The New England Patriots failed to get consistent production out of its wide receiver position last year. Whether it was injuries, inexperience or off-field issues, the pass catchers simply were not up to par during the 2019 season. Heading towards this week’s draft, the position is therefore again in the spotlight and once more appears to be rather high up on the Patriots’ list of needs after they already spent a first-round pick on N’Keal Harry last year.
The current depth chart, after all, looks a lot like the one the team fielded last year. With the exception of free agency addition Damiere Byrd, who is expected to fill Phillip Dorsett’s former role as a boundary receiver, the players that were with the team last year are all expected to compete for roles in 2020 as well: Harry and ex-Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman are locks, supported by veterans (Mohamed Sanu, Byrd), players entering their second year in the system (Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski) and former practice squad members (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 one of the deepest at wide receiver in recent memory. One player who sticks out and might be an attractive target for the Patriots on Day One is Justin Jefferson out of LSU. Let’s take a closer look at him.
Name: Justin Jefferson
Position: Wide receiver
School: LSU (junior)
Opening day age: 21
2019 stats: 15 games; 937 snaps; 134 targets, 111 receptions (7 drops), 1,540 receiving yards, 18 receiving touchdowns
Size: 6012, 202 lbs, 9.13 hand size, 33.0 arm length
Workout numbers: 4.43 40-yard dash, 37.5 vertical jump, 1006 broad jump
Expected round: Late 1st
Strengths: Jefferson is a very savvy route runner and has proven that he can succeed on various patterns due to his footwork and natural feel for attacking defenses: he varies his motions very well and is capable to break out in an instant, making it hard for defensive backs to read and in turn keep up with him due to his terrific pacing. He knows how to work leverage very well, and kick into another gear if he sees an opening or feels he can take advantage of some poor defensive positioning. While he may not be the most explosive athlete, Jefferson is capable of running sharp cuts.
The 21-year-old also has some of the best hands in this year’s draft class and is capable of plugging the football out of the air without any problems even in contested situations or when asked to catch outside his frame: he has not just the concentration to come away with the ball no matter the situation, but also offers the length, balance and hand-eye-coordination to succeed. He is a threat with the football in his hands due to his physicality at the catch-point and reactionary skills to turn into a runner immediately.
Jefferson also offers a high football IQ, which is illustrated not just by his diverse route tree and ability to perform on option concepts, but also his understanding of how to win against defenders: he adapts well to their tendencies and tries to exploit any openings he sees. On top of it all, he also is a physical player when asked to block in the running game — something the Patriots, for example, place a lot of value in. Add his outstanding production over his final two years at LSU and you get a player who is well-rounded.
Weaknesses: While Jefferson projects to come off the board as early as the first round, he does enter the NFL with some questions. The biggest of which might be tied to his release off the line of scrimmage: Jefferson rarely faced press-man coverage in 2019, and oftentimes won by exploiting holes in defensive zone concepts. He will need to adjust to this at the next level and become more effective with his steps when going against defensive backs who try to get grabby with him early in his routes.
In general, he has shown that he can get re-routed too easily at times when challenged on his patterns and needs to use his outside arm to disengage. He may have to add more mass to his frame to help in this regard. Jefferson also offers only limited deep-threat abilities at this point in his career. While he tested well at the combine by running a 4.43 40-yard-dash, his production beyond the 20-yard range was limited in part due to his inability to shake free on 9-routes and similar assignments.
What would be his role? Jefferson spent most of his time at LSU in the slot and proved to be a hyper-productive player from this alignment as well as the top target for expected number one overall draft pick Joe Burrow. Looking at the next level, he is therefore expected to play a similar role: Jefferson could see some snaps as a perimeter receiver due to his size and physicality, but will probably primarily work as a big slot in the mold of Mohamed Sanu — and potentially serve as an upgrade over last year’s trade acquisition further down the line. After all, Jefferson combines some crafty route running with one of the best pairs of hands in the class.
How many downs can he play? Jefferson projects as a WR2 at the next level with the upside to have a considerable impact on an offense right away — meaning that he will likely see considerable playing time from early on in his career. After all, his hight football IQ and advanced route-running in combination with his physical nature make him a player who should adapt well to the pro game and find success not just in package-specific looks but as an every-down receiver. He can be a four-down weapon.
What is his special teams value? While Jefferson has two punt returns on his college résumé, he should not be expected to necessarily compete for this role in the NFL. Instead, his kicking game contributions might be rather limited: he could see some action as an up-man on punt returns or maybe on kickoffs, but should not be expected to make much of an impact or become a big member of New England’s coverage units.
Does he have positional versatility? As noted above, Jefferson spent most of his time at LSU filling the Y/slot role: according to Pro Football Focus’ 2020 NFL Draft Guide, he played 870 of his 937 offensive snaps (92.8%) from a slot alignment. He should also be able to find some success on the outside, however, especially by playing as a Z-receiver opposite X-pass catcher N’Keal Harry. After all, Jefferson has not just the size but also the quick processor and speed to be disruptive from the outside of the formation as well.
Will his role change from Year One to Year Two? Jefferson is a very mature receiver entering the NFL in terms of his functional skillset, which means he should be able to carve out a prominent role in an offense right away. Changes between the 2020 and 2021 seasons might therefore be more related to his overall level of confidence within the offense than his actual role as a potential number one or number two wide receiver. That said, his positional usage could expand as well and include more perimeter looks.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? Jefferson would be guaranteed a spot on New England’s 55-man roster considering that he is expected to come off the board as early as the first round. His playing time would likely depend on his practice performance, though, and how quickly he can adapt to life in the Patriots’ notoriously challenging scheme. Along the way, he would compete for snaps against the team’s inside receivers (Z/slot options): Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu, Jakobi Meyers and Quincy Adeboyejo. All could play similar roles as Jefferson in 2020 and therefore potentially take playing time away from the rookie in case his translation to the NFL is slower than anticipated.
Why the Patriots? Even with future Hall of Famer Tom Brady under center, New England’s passing offense struggled in 2019. One of the biggest issues was a lack of dynamic playmakers capable of elevating the entire unit, something Jefferson would offer as early as Year One: his elite skillset makes him a high-upside wide receiver option that could help take some pressure off N’Keal Harry and Julian Edelman, and instantly make a difference on the Patriots’ aerial attack as a second or third option on any given down.
Why not the Patriots? Could the Patriots go after a wide receiver in Round One for the second straight year? It certainly is possible, but there are factors that might speak against it. After all, New England already has plenty of wide receiver under contract at the moment: 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. Bill Belichick and company might therefore opt to address other holes on the roster, or trade down to accumulate more picks in the early stages of Day Two, instead of investing in Jefferson.
Verdict: Just like his namesake from Florida, Justin Jefferson projects to fit in very well with the Patriots’ offensive scheme and could flourish as a starting-caliber option alongside N’Keal Harry and Julian Edelman. As opposed to Van Jefferson, however, his ceiling is notably higher — in large part due to his outstanding athletic traits. Sure, New England spending a first-round pick on a wide receiver two years in a row would be surprising, but the LSU product could be a Day One difference-maker and instantly make the Patriots’ struggling wide receiver position a better one.