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NFL Draft

Scouting Lessons Learned From Justin Jefferson Slot-Only Narrative

  • The Draft Network
  • October 14, 2020
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From the glory days of Randy Moss and Cris Carter to the present day with Adam Thielen, the Minnesota Vikings have always been known for their rich receiver history. An offseason that didn’t lack activity as the team cut and replaced former stalwarts of the franchise in Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes, Linval Joseph, and other defensive pieces, life in the NFL moves very fast not only for the players within it, but also for the winning windows of those teams that struggle to maintain year-to-year success. The Minnesota franchise is a prime example of that as they haven’t posted back-to-back double-digit winning seasons since the 2008 and 2009 campaigns.

The big news during the team's offseason was trading wide receiver Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills—a player that was once involved in arguably the brightest moment in team history with the Minnesota Miracle. What made the former Maryland receiver so special is that he wholeheartedly stood for everything that the organization values. He was tough, underrated, reliable, and full of potential. A fifth-round pick in the famous 2015 draft class that included Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, and Trae Waynes, he was the unexpected cherry on top of a group that completely changed the outlook of the franchise at the time. 

Whether it was social media or competitive outburst and unique body language on the sideline, it was clear that his time in the Twin Cities had run its course. With no ill will or bad blood for anyone, Diggs simply wanted to be a part of a new situation of where he was the focal point of the offense. General manager Rick Spielman found himself in a similar situation to what he faced early on during his tenure with the team when secretly gauging the market for suitors for Percy Harvin. 

While the player, magnitude of circumstances, and overall situation was far less severe than Harvin’s, it was similar in that Spielman reiterated that there were “no intentions” of trading the star receiver. Following those comments, the ninth-year general manager went on to agree to send a 2020 seventh-round pick to Buffalo along with Diggs for a 2020 first-round pick, fifth-rounder, sixth-rounder, and a 2021 fourth-round selection. A blockbuster trade that many didn’t see developing so quickly, but in the end, it was a deal that was deemed necessary due to the disgruntled aspect of Diggs and the exhaustion of the situation from the team.

One of the worst kept secrets in regards to positional needs and team fits was the Vikings scouring the depth of the 2020 wide receiver class in hopes of finding the next one to add to their rich history. In recent years, the fan base has been scarred by the first-round selection of receiver Laquon Treadwell during the 2016 draft and that factor alone caused some hesitancy with drafting a receiver in the first round. This year was a bit different though. The No. 22 overall pick will forever be known as the “Stefon Diggs pick” since it is the one that the team acquired from Buffalo in exchange for the star wideout, but the team would up in disbelief as LSU’s Justin Jefferson fell into their lap after the Eagles surprisingly selected speedy TCU receiver Jalen Reagor one pick ahead. 

Fresh off of a record-breaking national title run with the Tigers, Jefferson was a monumental part of the team’s passing attack. Jefferson finished his sophomore season with 875 yards and six touchdowns, but during the 2019 season, he set records with an FBS-leading 111 catches while also racking up 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns. 

A player who was once a 0-star recruit turned into a staple of the entire team—the exact type of success story that fits into the Minnesota moniker. His drive and work ethic have carried over into his NFL career. Currently with the 13th-most receiving yards in the NFL through five weeks, he’s managed to collect 371 yards and a touchdown despite playing a minimal role during the team’s first two contests. 

Being pegged as a slot-only receiver was a factor that was frequently mentioned with him, but it was a wrongly used narrative that some ran with without understanding the context of the situation that he was in at LSU. With the Tigers, he was placed there at default due to the talent on the perimeter. Ja’Marr Chase, who’s a well known name and expected to be a top prospect during the 2021 draft, was a large reason why Jefferson was ultimately forced to play inside.

Another reason why the former Tigers’ record-setting threat mostly experienced time in the slot was the play of Terrace Marshall. A prospect who quietly recorded 13 touchdown receptions, he’s one who may face challenges on the inside, but a bulk of his positive plays came out on the perimeter. Wanting to get all three on the field at the same time, this left Jefferson playing inside for most of his final season in Baton Rouge.

