Justin Jefferson’s Pristine Route Running Will Help Him Make an Instant Impact
Note: Since I no longer have access to the necessary college film to chart prospects and their Reception Perception samples, I’ll be taking RP data from the NFL level and using it to frame what we can expect from these incoming rookies and their best role as pro receivers. You can get access to Reception Perception data on the Top 50 NFL receivers in the 2020 Ultimate Draft Kit.
We’ve heard for months about the strength of the 2020 NFL Draft’s wide receiver class. Oftentimes, craftsmanship can get overlooked for sizzle and flash in a crowded field like that. We saw it happen in another stacked class in 2014. Technicians like Jarvis Landry and Allen Robinson were drafted in the second round behind players like Kelvin Benjamin, who offered the appeal of size and highlight-reel catches.
If the pre-draft process is any indication, it does not appear history will repeat itself with LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson. Routinely ranked inside draft analysts’ top-five at the position and slotted in Round 1 of mock drafts, it looks like Jefferson will get the respect someone with his skills as a route-runner deserves.
Production will often keep you from going overlooked. Justin Jefferson has plenty of that to show off. Jefferson tied to lead college football with 111 catches and finished third in yards (1,540) and touchdowns (18). He was a prolific producer in that star-studded LSU passing offense.
He’s a long-limbed receiver without the eye-popping height or weight but is certainly not small at 6-foot-1, 202 pounds. Many had questions about Jefferson’s long speed but he quieted any doubts with a 4.43 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine. This player is more than fast enough.
Jefferson experienced a role change in his final year at LSU. While he was a traditional outside receiver in 2018, the spread offense brought in by Joe Brady and co. helped Jefferson take on a role as a big slot. He lined up inside on 81 percent of his 2019 snaps and his average depth of target dropped from over 13 the year prior to 8.7, per Sports Info Solutions. Despite that role change, we should not be any less imaginative about Jefferson’s NFL position because his route acumen is that good.
It’s impossible to watch Jefferson and not immediately be impressed with his advanced understanding of how to separate against man coverage. Even when you see a corner tight in his hip pocket, it’s entirely believable Jefferson will shake them at any moment. He’s consistently in control of the route battle because he often has the defensive back set up to believe he’s on one path before he breaks off in the opposite direction.
Jefferson always has a plan with his routes. Defensive backs covering him in man-to-man are playing a constant guessing game. They’re almost always getting the answer wrong.
Maintaining control and fluid movements combine to form extremely adept separation ability for Jefferson. He has a variety of shakes, dips and fast breaks to get off-man coverage. Even against press coverage, he shows more than passable ability to quickly get into his route. He moves everything at a quick pace and never wastes any motion.
The best route in Jefferson’s portfolio looks like the dig. He’s able to show off many of his best skills here. Jefferson’s quick acceleration after he sinks his hips just creates miles of separation between him and the man cover corner. Additionally, he marries his lower and upper body seamlessly. Jefferson quickly flips his head back to the corner at just the right point so as never to tip the dig route to the defender but give his quarterback ample time to see he has an available target.
With route-running skills like this, it’s hard to imagine Jefferson will be limited to just the slot in his NFL career. No question, he should be deployed at times because he’ll provide such a strong layup receiver target for his quarterback. However, I don’t see any reason he can’t against man coverage outside as a flanker, at the least.
You’ll see plenty of Cooper Kupp or Tyler Boyd-type comparisons for Justin Jefferson. Straight up, those players just aren’t as good of natural separators against man coverage. If we’re going to stick to the primary big slot archetype, Jefferson is much more like the lean stylings of Keenan Allen, who is indeed one of the best route runners in the NFL.
One player who stuck out to me as a similar route-runner was Falcons receiver, Calvin Ridley. In his rookie season, Ridley saw much more time in the slot than he did last year, shifting between that position and flanker. It was a huge hit.
Ridley brought the route prowess he showed in college right to the NFL field. In his rookie year Reception Perception, Ridley posted a 76.2 percent success rate vs. man coverage score. That checks in at the 90th percentile in Reception Perception history. Jefferson comes with similar advanced skills and the type of quick fluidity to win across the route tree.
Another rookie season that could help us open up our imagination to a role beyond the slot for Jefferson was that of Titans wideout A.J. Brown. Almost everyone had the Ole Miss product ticketed for a big slot role coming out of college but he always showed far superior route running than that of receivers who often need to move there.
Players like Boyd and Kupp have to play inside to thrive. Receivers in the vain of Keenan Allen could win anywhere but provide such a huge advantage in the slot. No doubt, Brown could provide that advantage too but that’s not how he was used as a rookie. Brown lined up i nthe slot on fewer than 10 percent of the snaps logged for Reception Perception and was on the line of scrimmage for 84.2 percent. The Titans rookie was used primarily as a No. 1 X-receiver in 2019 and absolutely crushed it.
Brown’s two most frequently run routes were the slant (22.5 percent) and the dig (15.5 percent). As mentioned, he thrived, posting a 73.9 percent success rate vs. man coverage score and 71.2 percent against press.
Using Jefferson in a variety of alignments while having him thump defenses over and over again on slants, digs and other in-breaking routes sounds like a gorgeous plan. No matter how you want to deploy him, Jefferson will find a way to consistently get open.
The players we mentioned in the comparison, Calvin Ridley and A.J. Brown, both entered the NFL and provided immediate production as rookies. While there were some roadblocks, they were simply too good to be denied. It’s my belief that Jefferson’s pro team will get a similar player.
Someone with his route-running acumen and advanced ability to win at the catch point would be a juicy addition to any passing game. He’s likely to be a fantasy factor if he lands on the right depth chart because he’s ready to make an immediate impact. He already looks like a pro receiver on his LSU film.
It’s a landing spot that I’ve had bookmarked since January but if I were the Philadelphia Eagles, this guy would be my top target late in Round 1. It’s all too likely the consensus top-three receivers are long gone by the time they pick at 21. That’s fine.
The Eagles need so much help at the receiver spot a steady, reliable player who can make an instant impact is what they need the most. Hitting a triple even if you sacrifice home run potential works just fine for this team. Justin Jefferson would be just perfect and would climb up Carson Wentz’s trust rankings in no time.