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Is LSU’s WR Justin Jefferson worth a first-round pick?

Jefferson is a possible option if the 49ers trade back from No. 13

College Football Playoff National Championship - Clemson v LSU Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

LSU’s Justin Jefferson was one of the first wide receivers the San Francisco 49ers met with. The 6’1”, 202-pound wide receiver raised some eyebrows at the NFL Combine. Jefferson ran a 4.43 40-yard dash and had a 37.5” vertical jump—both numbers signaling Jefferson is more explosive than he showed as a junior. In 2019, Jefferson lined up primarily in the slot. He finished the season with 111 receptions for 1,540 and 18, yes, 18 touchdowns. Just reading those last couple of lines and knowing Jefferson is coming from the team that won a national championship, why isn’t he a consensus top-3 receiver in the draft?

Some question how much Jefferson’s production was propped up from playing alongside a Heisman trophy winner, as well as Biletnikoff (best wideout in the country) winner. LSU revamped their offense in 2019 and threw the ball all over the place. With Jefferson playing in the slot so much, there were times where he was playing glorified 7-on-7 with the free releases off the line of scrimmage. Many, including myself, were surprised at Jefferson’s 40-yard dash time. You usually hear, “he plays faster than that.” In Jefferson’s case, you can tell he trained for the 40 because you don’t see low 4.4 speed when you watch the LSU receiver run routes.

In 2018, Jefferson played on the outside He finished the season with 54 receptions for 875 yards and six touchdowns. Jefferson struggled on the perimeter against press coverage. There were some ugly reps, especially against Georgia. I wonder if those issues led to Jefferson moving inside in 2019, or if it was a combination of the talent LSU had on the roster.

Let’s look at how Jefferson projects to the NFL in five routes.

Man in the middle

One reason to be high on Jefferson and what separates him from a player like Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy is that there is no fear when Jefferson goes over the middle of the field. You won’t see any alligator arms when a defender is coming in hot to lay the wood on Jefferson. Instead, he’ll treat it like any other route and use his hands to go outside of his frame if necessary.

Jefferson is consistent in catching the ball. You can’t say that for many receivers in this class. Jefferson caught 92% of his catchable passes, per Sports Info Solutions. He also only dropped four passes on 134 targets. What’s most impressive, as you can see above, is Jefferson’s confidence to use his hands and not his body in traffic. That confidence, strength in his hands, and willingness will go along way in the NFL. Players that don’t shy away from contact tend to stick around at wideout in the NFL.

Excellent vs. off/zone coverage

Jefferson was free to roam the middle of the field early and often in 2019 as a slot receiver. He maneuvered through zone defenses with ease. Jefferson did a nice job of avoiding contact and keeping himself clean so his quarterback can find him. Against off coverage, Jefferson uses hesitation, and head fakes to get open. His initial burst leads to separation. At his peak, this is what Jefferson looks like in the slot:

Jefferson knows how to get open against zone coverage. That’s a skill that some veteran receivers haven’t mastered.

His style of play will cause him to struggle

I mentioned how Jefferson struggled against Georgia in 2018. They played predominant man coverage principles. The Bulldogs did the same thing in 2019, and the results against Jefferson were similar. When you look at the box score, Jefferson had seven receptions for 115 yards and a tuddy. A big chunk of that came on a broken play, while the other two explosive plays Jefferson was schemed open. Against off coverage, Jefferson likes to take his time off the line of scrimmage, and once he gets to the top of his route, Jefferson will use his long strides to sink into cuts and get the defensive back off balance. Against tight man coverage, those strides work against him. Cornerbacks can get a hand on Jefferson, and the results aren’t pretty:

You don’t have to be an all-world route runner to win in the NFL. Jefferson is an above-average route runner. His greatest area for improvement is against press-man coverage. What I saw is a receiver that doesn’t have a plan, and when you don’t have a counter, you lose. That’s what I repeatedly saw with Jefferson against the top competition when they decided to play man on him—which is troublesome. At the top of his routes, when a defender is in phase with Jefferson, there are too many extra steps out of his breaks, and that was a problem when it came to gaining separation.

You can scheme around these issues by putting Jefferson in bunch formations in the slot, but eventually, he is going to have to improve his separation skills against the best man-to-man corners if Jefferson is going to be the receiver he’s capable of becoming.

Creating for yourself

Add Jefferson to the long list of receivers in the draft that can create for himself. LSU tried lined up Jefferson as a running back to throw him quick passes to get the ball in his hands and let him be the playmaker he is. They also used Jefferson on screens and jet sweeps. That’s a good indicator that Jefferson is good with the ball in his hands. Another good indicator is 45% of Jefferson’s 1,540 yards came after the catch. Those long strides are an advantage in the open field as Jefferson can use them to hit defenders with this dead leg move:

That’s against a first-round safety. Jefferson’s 40 time shows up when the ball is in his hands, and he’s running away from defenders. He’s quick and has the lateral agility to give defenders fits 1-on-1.

Terrific at tracking

Jefferson shouldn’t be pegged as “just a slot receiver” for a few reasons, but the chief one being that Jefferson is terrific at tracking the ball and adjusting down the field. You saw Jefferson down the field on a few occasions against Oklahoma, and there were no issues. If anything, Jefferson seemed just as comfortable with a defender draped all over him:

With the “slot fade” becoming more and more popular in today’s game, being able to adjust to back shoulder throws, under throws, or tracking the ball over your shoulder is a vital skill for a slot receiver.

Why I’d pass on Jefferson in the first round

Jefferson is a promising prospect that does just about everything well. I hate pro comps, but I’ll do it anyway. Jefferson is a mix of JuJu Smith-Schuster/Robert Woods. In a perfect scenario, they’re players that can thrive in the NFL. If I’m taking a receiver in the first round, I want to be 100% confident in is abilities across the board. Jefferson is good at everything, but if his best trait is the fact that he’s tough across the middle and having strong hands, then that’s not someone I want to take in the first round. Jefferson will be a high-quality No. 2 receiver in the NFL. There aren’t enough first-round traits to justify spending a first-round pick on Jefferson. With the wide receiver class as deep as it is, you can find what Jefferson provides later in the draft—and because of that, I’ll pass early in the draft.