Why Justin Jefferson Won’t End as the TOP Sophomore Wide Receiver
(Photo Credit: CBS Minnesota)
Justin Jefferson fever has officially set in within the fantasy football community and for good reason.
A phenomenal rookie season saw Jefferson finish as the WR6 in PPR scoring, according to Fantasy Pros, with 17.1 points per game. It was an even more impressive finish when looking at the differences between his first eight games and his last eight.
Over the first half of the season, Jefferson averaged 5.5 targets with 14.5 fantasy points per game. During the second half, he averaged 10.1 targets with 19.7 fantasy points per game. Those numbers are fantastic and, in fact, seem to point to an even better second season.
Now, the point is not to say that Jefferson will not finish as, at the least, a top-24 wide receiver in fantasy football. He is currently at No. 20 among the position in my rankings, so I absolutely believe he will have a good season. I just think the fever has gone too far and, in this article, I will explain why I believe Jefferson will not perform at or better than the level that he did this season. I will also go over a few other sophomore wide receivers that I think could very well have a better season than Jefferson.
The sophomore slump is used a lot when talking about players entering their second year in the league, particularly if they had a prolific first year. It has been used to explain the drop in second-year production for recent players like Baker Mayfield, Robert Griffin III, Reggie Bush and Leonard Fournette, among many others.
As you may notice, all the players listed above are quarterbacks and running backs. It’s more common for those positions to suffer from sophomore slumps, but wide receivers are not exempt. Take a look at former Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Williams. His rookie season saw him catch 11 touchdowns. The following year, he had three.
The most relevant example regarding fantasy football in my mind is the only other rookie wide receiver in recent history to have stats that even compared to Jefferson’s and that is Odell Beckham, Jr. In 2014, Beckham had a ridiculous 24.6 fantasy points per game. That has been the highest mark in his career by far. Across 12 games, he had 100 fewer yards than Jefferson, but three more receptions and a whopping five more touchdowns! The next season, Beckham’s average dropped 3.3 points. If Jefferson suffers that same 3.3 points-per-game loss, that would see him finish as the 21st-ranked receiver using the rankings from last season.
Many people believe the sophomore slump is a myth. It led a group of students from Harvard to do a study on the sophomore slump. Their results found it does, on average, exist. Below is a graph that shows season-to-season performances of wide receivers based on their Pro Football Focus grades. The green line is an average of 124 receivers who had above-average rookie seasons, while the red line shows an average of 253 receivers who had at or below-average rookie seasons.
The graph indicates a higher chance that Jefferson’s stats dip than that they increase. Even if it’s only slightly, that would be enough to see him go from a mid-tier WR1 to mid-tier WR2.
The Vikings’ Pass Game
Kirk Cousins receives a lot of hate.
For everything that can be said about Cousins, he does provide fantasy value to players around him. Both Jefferson and Thielen finished in the top 10 at their position according to Fantasy Pros. It’s not a hot take to say that will not happen again next season. Most people believe Jefferson will take a step up and Thielen will take a step back. What they don’t take into account is the potential emergence of Irv Smith, Jr.
Smith, a 2019 second-round draft pick, did not take a step up last season in receptions and receiving yards, but he more than doubled his touchdown receptions. In 2021, I believe he takes another step up and becomes more of a focal point in their pass game. Where I believe this hurts Jefferson the most is in red zone targets.
Red zone targets are the best indicator of the number of touchdowns because it’s the number of times a player is targeted within their opponent’s 20-yard line. Obviously long touchdown receptions happen, and they happen more commonly for some receivers than others, but those are almost impossible to predict. In 2020, the red zone target breakdown, according to NFLsavant.com, of the Vikings top four receivers is as follows:
Adam Thielen (23)
Justin Jefferson (14)
Irv Smith Jr. (12)
Kyle Rudolph (5)
Thielen was used a ridiculous amount in the red zone and that won’t go anywhere. He managed to successfully convert 13 of those two touchdowns. The only receiver to score more red zone touchdowns than Thielen was Davante Adams, as he scored 14 touchdowns on 32 red zone targets. Rudolph is gone now and thus I believe Smith will receive those five red zone targets on top of the increased number of those targets that I expect him to have. That leaves Jefferson with a decreased role in the red zone.
My predictions for the stats of the Vikings’ top three receivers are as follows:
Adam Thielen: 70 rec, 850 yds, 11 TDs (WR22* in 2020)
Justin Jefferson: 74 rec, 1200 yds, 6 TDs (WR18* in 2020)
Irv Smith, Jr.: 60 rec, 600 yds, 9 TDs (TE6* in 2020)
*Based on Fantasy Pros 2020 season rankings
Other Sophomore Wide Receivers
This article is not about hating on Justin Jefferson. I have said numerous times that I believe he will have a productive 2021 season. I just do not believe that he will be the most productive sophomore wide receiver in the NFL.
Currently, I have CeeDee Lamb two spots above Jefferson and Tee Higgins one spot above Jefferson in my rankings. Assuming these two receivers find themselves in good situations, I believe they will have more productive seasons than Jefferson.
If Dak Prescott stays in Dallas or if the Cowboys get another very talented quarterback — namely Deshaun Watson or Russell Wilson — I would like Lamb for the season more than I do Jefferson. I expect that the offense will have more success and for Lamb, my No. 1 wide receiver entering the 2020 draft, to improve on his good rookie campaign. If Joe Burrow is healthy and ready to go for the first week of the season, I would also like Higgins more than Jefferson. Burrow would be one year older and his connection with Higgins, my No. 2 wide receiver entering the 2020 draft, will be one year stronger.
What if they don’t work out?
There are still a number of second-year receivers who could have breakout years. Jalen Reagor has a clear opportunity at the No. 1 wide receiver spot in Philadelphia. Henry Ruggs III, particularly if Nelson Agholor leaves, also has an opportunity to become the No. 1 wide receiver in Las Vegas. Jerry Jeudy could have a great season if Drew Lock improves. Laviska Shenault, Jr., a guy my co-host Shane Palma LOVES for the year, could become Trevor Lawrences’ favorite target. Brandon Aiyuk could become the clear No. 1 wide receiver in San Francisco. Chase Claypool may be Ben Roethlisberger’s clear go-to if JuJu Smith-Schuster leaves and Diontae Johnson continues to drop passes. Even guys like Tyler Johnson have a chance to finish as the top sophomore receiver if situations work out perfectly in their favors. The list goes on and on.
Justin Jefferson will be good in 2021. I am not saying don’t draft him in the fourth or fifth round if he falls that far. I’m just trying to say don’t be surprised when another sophomore wide receiver finishes above him in fantasy football this season.