Justin Jefferson’s unbridled confidence knows no bounds.
Fresh off his second straight 1,400-yard season, the Minnesota Vikings wide receiver not only said he thinks he can top 2,000 receiving yards (which would break an NFL record), but he also believes he’ll be counted for the best pass catcher in the NFL by the end of the season. Yes, better than Las Vegas Raiders receiver Davante Adams — who 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 everyone to believe [I’m the best],” Jefferson told Complex on July 14. “Some people don’t think you deserve to be top of the league after two years. And then I, I feel like I’m going to break 1,600 yards as well. So I think I’m going to be the best receiver after this year.”
It’s a bold statement for Jefferson, but it’s not unthinkable.
Jefferson broke the rookie receiving yards record in 2020 (which was later broken by Ja’Mar Chase of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2021), as well as Randy Moss’ record for most receiving yards in the first two seasons of player. Jefferson needs just 1,148 yards in 2022 to surpass Moss’ three-year mark as well. This would be a career low for Jefferson.
And if he eclipses 1,400 yards again, Jefferson would become just the 11th receiver in NFL history to do it three times in a career and the youngest since Larry Fitzgerald did it at age 25 in 2008. He would also be the youngest to do so in consecutive seasons.
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Why the Vikings’ new offense could put Justin Jefferson up to Cooper Kupp’s numbers
The crown is there for Jefferson to take, and his work combined with an offense already proven to elevate receivers should help Jefferson achieve 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 full 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 season before Jefferson and Cupp in 2021.
Jefferson also gets the benefit of playing in much the same offense that made Kupp just the fifth triple crown winner in the Super Bowl era. Former Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell is now the head coach of the Vikings, 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 coached quarterback Kirk Cousins in Washington the year before Cousins signed with the Vikings.
Jefferson knows he too will get the Coop treatment.
“Pretty much where Cooper Kupp was, I’m at,” Jefferson said on the Ringer NFL Show earlier this summer. “But my ability to move into different positions will be more. I can go outside. You really don’t see Cooper Coop standing outside as many times as I do. Either I line up in the backfield or I just line up in different positions to get the ball.
That versatility originally stemmed from his days at LSU, where Jefferson moved from outside receiver to inside the slot for his junior season in 2019 so that Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall could get more action. The 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 has all the intangibles to be probably one of the best receivers in the league,” Joseph, now the coach at Nebraska, told Yahoo Sports. “He’s got that game where he can get open on the outside and he’s edgy enough to go inside and fight through traffic and noise as a slot receiver.”
What made Justin Jefferson so great?
Longtime receivers coach Jerry Sullivan, who coached Jefferson at LSU in 2018 and worked with him this offseason, said Jefferson checks all the boxes for how a receiver should play in the NFL.
Sullivan described a triple pan that all receivers must possess to be elite: Beat press coverage, have good vertical acceleration and run the route at the top of the move. Jefferson already has all that (he was third against press coverage in 2021, according to Pro Football Focus, and had at least an 80 percent success rate on seven routes, according to perception), plus Sullivan said his mental makeup on the field is on par with Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, both of whom Sullivan coaches with the Arizona Cardinals.
“Those guys have a certain football instinct — and Jefferson has great instincts,” Sullivan told Yahoo Sports. “And he has the skill set to handle it. … He’s got tremendous quickness, excellent vertical speed, has a really good knack for understanding what he’s trying to accomplish on a pass route. And he has good footwork.”
Former Vikings general manager Rick Spielman noticed those traits when the team selected Jefferson 22nd overall in 2020. Jefferson’s movement skills reminded Spielman of Steven Diggs, whom he had just traded to the Buffalo Bills that offseason and used the pick they got in that trade for take Jefferson.
“His natural feel for the game is something that he just has and can’t be coached,” Spielman told Yahoo Sports. “That’s probably why as he develops and continues to develop and refine his skill set and knowledge of the game, he’s just going to keep getting better and better.”
But in the first year, Jefferson turned into him in a matter of weeks Justin Jefferson. He did not 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 in the starting lineup and you see him start playing — that’s when you see something click,” Spielman added. “There’s just an aura about him that once he played that game, you knew it wasn’t a flash in the pan game.”
Now Jefferson has his sights set on superstardom. This shouldn’t be too difficult given his natural abilities, mental instincts, and brand new attack.
But there is also some pressure on Jefferson to build on his already impressive resume.
“I didn’t expect to be at the top of the league so soon, but all the hard work I’ve done and all the things I’ve sacrificed in my career and life to become that type of player, it’s definitely a blessing to have all of those things come to me so soon,” Jefferson told Complex. “And hopefully God continues to bless me throughout my career.”