Justin Jefferson is poised to be the NFL's best wide receiver by the end of 2022 — if he isn't already
Justin Jefferson's unbridled confidence knows no bounds.
Fresh off his second consecutive 1,400-yard season, the Minnesota Vikings wide receiver not only said he can crack 2,000 receiving yards (which would break an NFL record) but he also believes he’ll be considered the best pass-catcher in the NFL by season’s end. Yes, better than Las Vegas Raiders receiver Davante Adams — whom Jefferson said is No. 1 right now — and Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp, who led the league in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in 2021.
“I think I have to do it three years in a row for everybody to believe [I’m the best],” Jefferson told Complex on July 14. “Some people don’t think that after two years you deserve to be at the top of the league. And then me, I feel like I’m going to surpass 1,600 yards, too. So I think that I’ll become the best receiver after this year.”
It's a bold statement for Jefferson, but not inconceivable.
Jefferson broke the rookie receiving yards record in 2020 (which was later broken by Cincinnati Bengals wideout Ja’Marr Chase in 2021) as well as Randy Moss’ record for most receiving yards in a player’s first two seasons. Jefferson needs 1,148 yards in 2022 to break Moss’ three-year mark as well. That would be a career-low for Jefferson.
And if he eclipses 1,400 yards again, Jefferson will become the 11th receiver in NFL history to do so three times in one career and the youngest since Larry Fitzgerald did at the age of 25 in 2008. He’d also be the youngest ever to do it in consecutive seasons.
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Why Vikings’ new offense could vault Justin Jefferson to Cooper Kupp numbers
The crown is there for Jefferson to take, and his body of work coupled with an offense already proven to elevate receivers should help Jefferson reach his lofty goals.
Last year alone, Jefferson accounted for 45.2 percent of the Vikings’ total air yards, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, which was a whole 3 percent more than the next player on the list. The last player to eclipse 45 percent was Julio Jones for the Atlanta Falcons in 2018, which is also the last year a receiver reached 1,600 yards in a single season prior to Jefferson and Kupp in 2021.
Jefferson also gets the benefit of playing in almost the exact same offense that turned Kupp into just the fifth triple crown receiver in the Super Bowl era. Former Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell is now the Vikings head coach, and he brought Rams passing game coordinator Wes Phillips with him to Minnesota as the team’s new offensive coordinator. Coincidentally (or perhaps on purpose), O’Connell and Phillips both coached quarterback Kirk Cousins in Washington the year before Cousins signed with the Vikings.
Jefferson knows he’ll get the Kupp treatment, too.
“Pretty much where Cooper Kupp was at, that’s pretty much where I’m at,” Jefferson said on the Ringer NFL Show earlier this summer. “But my ability to move in different positions is gonna be more. I’m able to go in outside. You don’t really see Cooper Kupp lining outside as many times as I would. Or me lining up in the backfield, or me just lining up in different positions to get the ball.”
That versatility originally derived from his days at LSU, where Jefferson moved from an outside receiver inside to the slot for his junior season in 2019 so Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall could get more action. That move helped Jefferson in the long run, according to former LSU receivers coach Mickey Joseph, who said Jefferson built a more well-rounded skill set.
“He's got all intangibles to be probably one of the best receivers in the league,” Joseph, who now coaches at Nebraska, told Yahoo Sports. “He has that game where he can get open outside and he's twitchy enough to go inside and fight through the traffic and noise as a slot receiver.”
What's made Justin Jefferson so great?
Long-time receivers coach Jerry Sullivan, who coached Jefferson at LSU in 2018 and worked with him this offseason, said Jefferson checks off all the boxes of how a receiver should play in the NFL.
Sullivan described a threefold skillet all receivers need to have to be elite: Beat press coverage, have good vertical acceleration and develop the route at the top of the movement. Jefferson has all that already (he was third against press coverage in 2021, per Pro Football Focus, and had at least an 80 percent success rate on seven routes, per Reception Perception), plus Sullivan said his mental makeup on the field is on the same level as Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, both of whom Sullivan coached with the Arizona Cardinals.
“Those guys have a certain football instinct — and Jefferson's got great instincts,” Sullivan told Yahoo Sports. “And he's got the skill set to go with it. … He's got tremendous quickness, excellent vertical speed, got a real good gift of understanding what he's trying to accomplish on a pass route. And he's got good footwork.”
Former Vikings general manager Rick Spielman saw those traits when the team drafted Jefferson 22nd overall in 2020. Jefferson’s movement skills reminded Spielman of Stefon Diggs, who he had just traded away to the Buffalo Bills that offseason and used the pick they received in that trade to take Jefferson.
“His natural feel for the game is something that he just has that can't be coached,” Spielman told Yahoo Sports. “That's probably why, as he develops and continues to develop and refines his skill set and knowledge of the game, he's just going to continue to get better and better.”
But it took a few weeks that first year for Jefferson to become Justin Jefferson. He didn’t start the first two games of the season as he continued to adjust to the speed of the game. But when Jefferson exploded for seven catches, 175 yards and a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans in Week 3, Spielman saw a galvanized player who felt validated by his own abilities.
“Once they put him into starting lineup, and you see him start making plays — that's when you seen something click,” Spielman added. “There's just an aura about him that once he had that game, you knew it was not a flash-in-the-pan game.”
Now, Jefferson has his sights set on superstardom. That shouldn’t be too hard given his natural ability, mental instincts and brand-new offense.
But there’s also some pressure on Jefferson to build on his already-impressive resume.
“I didn’t expect to be on top of the league this soon, but all of the hard work I’ve done and all of the things that I’ve sacrificed in my career and in my life to make myself this type of player, it’s definitely a blessing to have all of these things come to me so soon.” Jefferson told Complex. “And hopefully God just keeps blessing me along my career.”