Vikings' Justin Jefferson has look of a star, but he might have to wait

EAGAN, Minn. -- Rookie receiver Justin Jefferson has received rave reviews in two full weeks of Minnesota Vikings training camp.

It's early, but even without a full offseason to integrate into the Vikings' offense, Jefferson, the 22nd pick of the draft, is proving he's worthy of his first-round status.

"It's very encouraging," offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said. "He's exactly what we drafted."

The expectations of any first-round pick are often high but not always met instantly -- or ever. Laquon Treadwell, the last receiver picked by Minnesota in the first round (in 2016), failed to live up to his draft status and never recovered after falling behind quickly as a rookie.

It's evidently different for Jefferson, whose route-running prowess and knowledge of the position have impressed coaches and teammates. The Vikings drafted the 6-foot-1 Jefferson after he recorded 111 catches -- an LSU single-season record -- for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns during his junior season for the national champion Tigers. One hundred of those catches came on routes Jefferson ran out of the slot, where he frequently lines up with the first-team offense when the Vikings go three-wide.

"We knew he was a very talented young man that had a comfort zone in the slot because he did that a lot," Kubiak said. "I play him a little bit of everywhere, teaching him my offense, understanding schemes and what we're doing. But a very good route runner ... when you sit there and talk routes and stuff, this kid's very knowledgeable. He's been coached by some good coaches before he got here. So he's working."

Jefferson isn't being limited to what he knows best. His ability to jump in and out of the slot has led to him getting reps as an outside receiver where he's often lined up against cornerback and fellow first-round pick Jeff Gladney with the second team.

"I was telling him [last week] his releases were crazy," second-year wide receiver Bisi Johnson said. "He was working everybody off the line. We knew coming in this guy was gonna be a star, and he's proven just that."

When Jefferson was drafted in April there was an expectation that he would step right into the role of Stefon Diggs, who was traded to the Buffalo Bills during the offseason. But early in camp, it's been Johnson who has taken the majority of reps opposite veteran Adam Thielen and is emerging as Minnesota's No. 2 receiving option.

That is not to say Jefferson won't rise above WR3 status as a rookie. But the way the Vikings' offense functions, it might limit his early exposure to being Minnesota's No. 2.

In 2019, the Vikings ran the least amount of 11 personnel (three-receiver sets) in the NFL with just 266 plays. Kubiak's offense, which features heavy 12 and 21 personnel (two-receiver sets) usage where tight ends and running backs can be implemented into the passing game, could mean the Vikings deploy Thielen and Johnson together regularly while bringing Jefferson into the mix when they work out of the slot.

When Thielen went down with a hamstring injury and missed almost two months of the season, Johnson (31 catches, 294 yards, three touchdowns as a rookie) seized an opportunity that might have given him the early leg up in the No. 2 receiver battle.

"That's fair to say," Kubiak said of Johnson's development. "We're a series into the Detroit game when Adam goes down and Bisi comes in and plays the next six weeks or something like that. So yeah, I think that's the truth. I tell players that all the time. I say 'Guys, when you're a backup, really nobody knows if you're taking care of your business until you get thrown in the fire.'

"When you get thrown in there, you basically let everybody know, ‘Hey, I've been staying up with you guys. I've been studying. I'm ready to go.' Or, it overtakes you. He showed everybody from the get-go, 'I'm fine. Let's go. I can make these plays with a lot of confidence.' And you've seen it in this training camp as well."

The restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic is a major reason why Jefferson hasn't emerged yet as Minnesota's WR2.

The difference in playing time for the No. 2 and No. 3 receivers is substantial, but Jefferson has shown he can quickly pick up what's being asked of him. And his natural talent shows why the Vikings drafted him.

"I feel like different rookies have different places that they’re put in; they have different things that they go through," said Jefferson, whose first-team reps have increased throughout camp. "But I feel that I have a good chance of doing that or competing to be one of the top receivers here. I’m really just excited to be in Coach Kubiak’s offense and to be with these receivers, with these quarterbacks and the rest of the team. We’re looking to have a good season this year."

For now, he's behind Johnson on the depth chart. With Week 1 just 18 days away, it's possible a late push these final days of camp could earn him that No. 2 job.

"It's not like a dramatic, 'Oh my goodness, he's like a 10th-year player and usually guys are absolutely clueless,'" quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "I think he's just doing a nice job here getting the play call in the huddle, getting out, getting lined up, knowing where to go, what to do, the depth to go on the route and ultimately why you bring him in is for the natural stuff.

"Learning the plays takes time no matter how good you are but when the instincts can take over and you can make great plays, that's what you're looking for. He's shown an ability to do that so we have to continue to get more reps, get more plays together, find out where he's most comfortable and certainly keep him in that comfort zone early in the season."