As the 2020 NFL Combine approaches — the first batch of players begin arriving on Sunday — it’s time to take another look at a few key draft prospects for the Green Bay Packers. GM Brian Gutekunst is sure to take a long look at the wide receivers in this draft class, and today we profile one of the most productive players at the position in the 2019 season.
Justin Jefferson, WR, LSU
Weight: 225 pounds
On first viewing, the thing that stands out about Justin Jefferson is that nothing stands out. Jefferson accelerates out of his stance fairly well, but there are certainly players in this draft who get off the ball faster. Jefferson is also pretty good at getting a free release off the ball by attacking the cornerback’s hands and shoulders with his hands when they try to press, but there are players in this draft that do that better. He also doesn’t appear to have any particular skill in using stutter steps to get separation off the press. He runs fairly clean routes, but he doesn’t necessarily have the best technique. Jefferson doesn’t drop his hips well during his cuts and subsequently doesn’t really have good burst out of them. He also has a bad habit of rounding his cuts. Jefferson is fairly good after the catch; he stops, starts and changes direction with pretty good suddenness to shake off would be tacklers.
Again, however, there are players in this draft who do these things significantly better than him. So what does Jefferson do that differentiates him?
Jefferson’s bread and butter is anticipating and understanding how defenses are reacting to his route and the play design overall, and exploiting weaknesses that present themselves as the defense reacts. When facing zone defenses, Jefferson shows a knack for running his route at exactly the right depth to find himself in holes behind the linebackers/cornerback and in front of the safety. He does this particularly well on routes over the middle.
When he’s facing man coverage, Jefferson is very good at splitting the cornerback and his safety help over the top and creating a window for his quarterback to throw into. He was always very in sync with his quarterback, and he tended to time his breaks to create separation exactly at the point his quarterback is looking to throw the ball. Jefferson is also very good during scramble drills, with a good feel for getting open in the field of view of his quarterback.
So despite just being a pretty good athlete with mediocre route running technique, Jefferson is able to dissect defenses and create excellent production due to his keen understanding of play dynamics and patterns and his understanding of how to get an advantage out of them.
Jefferson has good technique catching the ball. He catches away from his body with soft hands that absorb the impact of the ball hitting them. Jefferson is good at high pointing the ball when need be with excellent body control to torque and make difficult catches in the air. He has good focus when there are a lot of bodies and hands in his face while the ball is coming in. He does seem to lose track of ball over his shoulder, and there were some cases where he may have been able to lay out for a ball and chose not to. That is not much to be concerned over however.
Jefferson’s blocking technique isn’t necessarily bad. He gets his hands to opposing players’ chests, comes in low for leverage and drives his feet. He just doesn’t have enough leg drive or rate of force pop from the initial punch to really move people. Jefferson had a few really nice blocks, usually when he was more inline and came at a linebacker from an angle, but he mostly just managed to shield out defenders instead of really moving them. Jefferson isn’t a bad blocker by any means, he’s just a mediocre one.
Jefferson is effective from both the outside and the slot. While he doesn’t necessarily have the short area quickness that’s prototypical of slot players, his knack for exploiting defenses over the middle makes up for it. Jefferson didn’t return kicks, and wasn’t really used out of the backfield or on motion plays to any effect. I’m not sure his skill set would really be suited to it anyways.
Justin Jefferson isn’t a superlative athlete or route runner, but he’s an extremely smart player who understands how to get open and make big plays regardless. I actually think Jefferson’s style of play and intelligence would fit very well with Aaron Rodgers and the two would likely form a connection very quickly, which would add some draft value idiosyncratic to the Packers and teams with a similar type of quarterback.
That being said, in order for Jefferson to hit his ceiling, which to me would be a solid #1 option or very good #2 option, he’s really going to need to hone his route running to a fine point. The same weaknesses that he exploited in college will be there in the NFL, but the the window he has to exploit them will be much smaller. He’ll need to have crisp technique at the next level to continue doing what he’s good at, and to me that adds an element of risk to his selection.
In an standard draft I would put him near the bottom of the second round. If he works out, he’s going to absolutely carve up defenses, but he’s going to have to become much more of a technician to do so. I do think that Jefferson is a rare case where a good combine performance would sway my opinion, however. If it turns out that Jefferson actually has exceptional athleticism that just didn’t show up on tape, that lowers his risk profile significantly and I would grade him much higher. I’ll be watching Jefferson’s performance at the combine next week with anticipation.