Fantasy Football: Can Justin Jefferson Actually Break the NFL's Receiving Yards Record in 2022?
Historic. Electric. Dynamic.
Choose your own adjective for Justin Jefferson. He's putting together a top-five career for a wideout right before our eyes -- especially when you consider he was part of a historic squad in college at Louisiana State.
Jefferson held the rookie receiving record for his 1,400-yard season in 2020, but it was smashed by his college teammate and friend Ja'Marr Chase the next year. His 3,016-yard first pair of seasons has the current record for now, but there's no doubt Chase will rival that mark, as well.
Still, J-Jeff has bigger things in mind. His eyes are set on a mark that will be much tougher to beat -- the 1,964-yard record for total receiving in a season set by Calvin Johnson in 2012. Jefferson not only believes he can top that mark, but he also believes he can be the first receiver ever to post 2,000 yards in a single year.
Can he actually do it, and what would the fantasy football consequences be if he does?
The Record and Its Relevance in Fantasy Football
Put an asterisk on modern records if you'd like.
Calvin Johnson had just 16 games to compile his record with the awful Lions. Jefferson, Chase, or any receiver in 2022 would have 17 games in an era that just posted another top-10 season for passing attempts per game. It's still history.
For fantasy football purposes, if a wideout is breaking that NFL record, they're likely going to win you your fantasy football league from any draft position. Johnson posted 17.6 half-PPR points per game in 2012, and Cooper Kupp was a league-winner last year with 21.6 half-PPR points per contest.
The difference between those two was touchdown equity. Kupp scored 16 times last year on a much better Rams offense. Johnson had just five scores. Again, that Detroit offense was terrible. Ironically enough, Matthew Stafford was the signal-caller for both, so what a difference an organization can make.
That's really why I wanted to dive in here. Jefferson is going fifth off the board in most season-long fantasy formats, and you'll need a truly historic season to pay off that average draft position considering his positional value as a wide receiver.
Kupp is going early solely because we've seen him do it, and his situation is just slightly less desirable with Allen Robinson in town. At this point, Jefferson hasn't. He was the WR4 last year in half-PPR formats, but a huge change is vaulting him up draft boards.
From Dinosaur to Dynomite
Even with historic receiving volume, it's pretty fair to say Jefferson has been significantly limited by his surroundings during his two years in Minnesota.
Despite Jefferson, the Vikings leaned on their rushing attack. They were tied for the sixth-lowest early-down, first-half, one-score pass rate (48%) in the NFL. It led to them playing and losing more one-score games in the NFL than anyone, and Mike Zimmer was ousted.
That painful season may benefit the team tremendously in the long run. They've since brought in Kevin O'Connell from the L.A. Rams, and he's implementing the same Sean McVay/Kyle Shanahan system that's borne fruit in fantasy football for years.
That begs the question -- what's the impact of that system or a quarterback-friendly one like it?
Well, here's where all of the teams that produced top-10 wideouts in half-PPR formats last year graded out in that specific pass-rate category mentioned earlier:
Yes, that is also a Diontae Johnson table in disguise.
But, on a serious note, only Deebo Samuel joined Jefferson outside the top half of the league in what I'd call the team's "voluntary" pass rate. They didn't have to throw but chose to do so.
Plus, Deebo was actually used as a running back, so he was still given opportunities even in an offense with reduced target volume overall.
It's not only impressive that Jefferson joined this group in an offense that didn't really care to use him -- it's borderline miraculous.
What Type of Lift Can We Expect?
It's hard to trace all roots of the McVay/Shanahan system from when the two were teammates in Washington, but for simplicity, I've narrowed it down to McVay, Shanahan, or anyone hired off their staff since the pair were hired themselves in 2017.
I've included the defensive hires considering both brought McVay/Shanahan disciples with them as offensive coordinators.
Looking at the early-down, first-half, one-score pass rates of those teams provides plenty of hope for Minnesota's passing game:
Now we're cooking with gas.
Outside of an Aaron Rodgers-led squad that already was pass-heavy under Mike McCarthy, the McVay/Shanahan disciples have increased their team's pass rate by a considerable margin across the board.
The average rate of these new hires (54%) in this category last year would have ranked ninth in the NFL. Remember, the Vikings had just a 48% rate in this category last year, so a bump to even a 54% rate would be an increase of six percentage points -- doubling the leap from when the Rams pivoted from Jeff Fisher to Sean McVay.
Undoubtedly, the biggest beneficiary would be Jefferson. His 29.1% target share last year was the largest in the NFL, and Minnesota is once again only crowding him with Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn as direct competition.
Also, the two biggest leaps here resulted in at least a 44.1% increase in the top wideout's receiving total. In order to hit the 2,000-yard mark, Jefferson would need a 19.2% increase in yardage from his 2021 mark.
Now, Jefferson is already starting at an elite place, so that type of increase would be absurd. But, can he potentially approach his necessary increase with such a leap in pass rate?
For context, Kupp's single-season increase under O'Connell last year was much larger, so how could one definitively say no? Playing a full season in both 2020 and 2021, Kupp saw a 54.0% increase in targets, 56.6% increase in targets, and 102.7% increase in yards last year with the same direct competition for targets and snaps.
That change was predicated more on quarterback play than pass rate, but if O'Connell decides to pepper Jefferson in the same manner, it could be an explosive result.
Justin Jefferson's 2022 Outlook
If Jefferson breaks the NFL's receiving record in his third season with Kirk Cousins at quarterback, we've truly got an all-time talent on our hands.
Still, he can be wholly effective as a top-five pick in fantasy drafts even if he falls short.
Right now, personally, Jefferson's projection is far too low across the board. numberFire's model has him projected for just 1,527 yards receiving this year on 110 catches. Last year, J-Jeff had 108 receptions that totaled 1,616 yards. It's impossible for me to see Jefferson moving backward with the same supporting cast and such a jump in his squad's projected pass rate.
He only had 10 touchdowns, too. That could easily uptick, as well. Not only is Adam Thielen due for some pretty historic touchdown regression, but Jefferson still fell 0.9 touchdowns short of expectations considering his workload according to PFF's expected fantasy points model.
At the top of most drafts, Kupp is historically a lower average depth of target (aDOT) receiver, and the Rams added Allen Robinson. Ja'Marr Chase will always have ample competition with Tee Higgins, and Davante Adams now has two other previous 1,000-yard producers on his roster in Las Vegas.
With the other consensus top wideouts having market-share concerns, Jefferson has none in the same hierarchy as last year. However, most important of all, he now has the maestro who composed Kupp's historic 2021 symphony.
In 2022, we may see plenty of griddying out of J-Jeff and the Vikings with their new, progressive coach.