2020 NFL Draft Prospect Profile: Justin Jefferson, LSU
If you say to me that you know who and what Justin Jefferson is, then I know that you are a liar. Perhaps one of the hardest things to account for in prospects is when their context drastically changes in the middle of their careers. There is a long and storied history of the difficulty in evaluating LSU wide receivers but now that is true for a different reason. In the case of Jarvis Landry and more famously, Odell Beckham, the fact that the team was SO run-heavy and so inefficiently coached that it was a total nightmare to generate accurate scouting portfolios for their players from a metric perspective. However, we have seen D.J Chark, Landry and Beckham, Foster Moreau, Russell Gage, Trey Quinn, Reuben Randle, Russell Shephard, and Brandon Lafell all have extended NFL careers coming out of LSU as pass catchers.
Of course, the arrival of Joe Burrow and Ed Oregeron changed the entire dynamic for what it means to be an LSU pass-catcher and that evidence is show in the massive leap from Jefferson’s freshmen and sophomore production to the video game numbers that he posted as a junior. We are going to try and make sense of this production profile from a metric perspective and project Justin Jefferson to the NFL in 2020.
Jefferson did not have the usual path to playing time for LSU. He was not a five-star recruit (in fact, it was well documented that he had only two full-ride offers, both from smaller almost non-football schools) but was in fact a two-star recruit. Jefferson’s older brother played as LSU and his poor grades and lack of weight on his frame coming out of high-school are good explainers for why he didn’t catch a single pass as a freshman and was only active on offense “as a run blocker” per Saturdays Down South. In fact, Jefferson even wore No. 32 (a fullback!) as his jersey number as a freshmen!
Everything changed for the entire program in 2018 however. The Tigers went 9-4 in 2017 with Danny Etling at QB and only throwing 300 passes on the nose. In 2018, Burrow transferred to the program and the team threw over 380 passes. Jefferson went from playing fullback to leading the team in receptions with 54 receptions; no one else on the team had more than 23. He accumulated 32% of the teams’ total receiving yards and touchdowns and had 6-108 against Georgia, 5-97 against Auburn, and 6-81 against Alabama, all defenses that featured multiple future NFL players on defense. This was Jefferson’s age 20 season and qualifies as a breakout year for sure. Even before the historic, record-breaking, national-title winning 2019 season, Jefferson was already on the map for NFL teams.
2019, though, blew the doors off the hinges. LSU just about topped 6,000 yards passing and they threw for 61 touchdown passes. In his final season at LSU, he caught 12 of 13 contested targets in 2019, which was a higher rate than any draft-eligible receiver in the 2020 class (via PFF). Ja’Marr Chase got more pub throughout the 2019 season, winning the Biletnikoff award while Jefferson was not even named first-team All American at wide receiver. However, Jefferson had 111 receptions while Chase had only 84. No other Fighting Tiger topped 55 and that was running back Chase-Edward Helaire. Jefferson was responsible for over 25% of the most productive passing offense that college football has ever seen at the age of 21. He scored 20% of LSU’s TOTAL touchdowns and broke every college football playoff record there was to break with his 14-227-4 game against Oklahoma.
Burrow or not, Oregeron or not, 1,540 and 18 in the SEC has to be taken seriously. There are some athletic concerns about Jefferson at the combine but those are undetermined variables that we will worry about when we get there.
Projecting Justin Jefferson In The 2020 NFL Draft
If it is true that Jefferson is going to run more like a 4.65 or 4.7, my interest in him as a dynasty fantasy asset is going to be minimal. The history of tall-but-skinny wide receivers who run slow 40 times is a whole list of the biggest disappointments in fantasy history. We actually saw a similar version to this last season with Hakeem Butler. He just wasn’t really the right combination of age + production + speed and it caused him to fall in the draft and be overdrafted in dynasty fantasy football rookie drafts. I do not believe that Jefferson falls into that category but his athletic testing is going to give him a huge amount of volatility in where he gets drafted in the 2020 NFL draft.
Now, calm down! A list that shows Woods, Kirk, Westbrook and Cooks is going to get anyone excited about the future of a player. A weird thing about this comp list is that Jefferson is a much different size/style of player than many of them so perhaps the scores would be different if there was a minimum height listing. However, it is an encouraging list of sims and is pretty much all real NFL players other than Justin Hunter (even Ryan Broyles had his moment in the sun).
The guys from WalterFootball describe Jefferson’s game as “In the NFL, Jefferson may not be a big separation receiver because he may not have elite speed to run by pro cornerbacks. Jefferson could be better off as a No. 2 receiver playing off a No. 1 and taking advantage of single coverage. It would help Jefferson to add some strength and fill out his frame for the NFL.” Jeremy Klump from Eagles Wire is even more optimistic, writing “The guy is 7-Eleven; he is always open. I think he has the tools to succeed in the NFL on the outside, but I also think he is best suited to be a dominant slot receiver. Jefferson can easily be a 100-catch guy from the slot in today’s NFL. He can also plug in Day 1 as a dominant red zone target. His weaknesses are not too worrisome, mainly because he is an ‘A1’ route runner. The speed will be a turn off for some, but his quickness and competitive nature will be more than enough to compensate for it.”
I think for players like Jefferson, it is super difficult to watch the film and say anything definitive. He was such a massive beneficiary of perfect QB play and optimal play-calling but the two things scouts say which is that he is better suited as a slot wide receiver at the NFL and that he will be a great red-zone weapon both seem intuitively true to me from the outside. There is going to be a lot of value at the backend of rookie drafts in 2020 because the top-end of round one features so many studs. Accurately choosing Jefferson vs the other three or four wide receivers is going to be a massive edge if he does in fact deliver on his promise from 2019 at the 2020 scouting combine.