Just How Good Was Justin Jefferson's Rookie Season?

Photo: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Last year’s wide receivers class was stacked. Henry Ruggs III, Justin Jefferson, Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, Jalen Reagor, Laviska Shenault… and that was just to name a few. When it came to adding a top-50 offensive player maker at the receiver position, it seemed like there was no one correct answer for the 2020 class.

Turns out there was a correct answer. That answer was Justin Jefferson.

I am, of course, saying that in hindsight. I didn’t have Jefferson as my top wide receiver in the class, and clearly the Las Vegas Raiders, Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys, and Philadelphia Eagles didn’t either, as they selected Ruggs, Jeudy, Lamb, and Reagor before the Vikings snatched up Jefferson as WR5 at pick No. 22.

Jefferson’s start with Minnesota was a bit slow. Despite everyone loving the pick for Jefferson to replace the then-traded Stefon Diggs, Jefferson was still a rookie, so the Vikings still eased him in. He didn’t play more than 70% of the offensive snaps in the team’s first two games, and though he saw a bit more playing time the next two weeks, didn’t play more than 80% of the snaps. But despite not earning a higher snap count, Jefferson posted back-to-back 100-yard games in his first two starts (Weeks 3 and 4) and looked like a lone bright spot for an offense that was failing as the team’s record was 1-3. From there, Jefferson’s playing time increased, and as it did, so did his success.

Fast forward to the present day and Jefferson has had quite the year. And by quite the year I mean the best rookie season ever for a wide receiver in the Super Bowl era. With another 100-yard game in his season finale, Jefferson surpassed Anquan Boldin’s previous rookie record of 1,377 receiving yards back in 2003, the most ever for a first-year receiver since the Super Bowl era began in 1966. Jefferson’s 2020 season total of 1,400 receiving yards ranks just second all-time behind Bill Groman’s 1,473 yards set in 1960.

Jefferson was dominant in ways beyond just common stats, too. According to Pro Football Focus, he was far and away the top rookie receiver in yards per route run with an average of 2.66. The next highest was Lamb at 1.81. According to Next Gen Stats, Jefferson’s 36.73% of his team’s total air yards on the season was fifth highest in the league. He did that while averaging a higher catch percentage (70%) than each of the four players in front of him on that list. Jefferson was also elite when it came to yards after the catch, averaging 5.3 yards after the catch per reception, and 1.9 yards after the catch per reception over expectation, which was a top-five score in the NFL. On the season, Pro Football Focus gave Jefferson a grade of 90.4, which was second to only Davante Adams. Jefferson also did plenty of work in the slot, too, with almost 20% of his routes coming from the inside.

Jefferson’s final season stat line of 88 catches on 125 targets with 1,400 receiving yards and seven receiving touchdowns was a marvel, and anyone who trusted what they saw in Jefferson’s tape, as he was overshadowed, at times, by Ja’Marr Chase in LSU’s explosive passing offense, has been rewarded early. 

Even after a season where the bar has now been set about as high as you can go, the team talks of Jefferson like he’s just getting started.

"In this offense we're going to run the football, so that's going to open up a lot of explosive plays for Justin, but he also has to stay patient because [there's] going to be times where we're running the ball well and we're not throwing it to him every play," Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "He did a great job this year of being ready when his number was called and just continuing to show up for us. And it's also impressive to look back and realize that the role he had for us Week 1 and Week 2 was not the same role he had Week 3 and beyond. That's encouraging as well to think what he could have done with two more weeks as the 'X.'"

"Exactly," Jefferson said. "What if I would've had those two games starting? And having the same targets I had this year. Who knows what I would've did with that? I guess I'll just wait until next year to start out from Week 1 and hopefully I get more yards than I did this year."

Until next year.