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Know Your Enemy: Rookie vs Rookie as Justin Jefferson and Antoine Winfield Jr. look to catapult their teams towards the playoffs

As the season gets into its final act, it’s the newcomers who may play the biggest roles for these two teams

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL community sees it almost every year it seems. A rookie wide receiver makes a splash, but it wasn’t the first wide receiver taken. Perhaps it's a clash of team fit, maybe the first guy taken is too often the only target of any real above average ability on his team. Whether it’s D.K. Metcalf, Juju Smith-Schuster, or in 2020’s case, Justin Jefferson, there is always a young guy looking to fuel their rise on the doubt of others.

I don’t think you can count the Tampa Bay Buccaneers among the population of Jefferson doubters, but you can certainly bet they know all about the rookie as he comes in leading the NFL among first-year receivers in many categories.

Targets, receptions, yards, yards after catch, yards after contact, and catches for first down. Those are all categories where Jefferson is leading all rookie wide receivers. Where is he not? In touchdowns (Chase Claypool, 8), and broken tackles (Laviska Shenault, 7). That’s it. If you have a rookie wide receiver on your roster they are being outplayed by Jefferson is all but two significant measurable categories.

The fifth wide receiver taken has proven to be the best of the bunch thus far, with a whole lot of career ahead of all of them. Still, hard to imagine the Philadelphia Eagles aren’t kicking themselves just a little bit at this point for taking TCU’s Jalen Reagor (20 receptions, 256 yards, 1 touchdown) over Jefferson who went just one pick later to the Minnesota Vikings.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Clemson vs Louisiana State Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

He spoke to Vikings beat reporters about being doubted by many in the NFL Draft process, saying,

“I think about it a lot, and that’s what kind of fuels my game. Just having in the back of my mind that there’s always people that doubt me of doing certain things....You know, I just use that as fuel towards my game, and I just go out there trying to prove everybody wrong.”

Of course, it’s hard to say people doubted Jefferson too much. A first-round pick, the LSU product may not have been the first receiver drafted, but he didn’t wait long to hear his name called either.

Still, the stigma of Jefferson being limited as a slot receiver with little-to-no early perimeter ability is an assertion he’s set out to disprove from day one.

While 2019 was the first season he’d ever played in the slot - according to the player himself - he did such a great job many doubted he could be as good anywhere else on the field. And while he refers to Minnesota as a ‘perfect fit’ for his skill set, the team who did draft him has definitely emphasized the slot talents Jefferson brings to the league in his first season.

The rookie trails veteran slot stud Adam Thielen by just three targets when lined up on the inside. Alternately, Jefferson and Thielen are tied atop the team in targets from the outside with 35 each. That number is a full fourteen targets less than Jefferson has seen from the slot.

So, the slot stigma hasn’t completely escaped him.

Among all NFL receivers, Jefferson and Thielen both rank in the Top-25 in slot targets. Anthony Miller and Allen Robinson (Chicago Bears), Robby Anderson (Carolina Panthers), Davante Adams (Green Bay Packers), Tyreek Hill (Kansas City Chiefs), Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp (Los Angeles Rams), and Keenan Allen (Los Angeles Chargers) are the only wide receivers who have more slot targets than the duo facing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.

This is something that could prove problematic for the Bucs in Week 14 as Darious Slayton of the New York Giants is the only opposing wide receiver in 2020 who didn’t catch at least half of his slot targets against Todd Bowles’ secondary.

The most successful slot receiver against the Bucs this season has been Robby Anderson of the Carolina Panthers who caught nine of his eleven targets from the slot, and of course Tyreek Hill of the Kansas City Chiefs who caught one of his touchdowns from the slot while collecting 103-yards on six catches stemming from six targets lined up inside the hashes.

With Jamel Dean missing practices this week due to a groin injury that crept up following the second-year cornerback’s removal from concussion protocol, Sean Murphy-Bunting will likely once again play outside leaving the slot to a less than proven option for the Buccaneers.

Adapting for missing Dean against the Cheifs it was linebacker Lavonte David who played the most coverage snaps in the slot taking five. He was targeted three times, allowing three catches for forty-yards.

Among defensive backs, it was Carlton Davis III and Ross Cockrell who each took four coverage snaps in the slot allowing a combined four catches on five targets for 78-yards and one score.

Rookie Antoine Winfield Jr. - our Week 14 X-Factor - dropped into slot coverage three times getting targeted once, allowing one catch for fifteen yards.

The only incomplete target to the slot for Patrick Mahomes II came against cornerback Ross Cockrell.

Speaking of Winfield, our Week 14 X-Factor is going to be a critical part of forcing Kirk Cousins and the Vikings offense into longer drives opening more opportunities for mistakes from the quarterback with the third-most interceptions thrown in 2020.

This deep into the season you typically expect the veterans to be the main catalysts for why a team is or isn’t successful and there are plenty to look at here. But as much as Cousins, Tom Brady, Dalvin Cook, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and even Rob Gronkowski will be in Week 14, Justin Jefferson has proven to be just as critical in his rookie season for his team’s success. Because of this, the rookie on the other side of the ball will be just as critical as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings jockey for playoff positioning in a must-win game for both, this Sunday afternoon.