EAGAN, Minn. -- Whether he likes it or not, rookie receiver Justin Jefferson has big shoes to fill next season as the replacement for former fan favorite Stefon Diggs. That much was set in stone when the Vikings made him the No. 22 pick in April’s NFL draft.
As for where Jefferson is going to line up, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak offered a hint this week, saying he expects to use him “quite a bit” out of the slot.
“That”s something he’s exceptional at,” Kubiak said. “We have to get Justin caught up on all those things (we do offensively) and then it’s my job to put him in the best possible position to be successful.”
To say Jefferson excelled out of the slot last season at LSU would be putting it lightly. He finished with 111 receptions for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns while showcasing soft hands and impressive route-running skills as a separation savant.
The biggest concern about playing Jefferson out of the slot is that Adam Thielen has thrived in that spot in the past. In a perfect world for the Vikings, Jefferson and Thielen would be able to move inside and outside seamlessly to keep opposing teams off balance.
In that sense, it’s good that Jefferson has proven capable of playing all over the field throughout his collegiate career.
“I think what he was asked to do last season was very beneficial,” Kubiak said. “He was playing inside in a lot of bunch sets. He was playing in the backfield sometimes. He was moving around a bunch. He runs a lot of choice routes. That’s a way of getting the best player the ball in our league.”
It sounds like the Vikings are committed to getting Jefferson the ball next season, though Kubiak noted he wants to make sure not to inundate his young receiver with too much information.
“We have to be smart when we get these guys in here,” Kubiak said. “It’s going to be about the season and not about the first day. We have a plan in place and Justin is doing his part. Now, hopefully here pretty soon, it’ll be time for us to do our part.”
Talent up front
While the Vikings lost veterans Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph this offseason, co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson still seems genuinely excited about the defensive linemen on the roster.
Aside from superstar Danielle Hunter leading the charge, the Vikings boast tons of depth up front, including the recently signed Michael Pierce, the up-and-coming Ifeadi Odenigbo, plus depth players like Shamar Stephen and Jaleel Johnson, among others.
“Don’t forget Hercules Mata’afa, too,” Patterson said. “I’m excited about that group. There’s great talent within the group. There’s a good mix of experience and youth. You’ve still got a good group of guys that are working to continue to progress their games, and I think we’ve got some guys that are ready to turn the corner. It’s going to be a great competition with that group throughout training camp to see how it’s going to figure itself out.”
This could be a breakout season for Odenigbo, in particular, as he’s likely to garner more playing time than ever before.
“He made great strides last season and he’s a tremendous hard worker,” Patterson said. “I know he’s busting his tail right now to continue to improve. As a matter of fact, I have to talk to him about not over-training and not working too hard. And I think the leadership part of it comes natural. You can’t make anybody be a leader. It just comes natural.”
Big, big upside
It seems like only a matter of time before the dynamic Irv Smith Jr. takes the torch from longtime tight end Kyle Rudolph.
As a rookie last season, Smith learned the intricacies of the position, refining his skills as an offensive weapon, while also developing his skills as a blocker.
He started to find his niche as time wore on and it’s reasonable to think he will take on an ever bigger role next season.
“I think there’s a big, big upside here,” Kubiak said. “I love him as a kid and as a competitor. He really enjoys coming to work every day and he’s benefited from sitting back there right next to Rudy every day and watching a seasoned pro go about it. I think there’s a lot more there, and he’s going to give it to us, and I’ve got to make sure that I get him in position to do that.”