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Cooper Kupp just backed up one of the best receiving seasons of all time with one of the most clutch Super Bowl performances of all time. With Odell Beckham Jr. watching from the sideline and the Bengals defense surely knowing that Kupp would be getting the ball on the Rams’ final drive, Kupp made four catches, drew three penalties, rushed for a first down and caught the game-winning touchdown to propel the Rams to a Super Bowl win.

The Rams ended the season how they operated throughout: Unabashedly feeding Kupp despite immense attention being paid his way. Every opposing coach had to answer questions in press conferences about his presence, yet only one team (Arizona, twice) held him to fewer than 90 yards all season. Kupp threatened 2,000 yards thanks to a league-high 189 targets, 23 more than the next closest players and 26 more than the Vikings’ Justin Jefferson.

The offensive coordinator with a front row seat to watch Kupp’s historic season will be inheriting Jefferson and the Vikings offense in 2022, so it’s natural to wonder what Kevin O’Connell could do to ratchet up Jefferson’s production to Cooper Kupp levels.

First, a quick comparison.

It’s not as if the Rams just threw the ball more than any other team and Kupp was the beneficiary. Far from it. The Rams were just 10th in passing attempts, tossing only three more passes than the Vikings all season. (It helps that they could sit on some late leads unlike Minnesota.)

So out of a similar sample of passing attempts, Jefferson finished 331 yards behind Kupp and caught 37 fewer balls in the same number of games. On a per play basis, Kupp had advantages in yards per route run (3.12 to 2.59) and YAC per reception (5.9 to 4.6). While Jefferson’s insane athleticism makes him tough to bring down, Kupp was quite a bit more elusive with 24 missed tackles forced against Jefferson’s nine, helping his yards after catch.

Kupp feasted on short and intermediate routes, while Jefferson had the edge in downfield receiving. Jefferson tied for the league lead in deep targets with 39; Kupp tied for 17th with 23. As a result, Jefferson’s average depth of target was almost five yards more than Kupp’s, and his yards per reception was 1.4 yards better.

To visualize it more effectively, here are eight of Jefferson’s reception charts via NFL Next Gen Stats with eight of Kupp’s games below that. With Jefferson, you can easily see his field stretching ability at work with flowing, criss-crossing lines downfield. Kupp almost always has a cluster around or close to the line of scrimmage.

Jefferson Charts
Kupp Charts

There’s obvious value in finding ways to win quick routes with your best receivers as the Rams have done with Kupp and the Packers with Davante Adams. But the Vikings struggled with their quick concepts last year, which could be an indictment of scheme or Kirk Cousins’ decision to throw those passes against bad looks.

If O’Connell can engage Jefferson as a meaningful threat in the short passing game, that’s great, but his greatest value will still be derived primarily in his pristine route-running and downfield prowess that turns defensive coordinators’ hair gray. Inevitably, those deeper routes are going to be harder to complete, but their impact on the game is huge. Jefferson had 12 deep receptions (20 yards or more) with an EPA better than 4.0, while Kupp only had 10.

The best question to ask might be: Where can Jefferson find those extra targets to get him on Kupp’s level? Assuming the same reception percentage and yards per reception, Jefferson would’ve added 255 yards to his total with the same number of targets as Kupp last year (which, if you remember, was a difference of 26).

Asking for 26 more targets doesn’t seem like a lot — only 1.5 per game. So where within the games was Jefferson underutilized last season?

If you look at Kupp’s target share by quarter, he was utilized most in the second and fourth quarters, per Pro Football Reference, which is usually when teams have the most urgency on offense, like the Rams did in Super Bowl LVI. Comparatively, Jefferson’s target load decreased in those critical moments last season.

Targets by quarter (Kupp vs. Jefferson)

First Quarter: Kupp 33 | Jefferson 30
Second Quarter: Kupp 40 | Jefferson 27
Third Quarter: Kupp 29 | Jefferson 27
Fourth Quarter: Kupp 43 | Jefferson 24

Cousins and the Vikings may have been too easily deterred last season in throwing to their top target. As Cousins explained numerous times, his quarterbacking mindset changed upon seeing two-high-safety looks, and with Jefferson typically running deeper routes, it was harder for him to find man coverage to exploit. Presumably, defenses would’ve shown this type of coverage more often in clock sensitive situations before the end of halves.

It’s not as if Jefferson was completely absent in clutch situations last year — he still had 27 receptions in the final five minutes of halves, and his go-ahead touchdown in the team’s win over Green Bay was one of the top moments of the season. Yet it’s tough to imagine Cousins making a no-look throw through the eye of a needle like Matthew Stafford did to Kupp in the fourth quarter on Sunday.

Additionally, the Rams’ favorite down to target Kupp was second down, something the Vikings struggled to do with Jefferson.

While third down is the money down for offenses, it’s often the down that is least flexible. Defenses can more easily predict run or pass, they’re bringing blitz, and they’re focused on doubling the top threats. First and second down are the situations where offenses can generate favorable assignments for their stars.

Jefferson and Kupp both had comparable targets on first and third down last year; it’s second down where the difference is found.

Targets by down (Kupp vs. Jefferson)

First Down: Kupp 47 | Jefferson 43
Second Down: Kupp 67 | Jefferson 31
Third Down: Kupp 31 | Jefferson 36

The Vikings have been pilloried for several years because of their insistence to run on second down, whether it be short, medium or long, and that criticism is well-deserved when you look at the numbers. The Vikings had the seventh-highest number of carries on second down last season despite the seventh-longest to-go distance.

The Rams, meanwhile, rarely rushed on second down. They had the fourth-fewest second-down carries, even though their second-down to-go distance was the sixth-shortest in the NFL.

Which strategy worked better? No contest. The Vikings ended up with the third-worst third-down distance in the league, while the Rams had the shortest of any team.

With every Jefferson target yielding a 9.9-yard average last season, there’s no reason why O’Connell shouldn’t be turning some of those Dalvin Cook carries on second-and-10 into Jefferson targets.

Was Kupp aided by having a stacked offense and an aggressive quarterback who enjoyed great protection? You betcha. The stars were aligned for Kupp to have his career season after only having one thousand-yard season in his first four years.

After watching Jefferson’s historic first two NFL seasons, it should feel attainable for the Vikings to have Jefferson threatening 2,000 yards like Kupp.

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