Justin Jefferson has a 2,000-yard season in his sights for the Vikings

Every NFL season, a big Week 1 performance will lead to tongue-in-cheek proclamations that the player is on his way to destroying a league record.

So, just for the record: no, Justin Jefferson’s 184-yard output on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers doesn’t mean the Minnesota Vikings wide receiver will have more than 3,000 receiving yards at the end of Week 18.

But could Jefferson become the first NFL pass catcher to top 2,000? A variety of factors could combine to make that a very plausible result.

It’s certainly a goal the third-year star is aiming for.

“Hopefully everything works out and I can get that 2,000,” Jefferson told reporters in July.

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After setting a league rookie record in 2020 with 1,400 receiving yards and increasing that number to 1,616 last year, Jefferson has established himself as one of the best at his position. The fact that he is only 23 years old suggests that he has room for improvement.

In what could be a crucial development, he now has an offensive-minded head coach in Kevin O’Connell, who just helped the Los Angeles Rams’ Cooper Kupp to 1,947 yards last season and seems determined to make Jefferson a similar Minnesota focal point. attack. Jefferson can also have a supporting cast that hits the sweet spot of being good enough to deserve defensive attention, but not to the point of eating up their share of passing targets and passing yards.

Add it all up, and Jefferson has the potential for a pass-catching season the likes of which the NFL has yet to see.

Of course, that season could also come from another wide receiver, with Kupp, whose 2021 total is second only to the 1,964 Calvin Johnson posted with the 2012 Detroit Lions, and Davante Adams of the Las Vegas Raiders as the most likely candidates. However, Kupp and Adams are both 29 years old and thus on different career paths, and each has other concerns that Jefferson does not. Kupp tends to run shallower routes than Jefferson and needs more receptions to reach an equivalent number of yards, plus there are some questions about the long-term health of Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford’s elbow. Adams arguably has more competition for targets from teammates Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow, and even while catching passes from Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, Adams never racked up as many receiving yards as Jefferson did last year.

Another possible contender, Jefferson’s former LSU teammate turned Bengals phenom Ja’Marr Chase, also has big target competition in Cincinnati wide receivers Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd.

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Matt Harmon, an NFL analyst who created Reception Perception, a wide receiver-focused analytics platform, cited the Buffalo Bills’ Adams and Stefon Diggs as the best wide receivers in the NFL right now, at least in terms of pure route travel. However, he acknowledged that, as far as the 2,000-yard pursuit goes, Jefferson “is going to be within striking distance all year if he stays healthy.”

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Harmon explained in a phone interview that Jefferson’s placement above the 90th percentile in the losing zone, the man and the press coverage put him in more elite company. Harmon added that in O’Connell, Jefferson has someone willing to make him the “engine of the offense” and able to maneuver him into open territory.

Having watched the video of Minnesota’s 23-7 Week 1 victory over Rodgers and the Packers, Harmon was surprised by the amount of movement he saw from the Vikings before the snap. Jefferson himself was also impressed with it. He told reporters after the game that he liked every move the offense made, because it helped him see if the defense was zoned or man-to-man.

Hired by the Vikings this year after Jim Harbaugh talked to them but decided to remain at the University of Michigan, O’Connell is a former NFL quarterback who spent the past two seasons as the Rams’ offensive coordinator under by Sean McVay. O’Connell is replacing Mike Zimmer, a former defensive coordinator whose preference was for the Vikings to play a run-first, risk-averse style.

The assumption that O’Connell’s Vikings might be inclined to take a more aggressive approach was bolstered by the team’s top-12 finish last week in above-expectation pass rate, despite Minnesota he had a 17-point halftime lead and mostly strangled a Green Bay Attack that seemed disorganized following Adams’ offseason departure.

Other notable advanced stats that emerged included Jefferson’s NFL-leading 5.58 career road rushing mark, and his second-place finish (behind AJ Brown of the Philadelphia Eagles) with a 72.3 percent share of predicted passing yards. of your team. That combination bodes well for Jefferson’s chances of maintaining the kind of efficiency and command of targets he’ll need to top 2,000 yards.

If Jefferson plays all 17 games, his 2021 receptions per game average of 95.1 should jump to at least 117.7. Only six NFL players have reached that number in a required number of games, including Johnson and only two others since the 1970 merger and since the league moved to a 16-game schedule in 1978.

It should help that even if O’Connell’s version of McVay’s offense doesn’t exactly play Kupp’s “big sloth” role, as Harmon described it, Jefferson won’t “just be tied to the line [of scrimmage]” as an X receiver and was asked to run a constant stream of child routes.

“We can make it difficult for defenses to know where he’s going to be,” O’Connell told PFT Live in March. “[Jefferson] you don’t have to queue at the same place all the time. You don’t have to run the same type of routes all the time. He is dynamic with the ball in his hands. He’s willing in the running game. This guy is a special, special player.”

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After Sunday’s win, O’Connell told reporters: “I credit Justin for being able to handle a lot of things. We move him around a lot, we ask him to play in various places, and he’s not just some X-receiver who lines up here and dictates coverage. We will not allow that to happen.”

What the Packers, who were thought to have one of the best defenses in the league, allowed to happen was a touchdown play in which Jefferson was so wide downfield that he left the game announcers and other observers stunned.

In a video shared Wednesday by Minnesota, O’Connell explained how Jefferson’s teammates helped him break free for a 36-yard touchdown. The 37-year-old coach ran through replays to highlight tight end Irv Smith crossing the field from left to right parallel to Jefferson but a shorter distance. That put the Packers’ Quay Walker “in a bind,” as O’Connell put it, because the rookie linebacker was tasked with defending the short and middle zones on the right side but couldn’t cover both Smith and Jefferson, who they were heading in his general direction. At the same time, wide receivers Adam Thielen and KJ Osborn were running right-to-left patterns at different depths, taking with them cornerbacks who had to respect their playmaking abilities. With Walker “in no man’s land” and the Green Bay safeties struggling to process everything that was happening in front of them, the result was a remarkably empty area on the deep right side of the field, where Jefferson caught a pass and was able to evade it. defenders closer to the end zone for a touchdown.

“We talked a lot with our team this week about wanting to be efficient and explosive,” the coach said.

O’Connell also praised quarterback Kirk Cousins’ “innate feel” for putting pressure on the play and his willingness to “be there and throw” a well-placed ball.

In his 11th season in the NFL and fifth with the Vikings, Cousins ​​may not be on the same quarterback level as Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, but he ranks third all-time in completion percentage. . That accuracy can only help in the pursuit of Jefferson, as can the presence of Pro Bowl running back Dalvin Cook, who can make defenses pay for focusing too much on stopping the pass. Having the Vikings play home games in a dome, preventing weather from becoming the late-season factor it can be in places like Cleveland and Buffalo, helps, too. Then, of course, there’s the fact that the NFL stretched its schedule last year to 17 games.

After his 2022 campaign began with a promising rush of yards, Jefferson reaffirmed with reporters that his goal is to get to 2,000.

“There’s no better way to start than 180, right?” she said with a smile.

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