The LSU Tigers were one of the greatest teams in college football history this season. Their offense was particularly insane, as they had multiple players break records on their way to a National Championship. When you look past QB Joe Burrow (the likely first overall pick, who threw over 60 touchdowns this year) and WR Ja’Marr Chase (the Biletnikoff winner with 1,780 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns), you’ll see yet another star player in Justin Jefferson.
Jefferson’s career at LSU was a bit different than most who enroll at the school. Most of LSU’s recruits are four- or five-star players out of high school, but he was just a three-star. Despite his lower rating, he was still able to make it to the program and follow in both his brothers’ footsteps, Jordan and Rickey, who played there in years prior. After not playing as a freshman, Jefferson was able to take over as the lead receiver in 2018, tallying 54 catches for 875 yards and 6 touchdowns in LSU’s then-lethargic and outdated offense.
Everything changed in 2019, however. With the addition of Passing Game Coordinator Joe Brady and behind the arm of Joe Burrow, Jefferson and the LSU offense exploded in 2019. Jefferson had a historic season despite being second on the team in both receiving touchdowns and receiving yards. He earned Second Team All-SEC honors, as he totaled 111 catches for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior.
In today’s film session, we will be looking at a few of Jefferson’s best skills and why he should be a first-round pick in this NFL Draft class. He has the production, but I will show you all that he also has the talent and skill-set to translate to the NFL.
Contested Catch Ability
The ability to win at the catch-point and hang on to difficult passes is incredibly important in the NFL game. There is very little separation for receivers, especially compared to the college game. It is important that receivers have the ability to not only hang on to passes when they are contacted, but they also need to be able to elevate in traffic and catch passes that aren’t necessarily on target. Jefferson, standing at 6’3″, possesses great size and athleticism to excel in this area.
He uses his size well in traffic as he essentially boxes out defenders down the field. You can see in some of these clips when the ball is thrown down the field that he does mis-time his jumps too often. He effortlessly leaps, contorts his body, and snags passes out of the air. On other contested catches, such as ones where he is contacted over the middle, he shows great awareness of when to cover up in traffic to protect himself and also showcases good hands to catch through that contact.
Route Running/Separation Ability
Obviously, the ability to separate with great route running is absolutely vital in the NFL. If you look at a majority of the league’s best wide receivers, they are almost all excellent route runners. There is a lot of nuance, though, when it comes to this trait. Some players win with great releases off the line, while some players win with being very technical in their routes, and still others win by being just bigger and faster than everybody. Jefferson is a mixture of all three.
Lining up mainly in the slot for LSU, he didn’t have to beat press coverage very often. Instead, he was tasked with finding space against zone coverage over the middle and beating corners who are lined up in off-man coverage. Whenever he had a one-on-one in off-man from the slot, the play was typically over before it started. Jefferson could win in a multitude of ways from this spot, as he is a savvy enough route runner to win with his crisp routes and shifty enough to win with his natural quickness. Why he is so dangerous from this spot, though, is his understanding of a defender’s leverage and balance. He knows how to break a defender down in space and understands when to use a variety of moves, such as a hesitation, a dead leg (or a Euro-step for all you basketball fans), and quick outs to win his match-up. He truly is a terror to have to match up with in the slot in man coverage.
Run After Catch Ability
The ability to make plays after the catch is vital in the NFL. With the speed that the league plays at, you have to be able to win with chunk plays on the offensive side of the ball. Jefferson doesn’t have elite long speed, but he does create his fair share of chunk plays after the catch. He possesses great quickness and elusiveness in the open field, and this agility allows him to maneuver by helpless defenders. He also has a great stiff arm in space that knocks defensive backs to the ground fairly easily. With his 6’3″ frame, he is able to reach players with this stiff arm without being contacted at all. With these two attributes, you get a big receiver who can also create after the catch and even be schemed touches on screens and drags.
It is a bit confusing to see mock drafts and scouting reports leave Justin Jefferson out of the round-one conversation. It is still early in the process, but he has almost everything you would want in a first-round player. He has the production, athleticism, traits, and tape to be a very good receiver in the NFL.
Looking at where he fits in the league, he should be a team’s starting slot receiver from day one. With the newer emphasis on some teams having a “big slot”-type player in an offense, Jefferson could thrive in this role. He would simply dominate being used as a dual threat from the slot, as he can win with slot fades over the top or in underneath coverage, as he breaks down slot corners out of his break. Overall, though, I see him having a very successful NFL career. He has the size and tools to succeed right away and should be a first-rounder come April.