Making the Grade: Can Justin Jefferson replace Stefon Diggs, thrive with Vikings?
Justin Jefferson will be wearing purple and gold once again next season. This time as a member of the Minnesota Vikings, who took the LSU receiver with the 22nd pick in the first round of this year’s draft.
New Orleans Saints fans are all too familiar with the Vikings. Since 2014, the Saints have lost three of five to the Vikings, including a pair of heartbreaking playoff losses over the last three seasons.
Minnesota lost to the eventual NFC champion San Francisco 49ers in the Divisional Round of the playoffs after finishing 10-6 during the regular season. Though Minnesota finished in the top 10 in both offense and defense, the Vikings beat only one team with a winning record last season, the 9-7 Philadelphia Eagles.
Their schedule gets more difficult this season with visits to Houston, New Orleans, Seattle, Green Bay, and Tampa Bay. The Vikings also have to host Green Bay, Tennessee, and Dallas.
Defense is the Vikings’ calling card. Mike Zimmer’s version of the Purple People Eaters haven’t finished outside of the top 10 in points allowed since 2014.
The Vikings are strong up the middle with linebacker Eric Kendricks and safety Harrison Smith, and Danielle Hunter is an elite pass rusher.
However, Minnesota did lose a pair of Pro Bowlers this offseason; defensive end Everson Griffen and cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
The Vikings must be expecting to develop their replacements from within, because they didn’t add much to the defense in free agency.
Instead, Minnesota spent nine draft picks on defensive players, including five defensive backs.
With a big infusion of new faces, the veterans will have to get the rookies acclimated quickly to the standards set over the past five seasons.
Kirk Cousins is the unquestioned leader of the offense after signing a two-year, $66 million contract extension this offseason. The quarterback was entering the final year of a three-year, $84 million pact he signed in 2018.
Both members of Minnesota’s backfield, Dalvin Cook and CJ Ham, were named to the Pro Bowl. Cook ran for more than 1100 yards with 13 touchdowns. He also caught 53 passes.
Ham was the lead blocker for the NFL’s sixth-best rushing attack, as the Vikings tallied 2133 yards on the ground.
Jefferson will have to step in for Stefon Diggs, who the Vikings traded to Buffalo this offseason. Over the past two seasons Diggs averaged 82.5 catches, 1075.5 yards, and 7.5 touchdowns.
Those are big shoes to fill for a rookie, but then again Jefferson has already followed two older brothers through LSU and outshined them both.
The rest of the Vikings’ receiving corps is relatively unproven outside of Adam Thielen, who missed most of the 2019 season with injury. He is a two-time Pro Bowler and amassed 204 catches and 2649 yards in his previous two campaigns.
Olabisi Johnson totaled just 294 yards, and free agent signee Tajae Sharpe’s best season was his 41-catch, 522 yard performance for the Tennessee Titans in 2016. He has 51 total receptions since.
The only other receiver the Vikings drafted, KJ Osborn, may be lucky to make the team as anything other than a special teams player.
The tight end position is solid, if not spectacular. Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr. combined for 75 receptions, 678 yards, and an impressive eight touchdowns.
The offensive line is impressive in the run game, but struggled to give Cousins time to throw in 2019. Pro Football Focus had Minnesota graded out as the NFL’s 27th-best pass blocking team. Cousins was sacked 36 times last season.
Linemen Ezra Cleveland and Kyle Hinton were taken in the draft. Cleveland should challenge for the starting left tackle spot as a rookie. Hinton is big and athletic, but played at Division II Washburn University. As a seventh-rounder, he’s most likely a project at this point.
The Vikings aren’t going to be very fancy, but they can be very effective. Minnesota scored at least 30 points five times in 2019. If Cook and Thielen can play 16 games and Cousins performs up to his contract against winning teams, the Vikings will be strong challengers for the NFC North.
The Packers added nothing to their offense to help Aaron Rodgers, the Bears added Nick Foles and the Lions are…the Lions.
At the very least, Jefferson is a contributor on a playoff contender in his rookie year. That’s not a bad floor. The problem is, with Cousins under center, it seems the Vikings’ ceiling hits just below the Super Bowl.
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Sports 1280am host/CCS reporter
David Grubb has more than a decade of experience in the sports industry. He began his career with KLAX-TV in Alexandria, La. and followed that up with a stint as an reporter and anchor with WGGB-TV in Springfield, Mass. After spending a few years away from the industry, David worked as sports information director for Southern University at New Orleans…