2020 NFL Draft | Van Jefferson and how route running affects the defense


Part of the evaluation process for NFL prospects is how that particular player projects to fit into a team’s scheme. A portion of that projection is how that player’s skill-set will affect the way the opponent plays. 

One example of this is how a stud pass rusher changes how the opposing offense schemes their protection, whether by helping with a tight end or running back, rolling the quarterback the other way or sliding their protection to that side. Whichever method the offense chooses, it negatively affects their passing game or limits their options.

The same type of impact can be found with offensive skill players, as defenses alter their plan of attack. For wide receivers, this means extra attention by the pass coverage. This can be in the form of a safety over the top or even a change in pre-snap depth by defensive backs.

Receivers will draw extra situational attention because of speed or potentially because of size. For others, such as Florida’s Van Jefferson, he’ll change the way that defenses cover because of his separation against man coverage.

I’ve kept tabs on Jefferson since before he transferred to Florida from Ole Miss. However, like most prospects who attend the event, a better feel for their skill-set comes when they compete at the Senior Bowl. At the event, Jefferson dominated most of his reps during 1-on-1 drills by constantly uncovering. His ability to accelerate out of breaks showed a natural projection into a full route tree, and his acceleration through cuts made for easy throwing windows.

When I went back to scout Jefferson’s game tape, there were a lot of similar reps with cornerbacks struggling to stay attached to his hip. This resulted in production for Jefferson when his quarterbacks were able to get him the ball, both from the slot or primarily along the boundary.

In 2018 against Florida State, Jefferson drew a safety in coverage over him. Once Jefferson was able to close down on the defensive back’s cushion, he threatened a cut across face before accelerating down the field. Jefferson’s ability to keep his weight down allows him to be quick and explosive in tight spaces, forcing defensive backs into speed turns or false steps.

From the outside of the formation, Jefferson is a natural separator when cornerbacks are put on an island in coverage. Due to that often occurring in the redzone, it makes Jefferson a threat to score once the field condenses. Even while working against All-American cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., Jefferson sold a vertical route before a “diamond” release slant route for the score.

When it comes to Jefferson’s pro projection, these route running reps are bound to impact how defenses call their coverage. Leaving cornerbacks in man coverage along the boundary against Jefferson is asking for him to separate and win intermediate routes. Playing with a safety over to his side, when cornerbacks can be more aggressive underneath, would be the far safer option. This likely means more split-safety reps, which generally weakens the run defense.

With the way that Jefferson dominates pure-cover cornerbacks, his presence in the lineup in a three wide receiver personnel grouping means defenses will almost be forced to play their nickelback, rather than a box-safety or potentially extra linebacker. When Jefferson is aligned in the slot, defenses won’t afford him a free release in coverage.

While Jefferson isn’t a natural field stretcher and doesn’t provide much spark after the catch, he’s a dominant route runner within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage. That fact should limit a defense’s use of man coverage blitzes, as his immediate separation should allow the quarterback to get the ball out of his hands quickly.

Jefferson’s separation on both horizontal cuts and in the curl window will make him a weapon on third downs. Due to that down typically being the one when defenses empty the playbook, Jefferson will make an immediate impact for an NFL offense. The way he separates as a route runner will alter defensive calls, raising Jefferson’s floor as a prospect.