An empty lot sits adjacent to Jefferson’s family home in Saint Rose, Louisiana. Growing up, the wide-open grassy space became a makeshift practice field for Justin and his two older brothers, Jordan (29) and Rickey (25). It’s where Jordan, an LSU quarterback from 2008 to 2011, made his siblings run and catch passes. Backyard basketball featured games of 100 points and served up lessons on winning and losing.
Whenever his parents couldn’t find him, it was a safe bet that a young Justin was toiling around the empty lot, heaving a football as far as he could and speeding to catch it before it hit the ground.
Today, this space is again a training ground for excellence. While NFL team practice facilities remain closed indefinitely amid the coronavirus pandemic, players are getting ready for the 2020 season. Last week, a Jugs machine arrived. Most days for Justin include weight lifting and cardio. There are also footwork drills and route-running during workouts with Rickey, who is attempting an NFL comeback after tearing an ACL in Saints training camp two years ago.
The Vikings traded wide receiver Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills in March for four picks, including the first-rounder they used to take Justin at No. 22 in last month’s NFL draft. Minnesota is counting on Justin, 20, to replace Diggs. The opportunity he’ll have to make an immediate impact opposite Adam Thielen could put him on a path to becoming the franchise’s next great receiver.
Back home where it all started, Justin, who is the only first-rounder in the past eight drafts who was an unranked ESPN recruit and signed with an SEC school, is preparing for his rookie season.
Justin didn’t resemble his older brothers, who looked more like full-fledged adults physically when they reached Destrehan High School. He jumped from 5-foot-7 to nearly 6-1 between his sophomore and junior year, adding 40-plus pounds to get to 175.
Size was no longer a glaring issue. But he didn’t have the experience. Justin didn’t play on varsity until he was a junior, and it took a while before he generated the production to pique anyone’s interest.
John Jefferson got his son a spot at a Nike camp in New Orleans East the spring before his junior season in 2015. Justin clocked a measly 4.88-second 40-yard dash, a number that would live on various recruiting pages.
“He just wasn’t developed,” John said. “His knees were hurting him — he was real slow.
“At the time, it didn’t bother him that he ran a 4.8, because he said, ‘I’m gonna work and I’m gonna get better at it.'”
Justin worked on just about everything with Jordan, who started his coaching career at Destrehan in 2015. Long days of practice culminated with one-on-one film sessions and extra work in the empty lot once he and Justin returned home. Jordan saw the potential; he just needed to nudge his brother to stay the course. That meant making sure his grades didn’t slip like they had early on in high school, which made schools wary of extending a scholarship.
“Even at a young age, he was able to keep up and make plays in the yard,” Jordan said. “We were able to see a side of him. Maybe the country didn’t see it, so it was just a matter of time before everyone else could understand his level of talent. I was able to give him two years’ worth of training, worth of knowledge, information about football defenses.”
Justin had 44 receptions for 956 yards and nine touchdowns as a senior in high school. Production was no longer an issue, but only one school remained in the picture.
Justin missed out on national signing day when his friends inked their letters of intent. The core English class he bombed as a freshman required him to stay home for summer school. But Justin was motivated by the promise made to his family by LSU coach Ed Orgeron — a scholarship was waiting if Justin could qualify.
Justin was the last member of the 2017 class to make it to campus — three days into training camp. He appeared in two games as a freshman, rushing one time for 4 yards, but he was getting noticed. Justin was the only freshman on the travel squad and others saw his potential.
Justin led all receivers with five catches for 128 yards during the LSU spring game in 2018 going into his sophomore season. It was then Jerry Sullivan, a 25-year NFL coaching veteran and a consultant at the time for LSU, told John and his wife, Elaine, their son should declare for the NFL draft after his junior season.
“Say what?” John recalled. “He hasn’t even gotten on the field yet. When he said leaving as a junior, I couldn’t believe that. I was like, ‘OK, we’ll see.’ I had two prior athletes go through the system that showed how difficult it was to go to the NFL.”
But Sullivan, who groups Justin in an elite category of “ballers” he’s coached — a list that includes Larry Fitzgerald, David Boston and Anquan Boldin — never wavered.
“The NFL graveyard is full of guys that ran fast at the combine but never played football very good,” Sullivan said. “And here he is –- he had great instincts, he had a great ability to adjust during the game. You didn’t have to draw the picture for him. You could tell him if he could see it. I’ve been coaching the NFL for 25 years, I’ve seen a lot of guys come and go. And there was just something about him that stood out.
“Now, was I absolutely sure he was going to be a great, really good college player? I had a premonition that he could be if he kept getting better and better as time went along. And he did; he kept me bought in.”
Justin lived up to the potential Sullivan saw and turned himself into an NFL prospect over the course of 18 months. As a sophomore, he had 875 yards playing outside receiver for LSU. Justin led the country with 111 receptions as a junior in 2019 when he transitioned into the slot. He had 18 receiving touchdowns (tied for second most in SEC history), caught a College Football Playoff-record four touchdowns in the Peach Bowl and won a national championship.
He also had an 85.2% catch rate, which was the highest of any eligible receiver coming out of the draft.
The evolution of LSU’s offense with the spread concepts installed by former passing game coordinator Joe Brady, along with quarterback Joe Burrow‘s record-setting 2019, paid dividends for Justin.
“[Brady] coming up to me and giving me that job (to play in the slot), he felt that it was a tough job and that not a lot of people could switch from outside to inside,” Justin said. “He felt that the inside was going to be perfect for me, and that I was going to fit perfectly with the offense. Transferring inside definitely helped me, and helped me boost my draft grade.”
He went from an unranked, overlooked prospect to a player ready for the NFL after three years. How did that happen?
“Sometimes the development of prospects and as people happens later in the process,” ESPN recruiting analyst Tom VanHaaren said. “For someone like Justin Jefferson, he got into a really good situation with coaching, with the right environment where he assimilated properly, he took to the coaching. They’ve got a quarterback, they’ve got a new offense and it all clicked for him.”
Check out the highlights that make former LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson one of the top receivers in the upcoming NFL draft.
LSU learned a lot about Justin beginning in the 2018 season. Jack Marucci, the school’s director of athletic training and owner of the Marucci Bat Co., took the principles he studied with how baseball players visually track a ball and created a wearable for LSU’s receivers. It allowed his staff to observe how Justin and his teammates were seeing an object, how their pupils are stimulated and, effectively, what routes they’re efficient in.
“Jefferson is a bilateral route runner, meaning he can run basically any route you want. He’ll be able to pick it up,” Marucci said. “He can use both of his eyes, he can see how the ball’s coming in and he tracks the ball extremely well. And that is unique. If you’re running a route and he’s trying to pick up the ball, whatever route he runs, meaning how he’s rotating his head, he’s bilateral, meaning that he can do pretty much any direction.”
Justin is classified as an “elite” processor, according to Marucci, based on LSU’s mental processing testing.
That was one of the key factors for the Vikings in deciding to draft him, along with his ability to make contested catches. And if there was any question of speed, all of that was silenced when Justin ran a 4.43-yard 40 at the NFL combine.
All of those attributes are critical for how the Vikings plan to use the 6-foot-1, 202-pound receiver to replace Diggs.
“He has a chance to be a pretty impactful rookie when we get him in here,” general manager Rick Spielman said.
Once he transitions from his backyard training ground to the Vikings’ TCO Performance Center, Justin’s quest to rise in the football ranks will begin its next chapter.
“Definitely didn’t think that this would be coming, and just being in this situation, not a lot of people can say that they have been drafted or even been in the first round,” Justin said. “Definitely blessed.”