By Jake Arians
It’s funny how narratives change quickly in the NFL. The Minnesota Vikings started the season 1-5 and were left for dead. They now head into a huge matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the seventh seed in the NFC playoff race after winning five of their last six games. Kirk Cousins has really turned things around and has been HOT the last six weeks. He is the highest-rated quarterback in the red zone (per PFF) and leads the NFL in fourth-quarter passer rating. He has also added another 3,000-yard, 25-touchdown season to his underrated resume.
However, the biggest reason for the turnaround is the emergence of rookie receiver Justin Jefferson.
The Vikings took Jefferson 22nd overall in the 2020 NFL Draft with the pick they got from the Buffalo Bills in the Stefon Diggs trade. This trade was enormous for both teams. Although, when comparing the cost and the Vikings’ salary cap issues, I feel the Vikings really hit it out of the park here.
Jefferson started a bit slow with only six catches for 70 yards in his first two games. He then burst on the scene in Week 3 against the Tennessee Titans with seven grabs for 175 yards and a score and hasn’t looked back. He had a couple of down weeks against the Seattle Seahawks (3/23/0) and against the Green Bay Packers (3/26/0), but those are the only outliers.
Jefferson has 61 receptions (21st) for 1,039 yards (fourth) and seven touchdowns (t-12th), with a 17.0 yards-per-catch average (fourth). Jefferson ranks first in every major category for rookie receivers, including yards after the catch with 313, but is also one of the top-rated receivers in the NFL as a whole. He is No. 1 in the NFL in 20-plus yard catches against man coverage and second behind D.K. Metcalf in total yards against man coverage. He also has the most 100-yard games in a rookie season with five—passing another former Viking Randy Moss—and is tied for the most in the NFL with four games to go. His 1,039 yards are the most through 12 games for a rookie since 2007, over names like Amari Cooper, Mike Evans, and Keenan Allen. PFF has him as their highest-rated rookie through Week 13 at any position and it’s not that close, according to them.
That’s what the statistics say. To me, Jefferson looks to be among the NFL’s elite at the receiver position already. One of the biggest question marks on Jefferson coming into the draft was his physicality and the ability to beat press-man coverage. Needless to say, he has answered those questions and has excelled in those areas, as well as showing all the traits that won him the Biletnikoff Award for the nation’s best college receiver. Those traits have translated immediately to his NFL game.
My biggest takeaway watching him is his route-running ability and the ability to beat man coverage because of it. He runs the entire route tree, but it is also the nuance and feel he runs those routes with. The ability to separate in different subtle ways is amazingly polished for a rookie. He has amazing hands and phenomenal run after the catch ability. When you combine these abilities you have one of the NFL’s most well-rounded receivers.
What is really impressive to me is that most of his production hasn’t been in the slot, where most of his success came from in college. Not only has he filled in for Diggs as the Vikings’ complementary piece to Adam Thielen, but he might also be the featured receiver in this offense at this point.
There are a few guys this season in the race for Offensive Rookie of the Year. The quarterbacks always have an advantage here, but if you ask me, Jefferson would be my choice if we’re voting today. With four games left, the fact that he has been a huge contributing factor to the Vikings’ playoff reemergence seals the deal for me. Jefferson, who’s known for his dance moves as well, should have plenty of touchdowns to celebrate in the future.