- ESPN.com national NFL writer
- ESPN.com NFC North reporter, 2008-2013
- Covered Vikings for Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1999-2008
Scattered in their homes during the virtual 2020 NFL draft, Minnesota Vikings officials were in agreement.
They loved LSU receiver Justin Jefferson. Their scouting department thought his skills translated far beyond the slot role he mostly played in college, and their coaches envisioned him playing everywhere in their scheme. So they held their breath when the Philadelphia Eagles popped onto the clock at No. 21, one spot ahead of the Vikings’ first pick. “We were sweating it out the whole time,” then-coach Mike Zimmer said later.
The Eagles’ interest and need in drafting a receiver was well known, and with four receivers already off the board in a talented class, Jefferson figured to be next up. Jefferson thought so too.
“Every single mock draft had me going to Philly,” Jefferson told ESPN. “When Philly got on the board, I was definitely thinking I was going to go there.”
Connected via video conference, Zimmer and then-general manager Rick Spielman bantered nervously about the Eagles’ possibilities. Spielman floated the possibility of trading down and selecting a cornerback if there wasn’t a player they loved at No. 22. Kelly Kleine, then the Vikings’ manager of player personnel/college scout, interrupted with news via the NFL’s internal draft wire: The Eagles were selecting TCU’s Jalen Reagor.
Spielman broke out in laughter, as seen on a hype video later released by the Vikings Entertainment Network. “Get Justin Jefferson on right now,” Spielman said through a huge grin. He got up from his chair and began walking around his home office. “Wow, wow,” he repeated. “That’s what makes this stuff fun.”
Jefferson’s phone rang before commissioner Roger Goodell had announced the Eagles’ selection. Jefferson assumed the Eagles were calling. Instead, it was the Vikings telling him they would take him at No. 22. NFL franchises make dozens of decisions in every draft. Some of them echo for years to come. And so it was for the Eagles’ fateful choice on April 23, 2020, when they passed on Jefferson and took Reagor with the No. 21 overall pick.
Jefferson has emerged as one of the NFL’s best players, setting a league record for most receiving yardage in the first two seasons of a career (3,016). Reagor flopped so spectacularly that the Eagles traded him — to the Vikings, of all teams — for two future Day 3 picks. Since he was drafted in 2020, he has caught 64 passes for 695 yards while enduring multiple injuries. The combination of dealing with the Jefferson comparisons and the injuries took its toll on Reagor.
The full consequences of that draft decision will be on display Monday night when the Eagles host the Vikings (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC) at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles sank enormous resources into correcting their mistake, trading up in the 2021 draft to select Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith at No. 10 overall and then shipping first- and third-round picks earlier this year to acquire Tennessee Titans receiver A.J. Brown, whom they then signed to a four-year, $100 million contract extension.
Jefferson — fresh off a nine-catch, 184-yard, two-touchdown performance in Week 1 — is in the third season of his five-year rookie contract.
“I’m not going to sit here and lie,” Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said this month during an appearance on 94 WIP. “We’d love to have that moment back.”
TRAINING CAMP AT the NovaCare Complex is about as close to a safe house for Eagles players as it gets. Due to a lack of space around the practice fields, the crowd is limited to select season-ticket holders, corporate sponsors and charitable foundations. The environment is almost entirely supportive. So it was no surprise when, during a training camp practice this August, a middle-aged man enthusiastically called out “Reagor!” as the receiver passed close by, causing Reagor, 23, to offer back a thumbs-up. But the fan followed by yelling: “You suck!” stirring a few chuckles but mostly stunned silence from nearby fans. Reagor responded by putting his hands together and bowing his head as if in prayer as he walked away. That’s how it went for him in Philadelphia, practically from day one.
The repercussions of getting a first-round draft pick wrong can reverberate for years, especially when the player passed over skyrockets to stardom. The decision to take Reagor over Jefferson — one year after selecting receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside over DK Metcalf in the second round of the 2019 draft — put Roseman behind the eight ball on multiple fronts.
It forced him to pour heavy resources into the position over the next two years to make up for the misstep, effectively using three first-round picks as well as a cool $100 million to get there. Jefferson, meanwhile, has base salaries of $1.8 million and $2.4 million, respectively, over the next two seasons and would have alleviated the need to chase after receiver help.
The primary error Philadelphia made in its evaluation of Jefferson was thinking he would be largely limited to the role of slot receiver in the pros; he had run 563 of his 574 total routes from the slot or in line at LSU in 2019. The Eagles believed Reagor was a better scheme fit as a burner on the outside. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper had Reagor projected as a second-rounder in his 2020 mock draft 3.0, noting he “was a touchdown waiting to happen.”
“I think a lot of the message there is, we just have to take the best players at all times,” Roseman said on 94 WIP. “We don’t have to worry so much about fit or what we have on the team. You go back to that moment, we had two tight ends who were really good in the middle of the field, Greg Ward was coming off of a really good year in the slot. We were looking for a specific role as opposed to just grading the players. That’s on me, 100%. At the end of the day, I’m responsible for all of that. But I also promise you one thing, if I make a mistake, I’m going to do everything in my power to make it up.”
