The 2020 rookie class of wide receivers has earned buzz comparable to the vaunted 2014 class that included Odell Beckham Jr, Jr., Mike Evans, Brandin Cooks, and Davante Adams. One of the marquee talents from this year's receiver class is LSU's Justin Jefferson. His versatile game is a terrific match for fantasy football. The profile below is a sample of what you'll find in the 2020 Rookie Scouting Portfolio (RSP), now available for download.
1. Justin Jefferson, LSU (6-1, 202)
Depth of Talent Score: 87.85 = Starter: Capable of a larger role and learning on the go.
Jefferson is one of my favorite players in this draft and he’s a significant reason why I’ll rarely recommend that readers trade up to snag Lamb, Jeudy, or Mims. If you have multiple first- and second-round picks Jefferson should be one of your targets. He’ll be a relative bargain with similar production upside as the top three—especially if he plays in the slot like the player that he bears a stylistic resemblance: Chargers slot man Keenan Allen.
Early in his career, Jefferson saw a lot of time as a flanker and split end. Last year, LSU embraced a pro-style offense and used Jefferson extensively from the slot where he had massive success running option routes and winning vertical routes against mismatched safeties. The Tigers even used Jefferson from the backfield to create mismatches in space.
Jefferson still earned playing time outside in this scheme but his work in the middle offers a compelling portrait of the upside he could have if he reprises this role in the NFL.
Although he has a wiry build, there’s room for Jefferson to fill out his frame with additional muscle as he ages. Even at his current dimensions, Jefferson is both physical enough to do the dirty work as a blocker and break tackles in the secondary after the catch as well as win outside and inside as a vertical receiver who can make opponents look silly in the open field.
Jefferson won’t see much press coverage from the slot but when outside he has proven successful with an array of releases where he integrates his hands and feet. He has an effective dip-and-rip that he’ll pair with hesitation moves or a violent stick. Jefferson has a well-executed duck walk—a footwork move that the pros use extensively to create hip and shoulder movement at a higher rate of speed that can force coverage off its mark.
He varies duck walks, hesi-steps, and sticks well enough to set up coverage, and he’ll throw in a stop-and-go move to freeze a cornerback early in his release and swim over top. If Jefferson has to punch and swat his way through the jam, he can do so. Once he earns separation, he looks for every opportunity to stack his man and control the pace of the route down the field.
Regardless of the length of the route, Jefferson has strong eye discipline to keep the defender thinking about Jefferson going deep. He’s as economical a storyteller with his routes as there is in this draft class. This is an excellent trait because it’s why he can bait defenders on the shortest of routes with simple tools like a variation of pace, a head fake or a turn that incorporates a slide and dip of the shoulder away from the coverage.
When it’s time to execute a break, Jefferson is sudden with his execution of all styles of turns. His speed turns are tight and he accelerates through the break with tight and flat lines. He also sinks his hips well enough for sudden stops and accelerates through the break. Regardless of the route, he snaps his head around fast to find the ball as soon as he begins his break and he works back to the ball.
If the route doesn’t break open, Jefferson doesn’t waste much time figuring out what to do next because he’ll make a fluid decision to find open space. His ability to process the game and the experience he earned using this talent with Joe Burrow, an excellent scrambler, should pay dividends early in Jefferson’s pro career. His hip sink is good enough to sell a compelling hitch-and-go double move. Because he executes sharp breaks, defensive backs are apt to anticipate the subtler moves in Jefferson’s repertoire when he earns an early advantage after his release.
Julian Edelman has an excellent “look-in/look-out” move at the top of his stem where, depending on the direction of his break, he’ll give a little look to the opposite side of the field to bait his trailing opponent into thinking he’s going that way. Jefferson has skill with the same technique. Once Jefferson makes his break, he presents a clean target for his quarterback.
He’s also skilled at varying the pace of his routes to keep opponents guessing. When used in the slot, Jefferson’s patience, pacing, and economical story-telling with a full toolbox of devices makes him effective on option routes.
Jefferson has quick hands as a receiver, which makes him a good check-down option as well as an effective deep threat against tight coverage. The framing of his hands is appropriate to the location of the target, and he’s smooth at extending for the ball while on the move.
As fluid as Jefferson is with his attack, he’s also willing to get physical. He’ll break into oncoming contact and attack the ball—especially short slants heading into traffic or with trail coverage tight to his back.
Send Jefferson downfield and he makes difficult high-point grabs where he has to spin towards the ball, continue the turn away from the defender, and locate the boundary so he can tap or drag both feet inbounds. Jefferson has big enough hands to palm the fat of the ball—even with one hand on targets above his head.
His back-shoulder fades have excellent leaps and pull-downs, which is why he could beat cornerbacks and safeties alike on this pattern. Because he’s so good at attacking the ball, he’ll often force defensive pass interference penalties when he establishes position late in the throw and disrupts his opponent’s poise.
