As the draft gets closer, anticipation mounts as the New Orleans Saints are slated to be on the clock at pick #24 on day one of the NFL Draft. There has been lots of conversation about where the Saints can and should go with their first-round selection. Impact players could be added to either side of the ball across several positions with linebacker, cornerback, and wide receiver being the most popular position groups addressed early by mockers and experts.
Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray bring leadership experience, and consistent production. LSU’s Patrick Queen bring athleticism, coverage ability, and speed. Kristian Fulton and Jeff Gladney, if available, would bring some very physical play to the cornerback position post-Janoris Jenkins. But one player in particular brings massive amounts of excitement to an already sure-to-be electric offense in New Orleans.
Justin Jefferson to the Saints is this year’s best team/player draft fit.
Jefferson followed up an effective 2018 where he compiled 54 catches for 875 yards and six touchdowns with 111 receptions, 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2019. There was a big difference in the two systems used in those seasons, but even in a more run-focused 2018 offense Jefferson averaged 16.2 yards per catch over 12 games.
His 2019 production lead to an LSU record for receptions which also tied with SMU’s James Proche for the FBS’s most and ranks him top three in SEC single-season history. He was third is receiving yardage in the NCAA and second in receiving touchdowns behind only his teammate Ja’Marr Chase (20). Jefferson was electric, scoring from all over the field, beating defenders with his route-running talent, and creating explosive plays on a consistent basis.
The 6-foot-1 LSU Tiger helped his stock even more at the combine running a 4.43 40 yard dash, showing that he has more than respectable speed to go along with his plus traits on the field. However, while his explosive testing was not by any means bad, it left a little to be desired. Regardless, for many he set his round one status in Indianapolis. So much so that some are convinced that he will not make it past the Eagles at 21 or the Vikings at 22. But if he does, or if the Saints like him enough to move up a few spots to take him, this could be a match made in heaven.
What makes Jefferson such a perfect fit for New Orleans?
His success in LSU’s system could translate to success with New Orleans.
While it is reasonable to believe that Joe Brady (Who worked most directly with the Tiger wideouts.) got a lot more credit than he deserved for the Tigers’ offensive explosion in their National Championship season, it should be ignored that LSU borrowed a lot of concepts from New Orleans. Even if OC Steve Ensminger’s implementation of the Saints-derived was college level it is still more exposure to Sean Payton’s concepts that the other receivers available in the Saints’ range.
When Sean Payton took to Twitter to share some of the Saints playbook in March, this play was found in the 2019 CFB championship game.
Sure looks like LSU dialed up a @SeanPayton design to seal the National Championship vs Clemson...in the Superdome.— John Ellis (@OnePantherPlace) March 30, 2020
Hey, @JimMiller_NFL...check it out. https://t.co/BdEl3FBtgu pic.twitter.com/N2j7OaZ6Kd
Although Jefferson (second receiver from the bottom of the screen) slips, it still shows that LSU implemented play calls directly from Payton’s playbook. That experience would help Jefferson successfully navigate the college to NFL learning curve much more quickly than other options available at 24.
He also has shown a penchant for being very effective with option routes, a subconcept that is common in Payton’s system.
Jefferson has been pegged as a slot receiver, but can also develop along the outside.
Why have just two versatile pieces at WR in Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders if you could have three instead? Sure, it will take some development in order for Jefferson, who can struggle against press coverage, to fully grow into a versatile threat like Thomas and Sanders. But he does have the tools for it with his size, body control, and contested catch ability which PFF rates well above the nation’s average with his 92.3% contested catch rate.
While the majority of Jefferson’s production has indeed come from the slot, he has made his fair share of plays from the outside.
Here's a compilation of Justin Jefferson making plays from the outside. He is definitely better in the slot, but he can play outside. Still would prefer Reagor but I'd be thrilled to see #2 in Midnight Green for years to come. #Eagles pic.twitter.com/RjJjXWq5vH— Jack (@JDM5335) April 7, 2020
Outside of displaying that he can indeed win on the outside, particularly in off-man and zone situations, many of his traits shine through. His route-running, hands, and versatility would be a great complement to Michael Thomas for years to come. In the short term, he would time to develop that versatility further while working in an offense with Emmanuel Sanders and Tre’Quan Smith to lighten the load.
He excels in areas best suited for the Saints’ offense.
Jefferson is a short/intermediate field threat that can pack a punch in the deep game when called upon with outstanding route-running and run after catch (RAC) ability. All of those elements play right into the strengths of the Saints’ offense now and for the future.
The Saints Rose product compiled a 146.9 passer rating and seven touchdowns when targeted between 10-19 yards downfield ranking ninth and third in his draft class respectively. Within ten yards he also contributed to a 125.9 passer rating with four touchdowns, tied for the sixth best haul in his class.
Jefferson’s short/intermediate game is perfect for the Saints with and after Brees. The New Orleans signal caller averaged a 125.7 passer rating within 20 yards of the snap in 2019 and completed 54% of his passes within ten yards, not including passes behind the line of scrimmage. Brees also completed 80% of his passes within 20 yards as well. Jefferson can extend plays from those areas of the field and has proven to be reliable there himself with an 86% catch rate within that range.
Jefferson extends plays successfully because of his innate RAC ability, an element that has been missing from the Saints offense over the last couple of seasons. In 2018 New Orleans gathered 45% of its receiving total with yards after the catch. In 2019, that increased to 52% tying the Saints for fifth largest share in the league.
Justin Jefferson, WR, #LSU:— Jordan Reid (@JReidNFL) April 3, 2020
• Middle of the field assassin (++)
• Iverson-like crossovers in route stems
• Second level releases
• All coverage destroyer (++)
• YAC strength (+)
• Short area burst/creativity
• Weaving through traffic (+)
• Ultimate seam-to-seam winner pic.twitter.com/3hnBsDFAYm
Lastly, as illustrated all over Jefferson’s tape, he is an outstanding route-runner. Something that is emphasized in New Orleans and has become a huge part of the Saints’ success. At the same time, the absence of which can be attributed to some of the major potency issues outside of Michael Thomas. One of the places where Saints receivers struggled most was in creating separation. What Jefferson is able to create for himself with at the top of routes most certainly will not fall into the same rut. He also has an expansive route tree and can do some great work up the slot, one of Brees’ favorite places to target on the field.
Jefferson to New Orleans may be a touch out of range after his improved stock and increased attention throughout the offseason. But should the Saints luck into his falling to 24 or move up in order to insure #2 finds his way to wearing black and gold in 2020, he would be one of the NFL Draft’s best fits immediately with all of the potential to contribute long time with and beyond Brees.