Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson isn’t merely the Vikings’ best rookie. He isn’t merely the most productive rookie receiver in a draft class filled with excellent prospects.
Jefferson is about two-thirds of the way through what could become one of the best seasons by a rookie receiver in NFL history, and he’s doing so despite a few disadvantages.
Jefferson didn’t get a full offseason to adapt to the pro game and the Vikings offense. He didn’t get to play in a single preseason game. He didn’t become a big part of the offense until Week 3.
He shares targets with a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver in Adam Thielen, and he plays in an offense that emphasizes the run, with running back Dalvin Cook being treated as the team’s most valuable player for a second consecutive season.
Despite those challenges, Jefferson has caught 52 passes for 918 yards and six touchdowns through 11 games. If he maintains that pace and plays all 16 games, he would finish the season with 76 catches for 1,335 yards and nine scores.
That would rank among the best rookie receiver seasons in NFL history.
Houston’s Bill Groman produced the best statistical rookie season, with 1,473 yards in 14 games in 1960, but it might be unwise to compare the old AFL to the current NFL.
Arizona’s Anquan Boldin had 1,377 yards in 2003.
Randy Moss ranks third on the all-time rookie receiving list, with 1,313 yards. He also scored 17 touchdowns in 1998, as part of the Vikings’ superlative offense.
Odell Beckham Jr. had 1,305 yards in just 12 games in 2014.
Besides Moss, two other former Vikings receivers produced excellent rookie seasons. Percy Harvin had 790 receiving yards and six touchdowns while also returning kicks in 2006, and Sammy White had 906 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in 1976.
In Jefferson’s first two games, he managed five catches for 70 yards and no scores against Green Bay and Indianapolis. Since then, he has averaged five catches for 94 yards and 0.7 touchdowns per game. If he maintains that pace over a 16-game season, he would finish with 84 catches for 1,508 yards and 11 scores.
Last season, only one NFL receiver produced more than 1,508 yards — New Orleans’ Michael Thomas. Only two surpassed Jefferson’s current projection of 1,335 yards — Thomas and Atlanta’s Julio Jones.
What’s most interesting about Jefferson’s success is that his style isn’t remindful of anyone else, or at least anyone else who isn’t the greatest receiver who ever lived.
Jefferson plays with a deceptive smoothness, his speed obscured by his ability to glide into and out of breaks. He catches the ball with a similarly deceptive grace, making difficult catches look inevitable.
Who does he remind you of?
Jefferson is listed at 6-1, 202 yards.
Jerry Rice, the greatest receiver in NFL history, was listed at 6-2 and 200 pounds.
Rice didn’t look that big up close. He was built more like a dancer than a football player, but he had large, strong hands and an unmatched work ethic.
Like Jefferson, Rice didn’t make Moss-like leaping catches, instead creating separation with precise routes and what scouts call “football speed’’ — not the kind that produces eye-popping 40-yard dash times, but the kind that leaves opponents bewildered.
No receiver compares favorably with Rice in terms of production, but Jefferson is having a better rookie season than Rice did. Rice caught 49 passes for 927 yards and three touchdowns his first season, 1985, before breaking out the next year.
Like Rice and Moss, Jefferson is proving to be a stunning value. The 49ers chose Rice with the 16th pick in the draft. The Vikings got Moss at No. 21. Last spring, the Vikings chose Jefferson with the 22nd pick.
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman traded Stefon Diggs to Buffalo because Diggs wanted out. Diggs has caught 80 passes for 945 yards and four touchdowns.
Spielman did well turning Diggs into a draft pick that yielded Jefferson, who is younger, just as productive, still improving and far cheaper than Diggs.
By taking Jefferson, Spielman avoided the kind of mistake that cost the Vikings in the wake of the Moss trade.
The Vikings received the seventh pick in the draft for Moss, and chose South Carolina receiver Troy Williamson with it, a desperate and simple-minded decision that ended disastrously.
Faced with a similar problem, Spielman threaded the needle this time.