As the NFL’s regular season was coming to a frantic finale in Week 17, in a virtually empty Ford Field, history was being made in a game with no playoff implications.
Despite its high-scoring nature, the shootout between the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings probably won’t live long in memory of most NFL fans.
But it is likely to be a game that will forever stick in the mind of Vikings’ star receiver Justin Jefferson, who put the finishing touches on one of the great rookie wideout seasons in Minnesota’s 37-35 victory.
Jefferson finished the game with nine catches for 133 yards, taking his tally to 1,400 for the year, surpassing the single-season record for receiving yards by a rookie in the Super Bowl era set by Anquan Boldin (1,377) in 2003.
It was the seventh 100-yard game for Jefferson in a season where he proved he deserved to be in the conversation to be the first receiver off the board in the 2020 draft, rather than the fifth.
Justin Jefferson (1, 400 rec yds) has broken Anquan Boldin’s record for most rec yds by a rookie in the SB era (1,377 in 2003)
Most Rec Yds by a Rookie
Super Bowl Era
MIN Justin Jefferson – 1,400
ARI Anquan Boldin – 1,377
HOF Randy Moss – 1,313
NYG Odell Beckham – 1,305
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 3, 2021
He was regarded as a polished route-runner coming out of college, having helped LSU to a National Championship in his final season.
Yet the manner in which his abilities in that regard have translated to the pro game surpassed all expectations.
Jefferson has made a habit of embarrassing defenders with his agility and fluidity in changing direction, while he has demonstrated tremendous concentration and body control at the catch point.
The result of that combination of traits was a rookie season that saw him lead all wide receivers in plays of 25 yards or more, finishing the year with 16.
His receiving yards per game average of 87.5 was topped by just four players, with Jefferson eighth in yards per reception. Jerry Jeudy (16.5) and Gabriel Davis (17.1) were the only rookies to finish ahead of him in that category.
Twelfth in average yards at the catch point with 11.3, where Jefferson may look to improve is in yards after the catch. His average of 4.6 yards after catch per reception was 27th among all receivers.
Jefferson will probably also have eyes on a more prolific year in 2021, having found the endzone half as many times as team-mate Adam Thielen (14 touchdowns) did in the 2020 regular season.
.@JJettas2 wasn’t kidding.
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) January 4, 2021
However, in terms of all-round production, few receivers can match up to what Jefferson produced in his maiden campaign as he set the standard for another exceptional class of receivers in the 2021 draft.
There are many who believe the 2021 class of wideouts is even better than that of 2020 and the expectations on that group are likely to be huge.
Jefferson’s former LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase opted out of the 2020 college football season but is still regarded as arguably the most complete wideout in the draft.
That status has been challenged by Alabama’s Devonta Smith, now the favourite to become the first receiver since Desmond Howard in 1991 to win the prestigious Heisman Trophy after an incredible season for the Crimson Tide.
For all their exploits in college, however, Chase, Smith and others will have a huge task to come anywhere close to replicating Jefferson’s rookie year. The bar has been set for the incoming influx of exciting young pass-catchers, and it has been set absurdly high.