwing when down); the fact that the Vikings are better when Jefferson receives 5 targets - even if only by 1 point - speaks to how great he is in those games.
But why is he inconsistent? Is it him? Is it game script? Is it Kirk Cousins? Let's see.
The Snap Count
While it's been clear to the general public that Justin Jefferson is the most talented wide receiver on the Vikings (no offense to Adam Thielen), it hasn't quite been clear to the Vikings. In games that Justin Jefferson receives less than 5 targets, he averages 63% of the snaps. In games that Jefferson receives more than 5 targets, he averages 81% of the snaps. What's keeping him off the field?
Simple answer: Minnesota's pass rate in Jefferson's down weeks is 46%, good for second-least in the league. They average just 23 pass attempts (compared to 27 rush attempts) in the weeks Jefferson gets less than five targets. The four games came against Green Bay (twice), Indianapolis, and Detroit. While the anomaly is the Colts, the three teams combine to allow 114.7 rushing yards/game. Because the game against the Colts came in Week 2, before we knew how great their rush defense is, you can assume an answer here: the Vikings put together a game plan and they stick to it. They want to utilize Dalvin Cook, which makes sense since he's arguably the best running back in football in 2020.
In Weeks 1, 2, 8, and 9, Justin Jefferson ran just 78 routes, or about 20 per game. In Weeks 3, 4, 5, 6, and 10, Jefferson ran 158 routes, or about 32 per game. More routes equals significantly more production.
There's nothing that Jefferson does wrong in each of these games that indicate he falls off. Take this play, for example:
Jefferson dusts Jaire Alexander on the in route, but Cousins decides to throw to Irv Smith Jr. a couple seconds later. This play would have gone for 30+ with Jefferson's YAC-ability. I'd guess Kirk recognized it, because he followed this play with a force-feed type of slant route to Jefferson.
Jefferson snagged a catch on this play, and the soft man coverage on the blitz made this an easy read. He looked as sharp as ever, and he was up against one of the best corners in football.
I didn't include any screen captures from other games because, quite frankly, it's all the same. The "Jefferson is inconsistent" take is, well.. simply incorrect. The take should be "the Vikings offensive game plans are inconsistent."
Mike Zimmer and Gary Kubiak are stubborn men. It's fairly easy to tell when the Vikings' game plan favors the run, which helps identify clear passing situations, which, in turn brings down the success rate of passing plays. The EPA of Vikings passing plays when Jefferson gets 5 or more targets is 0.16; in games he gets less than 5 targets, it's 0.11 (Sharp Football Stats). So not only are there less targets to go around, but the easily-identified nature of the offense makes it more difficult for Jefferson to boom.
The issue for fantasy is that, over the next three weeks, the Vikings face defenses that struggle both against the run and the pass; something we haven't seen for this team yet (yes, the Lions are actually good against opposing receivers). Not knowing what the Vikings game plan is makes Jefferson a potentially frustrating must-start every week.
The Silver Lining
The Vikings face Tampa Bay, Chicago, and New Orleans in the fantasy playoffs (Weeks 14-16). They all rank in the top-ten in RB fantasy points against, meaning that the Vikings will likely lean on Kirk Cousins in each of those games. As aforementioned, Justin Jefferson is a frustrating must-start, but I think you'll be pleasantly surprised if you put him in your playoff lineups.
The Final Thoughts
Photo by John Autey/Pioneer Press
Jefferson is matchup proof. He's one of the best receivers, if not the best receiver in the NFL right now. The only thing that can stop him is his own team. If I have one concern for his long-term outlook, it's Kirk Cousins' long-term outlook. And surprisingly, it's not because Kirk Cousins is a detriment to him; in fact, it's the opposite. Kirk Cousins has been able to get the timing down with Jefferson early in his young career - something that can't be understated with the weird style of route running that Jefferson possesses. If Kirk Cousins goes in favor of a young quarterback, we could definitely see a Baker Mayfield-Odell Beckham Jr. issue at first. Speculation aside, Jefferson will widely be considered among the Davante Adams, Michael Thomas, and DeAndre Hopkins crew by the end of 2021, where he will have just turned 22 years old. This kid is a superstar, and the best is yet to come.