Roseman’s reputation took a hit in the years after the Eagles won the only Super Bowl in franchise history in 2017, bottoming out in 2020 with a 4-11-1 record and the firing of Doug Pederson. The Reagor-over-Jefferson gripe was held up as the primary example among the fan base of how the team had lost its way. But Roseman had a productive offseason — ranking No. 2 on ESPN analyst Bill Barnwell’s list of best offseasons — which included the Brown trade and signings of edge rusher Haason Reddick and cornerbacks James Bradberry. In Brown’s debut with the Eagles, he caught 10 passes for 155 yards in a 38-35 victory over the Detroit Lions.
Reagor, on the other hand, was never able to turn the corner. A promising rookie offseason went awry when he sustained a shoulder tear on the last day of training camp. He beat the projected recovery time of three to four weeks to be ready for opening day, only to suffer a UCL tear in his thumb Week 2 against the Rams. He needed surgery and missed the next five games. The injuries and the constant comparisons to Jefferson wore on him as he labored to establish himself in the league.
“Mentally, it beat him down,” a source close to Reagor told ESPN. “Big time.”
Jefferson watched from afar with sadness, in part because he was routinely tagged on social media posts from fans and media members that criticized Reagor.
“You can’t even blame him for getting picked by Philly,” Jefferson said. “All of the backlash that he was getting, from Philly fans mostly, I definitely felt bad for him at that time. He didn’t ask for any of that. He is just being a player, getting drafted to the team he got drafted to. I definitely hated it for him, but I’m glad he’s on our team.”
Reagor struggled to get rolling in 2021, with 33 catches, 299 yards and two touchdowns. He ditched social media for a spell to try to block out the noise, but it didn’t last.
“It wasn’t too much fun for Reagor. He had a hard time,” Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert said. “But he was one person who always put his head down and worked. I always respected him. He never really complained. He was just here to get better. He tried.
“It’s never easy when you’re the first-round [pick] and you don’t do exactly what everybody expects. Especially in a city like Philadelphia, you kind of get knocked down. And he just got back up, kept going to work. I’m excited for a new chapter of his career.”
In Minnesota, Reagor doesn’t carry first-round expectations. The Vikings envision him as a punt returner and reserve receiver, a natural and appropriate adjustment in his context for success. He averaged 20.8 yards per punt and had two touchdowns in 2019 at TCU. Reagor returned one punt in Week 1 of this season for 7 yards but did not get a snap at receiver behind Jefferson, Adam Thielen and K.J. Osborn.
“It’s just another opportunity to show what I can do,” Reagor said. “I’m going to make the most of it and let the game come to me. I believe that what’s slow is for sho’, and what’s fast don’t last.”
Asked exactly what he meant, Reagor said: “Good things take time.”
Contrary to the Eagles’ original draft analysis, Jefferson has proved adept lining up as both an outside and slot receiver. Since the start of his career, he has gained about two-thirds of his yardage when he was outside at the snap, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, and the other third when operating from the slot. Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell has plans to continue that distribution, and against the Packers in Week 1, he even had Jefferson line up in the backfield twice and as a tight end once.
“I credit Justin for being able to handle a lot,” O’Connell said. “We move him around a lot. We ask him to play multiple responsibilities. He’s not just an X receiver that lines up over here and dictates coverage. We’re not going to allow that to happen.”
During pre-draft analysis, Spielman concluded Jefferson’s instincts and competitiveness within routes rated at an elite level.
“He’s such a unique route runner where he can separate in and out of his cuts,” Spielman said last year. “And he has that innate ability to separate and catch the ball and get it up the field.”
As good as he is at getting himself open, Jefferson has also proved adept at making difficult catches. Since the start of the 2020 season, Jefferson has ranked No. 6 in NFL Next Gen Stats’ reception over expectation metric.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins recently noted Jefferson’s consistent ability to slip through a defense and into the end zone when he has caught the ball in the field of play. Since he entered the league, Jefferson has scored 19 touchdowns, and 58% were caught short of the end zone. Compare that number to All-Pro Davante Adams, who has led the league with 30 touchdowns during that span. Adams has caught 66% of those scores in the end zone.
Jefferson’s skill was on display in Week 1. Cousins threw 17 yards over the middle to Jefferson, who caught the ball at the 19-yard line and then turned upfield down the right sideline. Jefferson made safety Adrian Amos miss and then ducked under cornerback Jaire Alexander’s attempt to shove him out of bounds en route to a 36-yard touchdown.
“There is a specific trait that I think is special,” Cousins said, “and it’s the ability to finish plays. … A lot of guys go out at the 3 or get to the 1. I [told Jefferson], ‘The fact that you got in and got us six [points] and we don’t have to mess around with bringing out the goal-line offense, or whatever it may be, that’s elite, and it makes a difference for our team winning football games, if we’re making touchdowns and not kicking field goals.’ So I said [to him], ‘I just want to affirm that, and that’s one of the things that makes you a great football player.'”
In the meantime, the Vikings continue to enjoy the financial benefit of scooping up Jefferson when they did. His rookie contract isn’t eligible for an extension until after this season, allowing them to fit Thielen’s $14.3 million salary comfortably under their salary cap. In fact, the Vikings will pay their entire receiving corps $20.6 million in 2022, less than the Eagles are paying Brown alone ($24.5 million).
A single draft decision put two franchises on wildly different paths toward the same outcome. The Vikings and Eagles can both boast of a strong group of pass-catchers who will help them contend in the NFC. The Eagles’ path was more difficult and expensive, the consequence of one draft mistake that helped shape their next two offseasons — and counting.
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