Vikings wide receivers have a great track record when it comes to being voted Sporting News’ NFL Rookie of the Year. Justin Jefferson, Minnesota’s steal of a No. 22 overall pick in the 2020 draft, is the latest to join the club.
Percy Harvin (2009) was the most recent Vikings winner at the position before Jefferson. When the award was still handed out by conference, Paul Flatley (1963) and Sammy White (1976) were the first two wideouts honored.
But Jefferson should be happiest to be mentioned in the same breath as Hall of Famer Randy Moss, who took home SN’s award 22 years ago. Jefferson grew up idolizing Moss, the No. 21 overall pick in the 1998 draft. He has been praised by Moss and was quickly welcomed by the others into their special pass-catching fraternity.
Jefferson broke Moss’ record for catches in a season by a rookie with 88, for a catch rate of 70.4 percent on his 125 targets. Jefferson also broke Anquan Boldin’s record for receiving yards by a rookie with exactly 1,400. Along with those numbers, Jefferson had seven touchdowns.
Moss, back in ’98, caught 69 of 124 targets for 1,313 yards. Where he separates from Jefferson is having 10 more TDs (17) and averaging more yards per catch (19.0 vs. 15.8).
|Randy Moss (1998)||Justin Jefferson (2020)|
Moss, however, was a part of an offense that produced a then-NFL record 556 points along with 4,328 yards passing. The 2020 Vikings scored only 430 points with 4,009 yards passing. Moss played with an often spectacular Randall Cunningham at quarterback, but Jefferson played with the sometimes shaky Kirk Cousins. Both players were helped by playing opposite a sure-handed veteran, Moss with Cris Carter (12 TDs) and Jefferson with Adam Thielen (14 TDs).
The Vikings got 17 rushing TDs from four combined players in 1998, led by Robert Smith. The Vikings got 16 of their 20 rushing TDs from All-Pro Dalvin Cook in 2020.
Moss scored 18 percent of his team’s points. Jefferson was a little below 10 percent. Jefferson, however, had 35 percent of his team’s passing yardage while Moss accounted for 30 percent of his.
Moss (6-4, 210 pounds), like Hall of Fame contemporary Terrell Owens, dominated his era with size, speed and hands along with great route-running. Jefferson (6-1, 201 pounds), like Moss, came from prolific college production and translated those skills to the NFL right away — even while asked to play outside in a new position away from the slot. During his national championship run with LSU in 2019, Jefferson caught 111 passes for 1,540 yards and 18 TDs. That suggests he has a high ceiling to build on his impressive, immediate floor.
Moss physically was a dominating, intimidating presence. Jefferson is more the average height of an NFL receiver. Jefferson has a long way to go before getting Moss-like coverage attention and his talent won’t lead to defensive coaches having the same matchup nightmares.
There might be the feeling that Jefferson doesn’t belong in a comparison with Moss, but both were highly effective rookie receivers for the Vikings with slightly different approaches vital to opening up success for the team’s other talented skill-position players.
Jefferson will need to string together several more strong follow-up seasons to get into a bigger conversation with Moss. But there’s no doubt the stellar start to his NFL career stacks up to Moss much better than one would think.