The biggest surprise to some has been the instant success of his play out on the perimeter, as he’s recorded 151 snaps on the perimeter compared to 86 in the slot (Pro Football Focus), but his situation is one of the unique ordeals of where he was defaultly placed at a position due to the depth of personnel and wrongly labeled as being only that as a result. Looking back at my notes from the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine, I circled that Jefferson looked the most fluid of the bunch and was a natural hands-catcher as he frequently plucked the ball out of the air after transitioning in and out of route breaks with ease. The factor that blew scouts and the national audience away was his 4.43 forty time, which cemented his outlook as a first-round pick. 

What makes the outlook for Jefferson moving forward so bright though?

Let's dive into the early traits that he’s shown that has made him a bright spot in the loaded 2020 receiver class. 

Play No. 1:

A trait that Jefferson hung his hat on while at LSU was his route stem maturity—meaning that his action while on the course of running routes was full fledged beyond his age. As seen in the example above, the former Tigers wideout has a lot of subtle moves that he’s able to perform all while having his eyes on the football prior to attacking it out of the air. Running a simple go route on this rep against Malcolm Butler, Jefferson executes a hesitation and skip release prior to running full speed to his outside hip. The little detail that makes this play so special though is that oftentimes with young receivers, they have the tendency of wanting to run as fast as they can to the sideline in hopes of winning over the outside hip of the cornerback.

Jefferson shows his high football I.Q. by performing what is called “holding the line” along the sideline. In football terms, there’s an imaginary distance between the bottom of the painted numbers and the out of bounds line. The Vikings rookie does an excellent job of keeping his distance and running the course of the route on the line. If Jefferson runs immediately to the out of bounds line, it leaves minimal margin for error for the quarterback. Knowing this, he stacks and closes the door on the corner–running directly over top of him and thus eliminating his path of being able to catch back up and run side-by-side with him vertically. Add on the contested grab and it makes for a near perfect rep.

Play No. 2:

Jefferson’s first and only touchdown of the season was a special one. On a deep over route, he went on to score an exciting 71-yard touchdown that ended with his signature griddy dance that he introduced to the NFL. On the explosive play, Jefferson performs it from the slot, but it’s the slightly noticeable stutter steps within the route stem that enabled him to blow by the defender. These were the type of plays that we saw from him at LSU that helped him go on to set multiple program records.

Targets Through Week 4:

Above is a cutup of all of the catches that Jefferson recorded through the first four games of the season. What’s noticeable about it is the versatility of alignments within formations that the team is using him on, but also the play speed that he’s currently playing with. Whether it’s in the slot or on the perimeter, he’s now begun to play with more patience, but also add more flavor into his routes as he begins to develop comfort with the speed of the game. Against the Texans, Jefferson finished with four catches for 103 yards, but this game was the most important of his career. 

No, it wasn’t as flashy as the Titans contest, but that game was the turning point for quarterback Kirk Cousins and his belief in the young wide receiver. As seen in the cutup, Cousins began to throw contested passes into tight windows, which shows faith in the rookie. The biggest adjustments for veteran throwers is how much trust they have to throw to young players in any type of situation. Week 4 was the performance that flipped the script for both quarterback and wideout. 

Overall, Jefferson is a great litmus test of why it’s important to figure out exactly what prospects can do opposed to labeling them with certain tags simply because we haven’t seen them perform elsewhere consistently due to various variables. The former LSU receiver is a great example for all scouts of where it’s essential to find out exactly how receivers perform in certain situations even though they weren’t offered those opportunities on the collegiate level. Jefferson’s early success in the NFL has helped improve my process a lot, as digging into those reps of where those question marks lie is of the utmost importance because you may be able to discover and execute in areas that lacked on a prospect's resume.  

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