Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
In years past the Minnesota Vikings would have been more than a dozen practices into training camp by the middle of August and we would have had a strong sense for how the depth chart was going to shape out. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the NFL offseason schedule, the Vikings just completed their fifth practice on Wednesday and third in pads.
Suffice to say, there is still plenty to be decided, including how big a role first-round pick Justin Jefferson will play in this year’s offense.
“I was just talking to some of the other rookie receivers and we were just saying how we’re going to go straight into Week 1, we don’t have any time to really start it up or get comfortable,” Jefferson said this week.
Through the early stages of camp Jefferson has looked pretty comfortable, impressing onlookers while working with the starters in a slot role and with the second-teamers as an outside receiver. As a college star at LSU more than 90% of his targets came when lined up in the slot, which offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has acknowledged is the area where he is strongest.
“It’s very encouraging, he’s exactly what we drafted,” Kubiak said. “We knew he’s a very talented young man that had a comfort zone in the slot because he did that a lot. I play him a little bit of everywhere, teaching him my offense, understanding schemes and what we’re doing but very good route runner....when you sit there and talk routes and stuff, this kid’s very knowledgeable.”
As a top draft pick, Jefferson has the long-term potential to be Stefon Diggs’s replacement in the Vikings’ offense but the question is whether he can adapt in short order and play significant snaps across from Pro Bowler Adam Thielen right away or if the Vikings will have to work their rookie into the mix slowly.
“I think the ability to jump in and out of that [slot] role and be versatile is part of what is exciting about his ability,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said.
Last year the Vikings methodically brought rookie Irv Smith Jr. into the offense, targeting him just eight times in the first six weeks and then throwing his way 41 times over the final 10 weeks. That might be the case with Jefferson, who joins a Vikings offense that used three-receiver sets less than any other team in the NFL last year.
In general we rarely see rookie receivers become stars out of the slot right away. The 2019 draft class leader in slot targets was Oakland’s Hunter Renfroe with 42. He ranked 29th in the NFL in slot targets overall. The slot requires reading defenses in an eyeblink and rookie receivers often have a difficult time mastering NFL playbooks and technical requirements, even if they played in a complex college offense like Jefferson did at LSU.
However, offensive coordinators have recently found ways to construct effective jobs for first-year playmakers. Ten rookie receivers had more than 50 targets last season, including AJ Brown and Deebo Samuel, who each ranked in the top 10 in yards after catch. Jefferson has a chance to follow the same path after ranking fourth in the 2020 draft class in forced missed tackles (per Pro Football Focus). He also ran a blazing 4.43 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine.
“He seems to have a knack for knowing where the open areas are,” Zimmer said. “You can just tell in his route running that some things come really natural to him.”
While the Vikings do not have the benefit of a full offseason to prepare Jefferson, they do have other proven receiving options to ease the pressure. Smith Jr. is expected to line up all over the field and play a hybrid receiver/tight end role, Bisi Johnson has been the No. 2 receiver with the starters thus far after emerging in 2019 when Thielen suffered a hamstring injury and Dalvin Cook finished last season in the top 10 in receptions among running backs.
Still outside expectations are very high. ESPN’s Mike Clay has Jefferson projected to grab 56 passes this season. PFF also is projecting 50-plus grabs.
“He's a natural catcher of the football, he tracks the ball well, he has a great catch radius, he can adjust to the ball when it's not thrown as catchable as you want and making those awkward difficult catches... Those are some of the traits you see but there's a lot of work to just get more familiar and comfortable where you can just go play and not have to think,” Cousins said.
No matter how many camp compliments Jefferson receives, no fanbase understands the old saying, “potential means that you haven’t done anything yet,” better than Vikings followers. The last two first-round receivers the organization has drafted ended up as busts. Troy Williamson caught just 79 passes in three seasons and Laquon Treadwell ended his Minnesota career with 65 grabs. But neither Williamson or Treadwell had the combination of athleticism and college production that Jefferson brings to the table.
We will learn a lot more about the Vikings’ first-round pick in the coming weeks. Teams are expected to ramp up the intensity and he will have a shot to shine and show the Vikings’ coaching staff that he can be that type of impact player that makes Cousins miss Diggs a little less in 2020. But if he isn’t in Diggs’s spot on September 13 against the Green Bay Packers, it won’t be time to panic.
“We have to continue to get more reps, get more plays together, find out where he's most comfortable and certainly keep him in that comfort zone early in the season and continue to grow his plate where as the year goes on we're asking him to handle anything and everything and hopefully he can handle it,” Cousins said.