The Minnesota Vikings traded away one of the top receivers in the league over the offseason. How does that trade look following four weeks?
The rumblings of star wide receiver Stefon Diggs being unhappy with the Minnesota Vikings early in the 2019 season were far from a secret. After a rough start to the season on offense, Diggs was fined for missing meetings and practices in October. It led to trade rumors about possibly being moved before the trade deadline.
Diggs finished the 2019 season with the Vikings, but the rumors continued to circulate into the offseason. Only two seasons into a five-year contract, Minnesota traded Diggs to the Buffalo Bills in March of 2020. One of the draft picks that the Vikings received from Buffalo was a first-round pick in 2020 (No. 22 overall). With that first-round pick, the team drafted LSU wide receiver, Justin Jefferson.
After spending his final season at LSU working primarily out of the slot, many analysts pegged him as a slot receiver in the NFL. Jefferson played on the boundary in 2018 and led the Tigers with 54 receptions for 875 yards and six touchdowns. Like the rest of the LSU playmakers, Jefferson had a breakout season in 2019 with 111 receptions for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns.
The craft that they put into their route running is what makes Diggs and Jefferson so similar. Diggs remains one of the best route runners in the NFL, which led to his stardom in Minnesota. To replace such a talent, the Vikings brought in a receiver with the versatility to play both on the boundary or in the slot, and who is highly advanced with route running technique.
Jefferson has hauled in 16 receptions for 348 yards and a touchdown through the first quarter of the season. Largely quiet the first two weeks against the Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts, the rookie wideout broke free the following two weeks against the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans for a combined 11 receptions for 278 yards and a touchdown.
How did Justin Jefferson become an early star in Minnesota?
One of the first things someone will notice when watching Jefferson in the Vikings offense is his alignment pre-snap. After spending his senior season in LSU's legendary offense working out of the slot, Jefferson saw only five snaps working there against the Titans and Texans. Only six of his snaps between the two games was he stacked with another receiver. Most of his snaps came from the left boundary, with a handful of each game lining up on the right side of the field.
Head coach Mike Zimmer is an old-fashioned coach who wants to move the ball on the ground and play elite defense. In 2019, the Vikings ran the ball the 5th most attempts per game. His team continues to be a run-heavy team in 2020, dropping the game's attempts from 29 to 28. Unfortunately, the defense has taken a dive giving up 28 plus points in the first three games.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins has fluctuated passing attempts between 22-27 through the first four games. Based on all of this, for Jefferson to put up big numbers, he has to produce the limited opportunities he is given consistently. Unlike most offenses seen in today's NFL, the Vikings play out of "12" and "21" personnel. Instead of spreading everyone out to win with athleticism, Minnesota wants to bully you with bigger personnel.
Jefferson lines up primarily on the boundary, but many of his reps come lined up inside the numbers and close to the formation. While the rookie receiver is not lining up in the slot with another receiver outside of him, he does line up in the same general area that a slot receiver would in a spread offense. It provides him with more options for release packages and room to work throughout his route instead of limiting him to the sideline.
Cornerbacks have a harder time predicting what route Jefferson is running due to his alignment. If he were lined up on or outside the numbers and took an outside release, it would tell the defender that he would likely run either a fade or a comeback route. Taking that same outside release, but inside the numbers, provides more room between him and the sideline leaving more variables for the cornerback to account for during the play.
For example, in this play, Jefferson is lined up on the left side of the offense but close to the formation that features two tight ends. By his alignment, notice how he has room to use that skip step release to the outside and still have room to break outside without running out of bounds.
He does an excellent job of keeping Malcolm Butler guessing and off of his frame. Selling vertical for just a split second before breaking at the top of his route makes Butler think he's running a fade and slightly off-balance making it hard for him to stay on his hip through the outside break.
Route running technique is usually something that receivers develop once they get to the NFL. While it's becoming more common in recent years for a handful of rookie receivers to be advanced in this area, it's still rare. The "Out" route and "Dig" routes are two that most rookie wide receivers struggle to get separation against NFL competition.
