Injuries, inexperience and off-field issues all contributed to the New England Patriots getting only inconsistent production out of their wide receiver position throughout the 2019 season. Entering 2020, it is therefore again in the spotlight and appears to be rather high up on the Patriots’ list of needs — especially after a relatively inactive free agency period that saw only one outside addition to the roster (Damiere Byrd).
The current core of former first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry and ex-Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman is supported by veterans (Mohamed Sanu, Byrd), players entering their second year in the system (Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski) and former practice squad players (Quincy Adeboyejo, Devin Ross). Adding more athleticism and upside to the table therefore is imperative, but luckily for New England this year’s draft is considered deep at wide receiver.
One potential mid-round option that might be attractive for the Patriots is Van Jefferson out of Florida. Let’s take a closer look at him.
Name: Van Jefferson
Position: Wide receiver
School: Florida (redshirt senior)
Opening day age: 24
2019 stats: 12 games; 568 snaps; 69 targets, 49 receptions (4 drops), 657 receiving yards, 6 receiving touchdowns; 1 rushing attempt, 7 rushing yards; 1 fumble recovery
Size: 6014, 200 lbs, 9.13 hand size, 32.75 arm length
Workout numbers: N/A
Expected round: 3rd-4th
Patriots pre-draft meeting: Senior Bowl
Strengths: Few if any wide receivers in this year’s draft class are as good at running routes as Jefferson: he is very good in this area, and brings an NFL-caliber skillset to the table that gives him a high floor for teams to work with. He knows how to take advantage of leverage, has quick and tremendous footwork to adjust on the fly and performs breaks without losing speed, disguises his intentions very well, and knows how to set up defenders on the top of his routes without being too aggressive with his hands. In short, Jefferson is a master technician.
His supreme technique also shows up in other areas of his game. For example, he is very smooth when it comes to plugging the football out of the air: he is quick in his progression from receiver to ball-carrier, capable of adjusting and high-pointing the ball, and able to fight for contested catches due to some strong concentration. Furthermore, Jefferson knows to create separation at the line of scrimmage even when going against press-man coverage. He has good acceleration, after all, and has the necessary quickness to shake free when moving laterally.
On top of it all, Jefferson’s background also has to be mentioned as a positive: his father, Shawn, spent 13 seasons in the NFL as a player — including four with the Patriots — and has worked as an assistant coach since 2006. Currently the receivers coach for the New York Jets, the elder Jefferson has taught his kid well when it comes to the fundamentals of playing the wide receiver position from route-running to catching to blocking in the running game.
Weaknesses: While his floor is a high one, Jefferson’s ceiling is lower than that of other wide receivers available in this year’s class. This is mostly due to the fact that his deep speed is not as impressive as his burst or short-area quickness — effectively limiting him to an underneath role at the next level — and that he offers little as a run-after-the-catch receiver. He may be willing in terms of initiating contact and bracing for tackles, but he lacks the necessary strength to bounce off players in the open field and survive through contact.
Jefferson also is already relatively maxed out in terms of his ability to build his rather slight frame and his general development as a player: he will already be 24 years old when the 2020 season gets kicked off. Add his comparatively modest production in college (his 2019 season was his best from a statistical perspective) and you get a player who might not become a regular difference-maker at the next level, or much more than a package-specific role player.
On top of it all, Jefferson also has some injury concerns. He missed the on-field portion of this year’s scouting combine after a fracture was discovered in his right foot during medical evaluation, and underwent surgery in early March. He also went under the knife back in the summer of 2017 to repair a sprained knee.
What would be his role? Due to his skillset — advanced route-running, limited speed to challenge the deep parts of the field — Jefferson projects as a Z or slot receiver at the next level. He will likely not develop into a true number one within any offense, nor a consistent threat to beat teams beyond the short and intermediate range, but he could be a high-quality contributor right away as a rotational third or fourth option. That role was held by Phillip Dorsett and Jakobi Meyers in 2019, depending on the situation and play call, and Jefferson could be an upgrade due to his strong separation skills.
How many downs can he play? Four in theory, fewer than that in practice — at least early on in his career. Given that Jefferson projects as a third/fourth target, he would likely start his tenure in the NFL as a package-specific receiver that will see the field primarily in obvious passing situations or on third downs. Time will tell whether or not he can develop into more than that, but his contributions would still be valuable even if he does not grow beyond role-player status.
What is his special teams value? Jefferson should be able to make an impact in the kicking game right away — not only as a potential kick coverage contributor but maybe also a returnman. After all, he ran back a few punts both at Ole Miss and later at Florida as well. With New England having to rely on undrafted rookie Gunner Olszewski and in-season acquisition Mohamed Sanu in this role in 2019, Jefferson would be a welcome addition to the mix.
Does he have positional versatility? He could be used split out wide or as a slot receiver, but other than that Jefferson’s versatility appears to be somewhat limited. He likely will not be able to consistently challenge defenses on go-routes or other deep patterns, and offers limited abilities as a part-time ball-carrier. Jefferson is good at what he does best — win with his NFL-ready route running in the underneath portions of the field — and should be used that way at the next level.
Will his role change from Year One to Year Two? With Mohamed Sanu scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency next offseason and Julian Edelman turning 35 two months later, the door could be open for Jefferson to see an increased role alongside N’Keal Harry in 2021. He could either serve as the Patriots’ second or third target at the wide receiver position, and give the team a viable short-area target to complement outside receiver Harry.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? Jefferson would essentially be guaranteed a roster spot due considering that he is expected to come off the board in either the third or fourth round. His playing time would likely depend on his practice performance, though, especially versus fellow potential Z/slot receivers Mohamed Sanu, Jakobi Meyers and Quincy Adeboyejo. All three are projected to play similar roles as Jefferson in 2020 and could therefore take playing time away from the rookie with better training camp and preseason performances.
Why the Patriots? New England’s passing offense struggled in 2019, and the lack of quality depth at wide receiver became apparent after the mid-season injuries suffered by Edelman and Sanu. Adding more players to the equation therefore would make sense from the team’s perspective, and few are more pro-ready than Jefferson: his overall upside may be limited, but he offers a high floor and could become a contributor from Day One as a third/fourth target alongside the players already on the roster.
Why not the Patriots? The Patriots have plenty of wide receiver under contract at the moment, and the projected growth of youngsters N’Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski — in combination with other factors such as Julian Edelman’s and Mohamed Sanu’s rehabilitation process — could impact how the team views the position as a whole heading into 2020. It would therefore not be a surprise if New England opted against spending a mid-round pick on a player who may never become a starting-caliber wideout.
Verdict: From the Patriots’ perspective few wide receivers in this year’s class appear to be better fits than Van Jefferson both with 2020 and the longer-term future in mind. His advanced route-running and abilities to create separation even against press-man coverage give him a high floor to work with, and could lead to him becoming a difference-maker earlier than some other prospects at the position with a higher ceiling. As such, Jefferson would be a solid mid-round investment from New England’s point of view.