His tracking of the football is strong with the exception of the slot fade. I saw at least three routes of this type where Jefferson tracked the ball over the incorrect shoulder and prevented himself from having a clean opportunity to catch the ball. I’m not sure whether Jefferson correctly expected the ball to be arriving over his inside shoulder or he had a bad habit of beginning the tracking process over his inside shoulder only to realize midway through that he had to make an awkward turn of his head to the opposite shoulder and relocate the ball.
This is a minor concern about Jefferson, because it’s a tracking issue specific to a route and the expectation of where the ball should arrive as opposed to a fundamental problem with finding the football. Jefferson is a reliable pass catcher at every range of the field and has no issue with laying out for the ball with contact imminent. When Jefferson drops the ball, he makes the mistake of allowing the ball into his body in a tight window. I also saw an isolated instance of Jefferson leaving his feet to catch a chest-high target in an open zone where he would have been better off extending his arms with his feet on the ground.
This one play as the exception, Jefferson transitions well after the catch with fast and tight turns or a sharp cut as he dips his shoulder away from a defender tight to his frame. He has the burst to turn the corner on defensive backs in the open field—even when they have an angle on him. Jefferson’s NFL Combine workouts are testament to his ability to create space in the open field.
In addition, to turning the corner on opponents with quick transitions, he can execute sudden stops or layer moves in a compelling way that makes the first man miss. His excellent sense of pacing also comes into play as an open-field runner and he possesses an excellent spin move.
A smart and decisive runner in traffic, Jefferson recognizes small spaces created with advantageous leverage from blocks or the position of pursuit. He will use small fakes to set up these creases and split unblocked defenders with good pad level to maximize yardage in situations where less mature receivers would retreat to set up an ineffective bounce or cutback.
Jefferson’s 4.43-second, 40-Yard Dash was even a surprise to him, but no one was expecting a 4.6-second time, either. When outmatched by speedier defenders, he has the peripheral vision and feel for open grass to use the width of the field to his advantage to bleed every yard from an open-field play.
He’s also demonstrated the peripheral vision to see a backside linebacker bearing down on him, and he can bait the defender with a stick and then take away the leg as the linebacker dives for air without ever turning his head to look at the man. That play is not only a sign of great peripheral vision but a sense of timing.
Once it’s time to engage, Jefferson is willing. He’s quick to get his pads under contact to extend for yardage or drag defensive backs for larger gains.
Jefferson’s stiff-arm is adequate at warding off hard contact and transforming hits into wraps, but if he could time the weapon better, he’d have a violent punch that could prevent defenders from wrapping him at all.
Right now, he’s better at bouncing off safety contact than he is at punching it away. Jefferson’s ball security is loose at the elbow as he begins his transition from receiver to runner but once he tightens that elbow during the run, he’s consistently high-and-tight with the carriage and uses the correct arm that’s working away from the pursuit of the defense.
Jefferson is an adequate blocker with isolated reps of promise. Although he doesn't get chest-to-chest with a defender more than once or twice a game, at best, Jefferson works his hands inside the chest plate of his opponent and latches on well. He transitions fast from receiver to blocker and can deliver an uppercut punch and roll his hips through the strike when facing defensive backs at the line of scrimmage.
He’ll get beaten to the punch on stalk blocks in the open field, but I like that he’ll use a staggered stance to withstand much of the contact. This helps him anchor and then redirect his hands with an effective second effort. Still, it would be best if he’s the aggressor.
Whether Jefferson’s punching or redirecting off a punch, he turns defensive backs when he earns the desired position in the frame of his opponent. When he’s performing at his best in the run game, he has repeatedly turned linebackers thanks to his position, punch, and hands. When he won against linebackers, he had to overextend to generate power, so don’t expect Jefferson’s success to continue against NFL linebackers.
However, no team is drafting Jefferson specifically for his prowess to seal linebackers for the run game. This is a smooth receiver with enough ruggedness to his game to play multiple roles and play them well. I’d like to see him keep his role as a slot-hybrid who earns a heavy target volume and gets plum matchups in the vertical game.
Jefferson has the Football IQ to produce in this role. We’ll see if he earns the system fit and the quarterback to maximize this potential. If not, he still has the goods to produce as strictly a perimeter option, but the upside might take longer to reach and the target volume will be lower.
Pre-NFL Draft Fantasy Advice: If you have multiple picks in the first and second round, going all-in for Lamb or Jeudy might be enticing but considering the success rates of wide receivers, wouldn’t it be wiser to play the odds and pick multiple options who the NFL drafts Day 1 and early Day 2? Jefferson is likely one of those players who will deliver value.
Depending on which team drafts Jefferson, he could wind up in a good situation that the rest of the fantasy community dislikes. Remember A.J. Brown last year? I do and if you were reading the 2019 RSP Post-Draft, so do you.