The ability to sell vertical and accelerate out of his breaks make these routes arguably his best, and extremely difficult for man-covering corners to keep up with him. Even off-man coverage defenders struggle to keep up with him. In the clip above, the rookie attacks the defensive backs cushion aggressively, keeping him on his heels and uncomfortable. With a sudden break to the outside, the defender is left stumbling.
Not only the athleticism, but understanding when to look back to the quarterback without giving away your route is truly impressive. Speaking of the mental side of the game, here is a great clip of Jefferson displaying his knowledge of coverages and how to gain leverage.
Texans cornerback Vernon Hargreaves is lined up over top in a soft press-man coverage technique. He quickly moves to his right to gain leverage over the outside knowing he has help from the middle of the field safety. Taking away the outside release is his first objective.
Jefferson sells that he's running a quick slant by breaking inside and taking a quick glimpse back to the quarterback before breaking upfield and out. Hargreaves takes the bait and changes his path to jump the crossing route allowing Jefferson to break upfield and create separation. Panicking, the cornerback tries to grab ahold of him but still can't keep up. Flattening his route after his final break toward the outside to keep distance between him and the safety, Jefferson picks up a 26 yard gain.
We know that Justin Jefferson can win with savvy route running and athletic ability but what about contested situations? Let's just ask Malcolm Butler what he thinks following the play below.
Using the skip step off the line of scrimmage, Jefferson gains information on how Butler is going to react giving clues to the coverage he is in. It also allowed him to get a half a step ahead of Butler to keep him from trying to squeeze the route to the sideline. While Butler stays on his hip, Jefferson utilizes outstanding adjustment and explosiveness to turn and pluck the ball over Butler's head on this back shoulder fade route.
In just the first quarter of Jefferson's rookie season he has shown that he is more than capable of competing outside or from the slot. The LSU product brings size, physicality, quickness, savvy route running, and great hands to make catches anywhere around his frame. Whether he's lined up in the slot or on the boundary, facing press-man coverage, off-man, or zone, he can get open.
How can we be sure that this small sample size of success is sustainable?
Over the last two games, it's clear that Kirk Cousins has full confidence in his rookie wide receiver. Houston went out of their way to provide extra attention on Jefferson as early as the second quarter by stacking him with two defenders on multiple plays. That worked in favor of fellow Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen, who in return saw more 1v1 reps against the Texans. Thielen hauled in eight receptions for 114 yards and a touchdown in that game.
As far as whether or not Jefferson can handle the extra attention, he still hauled in four passes for 103 yards on five targets. For additional context, Cousins threw an interception on the first play of the second half that was too far behind his receiver leading to conservative throws for most of the second half. You could count on one hand how many times he targeted his two star receivers in the second half of that game. Yet, both receivers walked away with over 100 yards on the day each.
In the two explosive productions Jefferson put together, neither were a fluke. It wasn't that Minnesota was drawing up gadget style plays to get him the ball or using trickery to scheme him open. Instead, the rookie created his own separation to break open and earn the targets from Cousins. When a receiver can create his own separation in a multitude of ways, they will continue to put up production.
Following the Week 4 games, Jefferson ranks eighth in receiving yards, which also ranks the highest among rookie receivers. During that same four weeks, the rookie receiver leads the league in yards per route run (3.70).
In Week 5, Minnesota is traveling to take on the Seattle Seahawks who have given up more yards to receivers than any other team, and it's not particularly close. Diggs isn't the only receiver leading the league in 20 plus yard targets. His replacement in Minnesota is the only other receiver to be targeted eight times that far downfield.
Jefferson will be hard to find on the waiver wire after his second straight 100-yard performance, but if he's available, he's a steal. Seriously, call the cops on yourself. If you grabbed him off the waiver wire or had him on your team following the draft, continue to start him in your lineup.
While Jefferson hasn't quite hit Stefon Diggs level of play, he's flashing the ability to become just as good in due time. Minnesota might have just gotten out of paying for high dollar production and instead is paying for similar production on a rookie contract.