It is true that I have some bias. Spending several years writing about the Vikings has certainly cooled what was once a rabid fandom, but the bias is still there: I see the world through purple glasses. However, can we really say that a Packers receiver has a higher ceiling than Justin Jefferson?
We’re talking about the Offensive Player of the Year and the fifth-place finalist for the NFL MVP award (which has essentially become an award for quarterbacks). Last year, Jefferson surpassed Cris Carter’s franchise record for most receptions in a season and Randy Moss’s record for most yards in a season. Both catchers are now in the Hall of Fame. Make no mistake: Jefferson is on a Hall of Fame trajectory.
For a variety of reasons, I think it’s fair to say that Bruce Irons, who is in Twitter – missed the mark in his now (in)famous tweet. On June 20, Irons sent a brief statement statement: “Christian Watson has a higher ceiling than Justin Jefferson.” Currently, the tweet has been viewed 2.7 million times.
Clearly, Irons caused a bit of a frenzy as some applauded his position while others voiced their disagreement.
Convincing Vikings fans that Justin Jefferson is an excellent player will not be a difficult task. Irons agrees that the Minnesota WR1 is a tremendous talent. The point of disagreement lies in who can fly higher: Watson or Jefferson.
I reached out to Irons this week, seeking clarity on an opinion that I believe is wrong. Participating in a public debate on Twitter is a bad idea since the platform does not allow for sophisticated and rigorous arguments. Instead, I sent him a series of messages containing questions that he graciously chose to answer, providing information along the way to help build his case.
The Vikings’ WR1, the Packers’ receiver and the ceiling debate
Right off the bat, let’s get to the crux of Irons’ argument: Christian Watson has a higher ceiling because he has demonstrably better athleticism than Justin Jefferson. Irons makes this claim in a follow-up tweet to the original:
Without a doubt, Watson is an incredibly talented athlete. The 6’5″ catcher ran at a speed of 4.36 forty. Pairing that kind of speed and height is a dangerous combination. He has the wheels to get behind a corner and even when he’s covered, he’s able to rise above the vast majority of defenders. So there are certainly many advantages to Watson’s game.
During his rookie season, the young receiver had 41 catches, 611 yards and 7 TDs (with a pair of rushing TDs). These are not impressive numbers, but they are promising. In Irons’ mind, there is room for significantly better gameplay and production.
After contacting me, the first thing I wanted to know was about your reaction to how the tweet took off:
I’m really surprised by the answer for a couple of reasons. First, it was just a throwaway tweet. I was looking at what happened last year to think about next season and Christian Watson’s potential jumped out. I was very excited about him during the pre-draft process and loved what I saw in his limited action. I felt that he had the potential to be as good as anyone. Justin Jefferson was just the first name that came to mind when I sent out the tweet. I was also surprised by the answer because a player’s ceiling is so impossible to define and it really is in the eye of the beholder.
I asked him if he’s ever had a tweet gain so much momentum. She pointed to previous predictions, one correct, one incorrect, that garnered significant attention. He accurately predicted that the Packers would leave Davante Adams behind, but he was wrong to believe that the team would part with Aaron Jones.
I then did my best to make sure I was getting his argument correctly before asking him if he would say that Watson also has a higher ceiling than Adams, the only receiver who (in my opinion) can come close to Jefferson’s level right now:
Justin Jefferson is definitely the better receiver right now. I wouldn’t hesitate if you call him the best receiver in the league. My main point is that, based on his athleticism and the flashes Watson showed as a rookie, I think he can be as good (or even better) than any receiver in the league. That includes Jefferson, Adams or whoever is playing today.
I’m not saying he’ll ever realize his potential, but based on my previous work and what I saw of him as a rookie, there’s nothing I don’t think he’s incapable of.
There is an important distinction there. Currently, who is better? Jefferson, without a doubt. Most Vikings fans and NFL analysts in general would insist that he has the highest ceiling, but that’s where Irons disagrees. He sees more potential in the Packers receiver.
Not fully persuaded, I hit him with a follow-up question: “How would you respond to criticism that you are putting too much into athletics? Put another way, Watson may outperform Jerry Rice athletically, but that doesn’t mean his ceiling is higher than Rice’s, does it? Should factors such as precise route execution, quality of someone’s hands, timing of a jump for a contested catch, knowing when to sit in zone cover, putting in a full weekly effort, passing time studying movies and various other factors?”
And his answer:
I don’t feel like I’m putting too much emphasis on athletics, I feel like my critics think I’m putting too much emphasis on athletics.
Guys like Jeff Janis and Marquez Valdes-Scantling also have athletic measurables around the world. However, I don’t think they have more potential than Jerry Rice. They never consistently showed the things on the field that Christian Watson showed.
Things like the studio of the film, the division zones and the jump time contested absolutely play a big role in the player’s potential and success. There’s no good way to quantify any of these things, so we have to look at the games and look for these things.
It’s a small sample size, but I really like what I saw from Christian Watson. On some of his big plays, he didn’t just use pure speed. He scanned the field, mentally processed the positions of the defenders, and chose a path to run. instantly. That kind of natural field vision is innate, it can’t be taught, and Watson has it. Guys like John Ross and Darrius Heyward-Bey couldn’t process the field that way. Tyreek Hill can and Christian Watson can — that’s what makes his speed so much more valuable.
This is also where measurable and non-measurable traits come together. Justin Jefferson and Davante Adams may have better field processing vision than Watson or even Hill, but speed will be a limitation on how much they can take advantage of it compared to elite sprinters.
All of that influences how I see the potential of Christian Watson. It’s much easier to compare RAS scores in a tweet, but the innate and immeasurable, which is all personal judgment and takes much longer to explain (hence my follow-up article), is there in my eyes. I might be wrong. That small sample size may not hold up when extrapolated. He could be dropped out of the league and benched. But I think he has the potential to be great.
Irons, to his credit, isn’t boiling things down to just height and speed, even when those things make up a significant part of his plot. If he understands his position correctly, he sees a player capable of translating those attributes into success on the field. He believes that’s the case, as that’s what he’s gathered from watching Watson before the 2022 NFL Draft and then last season playing for Green Bay.
And, he hastened to add, statistics don’t tell the story:
One other thing from my perspective: I don’t think stats are always indicative of how good a player is. For example, Randy Moss has never led the league in receiving or yardage. I don’t think this means he was never the best receiver in the league.
For the most part, Vikings fans and analysts will remain unconvinced by his argument, but hopefully the discussion will shed more light on his opinion. And, to be sure, I don’t find your assessment to be accurate. After a trio of seasons, Jefferson has rocketed to statistical heights no other receiver in NFL history has flown to. I agree that statistics don’t tell the whole story, but they tell us a lot.
Until Watson puts together several seasons of elite play, I don’t think he’s capable of getting anywhere near 18th. And for the record, I think Jefferson still has a lot more room to grow. A scary thought for opposing defensive coordinators, Jefferson just keeps getting better. Also, we have to remember that Watson is actually older than Jefferson (by a matter of days, but still).
However, having a dialogue with someone who has a very different opinion was productive. I’ll certainly keep a closer eye on Watson the next time the teams play each other, though the main focus will be on the Jaire Alexander matchup.
The Vikings play the Packers in Week 8 and Week 17. If it weren’t for a trade in the draft, the Packers may not have gotten Watson. In some way, then, the young Packers receiver will always have a strange connection to Minnesota.
Editor’s note: purplePTSD sends a sincere thank you to Bruce Irons for being willing to discuss his argument. The entirety of his answers are not included in this article, but an effort has been made to be faithful to his argument. Readers can find him on Twitter. @BruceIronsNFL.