On Thanksgiving day 22 years ago, Randy Moss made a statement: he was the most fearsome wide receiver to ever play the game of football. 22 years, numerous NFL records, and a first-ballot Hall of Fame induction later, he remains just that: the most feared wide receiver the game has ever known. Jerry Rice bests him in key receiving stats based on longevity (he played until age 42), but let’s be clear: any cornerback or defensive coach would rather face Rice than Moss in his prime.
Moss was a physical freak. 6’4”, 210 pounds, 4.25” 40, and a posting vertical jumps of 47 and 51 inches at his pro-day, he possessed off-the-charts athleticism. There has been no player, before or after Moss, to come close to that set of measurables. He was indeed a “Freak.” As in freak of nature.
Getting back to that Thanksgiving day game, against the Dallas Cowboys- the same team Justin Jefferson faces on Sunday afternoon- Randy Moss had just three receptions on 8 targets. All three were touchdowns. Two were 56 yards, another went for 51. 3 receptions, 163 yards, 3 TDs. The Vikings had a total of 6 touchdown drives that game - the longest one took 2 minutes and 28 seconds, and all were 5 plays or less. That’s firepower.
The Vikings were already 10-1 at that point, and Moss had already shown he was a force, torching the Packers for a combined 343 yards and 3 TDs in two games, but that Thanksgiving game was his statement game. Moss would finish his rookie year with 124 targets, 69 receptions, 1,313 receiving yards, 19.0 yards per reception, and 17 touchdowns. He was named Offensive Rookie of the Year, First Team All-Pro, and to the Pro Bowl.
Justin Jefferson Making a Name For Himself as a Rookie
22 years later, the Vikings are once again playing the Dallas Cowboys. Not on Thanksgiving, but the Sunday before. At an empty US Bank stadium, not a packed “Texas stadium in Irving, Texas” as Pat Summerall always began his Cowboys home game broadcasts. The Vikings are 4-5, not 10-1. The Cowboys are 2-7, not 8-3. Mike Zimmer is coaching the Vikings, not defensive backs for the Cowboys. But the Vikings are once again featuring a rookie wide receiver making a name for himself as the season progresses. The league is taking notice. When the Vikings played the Packers week 8, the Packers (and current league) top cornerback, Jaire Alexander, didn’t shadow Adam Thielen the whole game, he shadowed Jefferson.
And there is good reason for Jefferson to be drawing attention from opposing defenses. So far, with 9 games and 7 starts under his belt, Jefferson has 762 yards receiving and 3 TDs on 54 targets and 42 receptions. That equates to 18.1 yards per reception, and a 77.8% catch rate.
Since becoming a starter Week 3 against the Titans, Jefferson has averaged 99 receiving yards a game, and 18.7 yards a catch. Projecting that game average over the next seven games would give Jefferson 1,455 receiving yards for the season. That would surpass Moss’ rookie season, and put him very close to Bill Gorman, who played in the AFL as a rookie in 1960, and finished the season with 1,473 receiving yards.
Comparing Rookie Moss to Rookie Jefferson
If Justin Jefferson continues at his current pace, he’ll have one of the best rookie seasons by a wide receiver in NFL history. But even if Jefferson ends up with over 1,400 receiving yards, he’d still need a lot more of those griddy-dance TDs to rival Randy Moss’ rookie year. At present, Jefferson has just 3 TDs on the season, whereas Moss finished with what many consider an unbreakable record of 17 TDs as a rookie WR.
Jefferson bests Moss with his catch-rate (77.8% vs. 55.6% for Moss), and while they both have similar rookie-year average yards per reception (18.1 vs. 19.0 for Moss), Moss’ receptions had much greater variance. His yards per reception on that Thanksgiving day game was 54.3. But he also had 4 games when it was 7.4 yards or less his rookie year. The reason for the variance was how Moss was used - mainly bombs and bubble screens. Moss was never a receiver who made his living finding holes in zone coverage, or running quick slants. He ‘mossed’ defenders on go routes, and could turn bubble screens into a big plays. But against stout defenders with double-coverage, he could be shut down occasionally - opening up things for Cris Carter or Robert Smith. For example, against the Saints his rookie year, Moss had only one catch for 6 yards. The Saints were determined to shut down Moss, and they did. But the Vikings still had 465 yards of offense, and scored 31 points to win the game. Smith rushed for 137 yards, and Brad Johnson threw for 316 yards.
Jefferson differs from Moss in his use as he doesn’t do many bubble screens, and isn’t primarily a go-route runner either. He’s a more complete receiver in the sense that he runs more of the route tree effectively than Moss, who was primarily a fearsome go-route guy. Bubble screens were a way for the Vikings offense to take advantage of off-coverage cushions against Moss for some easy yards, and to tempt defenders to play him tighter - setting them up for a deep go-route.
So far, Jefferson seems to be running more posts and corner routes, back-shoulder fades, and intermediate routes. Thielen and Cook have been the primary go-tos in the red-zone for the Vikings (9 and 13 TDs respectively), which has led to Jefferson’s relatively low (3) TD count. Moss’ 1998 Vikings scored a franchise-record 58 TDs, so even with Moss scoring 17, there were still 41 to go-around. Even Leroy Hoard had 10 that year.
So Jefferson is more versatile, and Moss more deadly. Jefferson seems better at moving the chains, with occasional home-runs, whereas Moss was a home-run hitter, who occasionally moved the chains. Both receivers were helped in their rookie season by having a solid #2 receiver in Cris Carter or Adam Thielen, a top running back in Robert Smith or Dalvin Cook, and a QB that could throw the deep ball in Randall Cunningham or Kirk Cousins. Neither receiver was expected to be available when the Vikings drafted in the first round.
But thinking back again to that Thanksgiving day game 22 years ago, I’d love to see the Vikings run another flea-flicker early-on, with Cousins connecting with Jefferson for a highlight-reel TD.
Will Justin Jefferson have a statement game against the Cowboys on Sunday?
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