Justin Jefferson's Prodigious Rookie Season Points to Elite Fantasy Football Output in 2021

Justin Jefferson was flat out one of the best receivers in football as a rookie, and there are reasons to believe he won't be affected by a sophomore slump.

The Minnesota Vikings definitely got it right with LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson in the 2020 NFL Draft, and nobody is going to argue against that.

Jefferson's rookie season wound up netting him 88 catches, 1,400 receiving yards, and 7 receiving touchdowns on 125 targets. We'll put those numbers into context in a bit, but that's a strong line no matter how you view it.

That strong debut season has vaulted Jefferson up to the WR7 in NFC drafts since the start of July, so the consensus is that Jefferson will repeat with an elite outing once more.

But could the dreaded sophomore slump get the better of him?

Contextualizing Justin Jefferson's Rookie Season

The yards and touchdowns are great for Jefferson, and that's what matters for fantasy football.

But we can always dig a little deeper into the underlying data and see how Jefferson fared from an expected points standpoint as a rookie.

Specifically, numberFire has a model -- Net Expected Points (NEP) -- that adds context to a player's performance.

If Jefferson, for example, catches a long pass to get the Vikings inside the 10-yard line and then they just throw it to Adam Thielen for the touchdown, a lot of that credit for the touchdown belongs to Jefferson even if he gets solely the yardage in the stats column.

These types of touchdown anomalies tend to balance out over a larger sample, and players with strong expected points outputs generally continue putting up fantasy points.

That's one reason to be bullish on Jefferson again in 2021.

Per NEP, Thielen outperformed his touchdown expectation by a whopping 6.7 scores. Thielen had 14 touchdowns but should have had around half as many -- 7.3.

That was the second-highest differential behind only Davante Adams' 20-touchdown season.

Jefferson actually should have led the team in touchdowns, based on the underlying data.

Jefferson should have scored 9.8 times, 2.8 more times than he actually did.

But possibly more wild yet is that Jefferson wound up ranking fourth among all receivers in Reception NEP in his age-21 season.

You want to know how many other receivers since 2000 put up a top-five Reception NEP season before their age-22 seasons? None of them. It's just Jefferson.

If we scale it back to the top 10, it's still just Jefferson (haha get it? Just Jefferson).

In total, two other receivers had top-20 Reception NEP seasons that young: Keenan Allen and Mike Evans. Pretty good company to keep.

I won't keep doing this, but even at age 22, only Allen Robinson, Odell Beckham, and JuJu Smith-Schuster had top-10 seasons before turning 23.

These are some of the elite, outlier-level fantasy performers we've seen in recent seasons.

Better yet, Jefferson -- on a per-target basis -- ranked second last season in Reception NEP, and the unprecedented efficiency at such a young age continues.

But I won't keep listing names. I think you get it by now.

Jefferson was amazing in 2020, and sure, the efficiency is likely to come down (unless you think he's a lock for top-two per-target efficiency, which is a bit of a stretch). I'm not arguing that he'll maintain that level of per-target or per-reception data.

Even with an efficiency decrease, the arrow is up because he should have better touchdown luck, and he has plenty of room to grow from a volume standpoint.

Jefferson's 125 targets ranked him 16th in the NFL, and he was 11th among receivers in target market share (24.2%) among healthy games played for all wideouts.

It's sort of hard to remember, but Jefferson had two three-target games to start the 2020 season. Excluding those two games, he had a 25.6% target share, and it creeped up to 26.4% over his final eight games.

We're likely looking at a safe top-eight target market share and touchdown regression for Jefferson in 2021.

Justin Jefferson's 2021 Fantasy Football Projection

Whenever a player has high-end efficiency, it's always easy to want to scale back expectations for the follow-up season, but in terms of touchdowns and overall volume, Jefferson has some room to grow, and that should quell any concerns we really have about this year's WR7 by average draft position.

numberFire's projections find Jefferson a fair value and a borderline top-half WR1 in fantasy formats this year.

In half-PPR scoring systems, our projections rank Jefferson as the WR6.

He is anticipated for a stat line of 156 targets, 101 catches, 1,457 yards, and 9.1 touchdowns.