Justin Jefferson is the first player in NFL history to combine for over 3,000 receiving yards across his first two seasons. He’s undoubtedly in the conversation as one of the top receivers in the NFL, a position rich in star power, and he’s only 22. With two second-team All-Pro credits to his name, he is near the top of the list whenever the best in the game are discussed.
Although he’s taken the league by storm since his very first start back in Week 3 of 2020, he still has a few names to cross off his list before being anointed the Best Receiver in the Game.
Granted, surpassing Cooper Kupp in the NFL receiver hierarchy will be no small task. Coming off a Super Bowl MVP and nearly breaking the NFL’s single-season receiving yardage record, Kupp should continue to dominate as he builds on the early and immediate rapport with Matthew Stafford in Los Angeles.
Luckily for Jefferson, former divisional foe Davante Adams is off to Las Vegas, reunited with his former quarterback from Fresno State, Derek Carr. While he should continue to be one of the premier receivers in the game, it will be interesting to see if Adams can maintain his stellar statistical output without the luxury of back-to-back NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers slinging him the pill. Adams has recorded three seasons with 111-plus receptions, 1,374-plus yards, and 11-plus touchdowns over the past four years in Green Bay. He recorded career highs in receptions (123) and yards (1,553) last season and a career-high 18 touchdowns in 2020.
If Kupp currently holds the crown, Adams isn’t too far behind.
And we can’t forget about the other All-Pro receiver who will be playing elsewhere this coming season. Tyreek Hill certainly benefited from four seasons of having Patrick Mahomes as his quarterback in Kansas City. He averaged 86 receptions, 1,312 scrimmage yards, and nearly 12 touchdowns per year since Mahomes took over in 2018. Mike McDaniel and the new-look Miami Dolphins came a-knockin’ after he justifiably demanded to be the game’s highest-paid receiver. While the drop-off from Mahomes to Tua Tagovailoa can’t be dismissed, it’s important to remember that Hill has remained one of the game’s biggest threats when Alex Smith and/or Matt Moore was his quarterback throughout 2017 and for parts of 2019. Moore was his QB against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 9 of 2019, and Hill had six receptions, 145 scrimmage yards, and a touchdown.
However, Jefferson isn’t the only early-20s superstar vying for the title of the game’s best. Former teammate and fellow National Champion LSU Tiger Ja’Marr Chase is neck-and-neck with Jefferson in the competition among the game’s megastars. They’re both well within their prime. But aside from the continuity that Kupp has with Stafford and Sean McVay, 2022 might just be the year where the former college teammates supplant some of the game’s top receivers as they transition to new situations, schemes, and quarterbacks.
Of the 29 players who received at least 115 targets last season, Jefferson had the ninth-highest passer rating when targeted with 113.9. Kupp predictably led the league with a rating of 129.7, with Chase and Adams finishing fourth and fifth with ratings of 117.1 and 116.6, respectively.
While the numbers are certainly important for all the players involved in this discussion, we can’t dismiss the most important component whenever this particular subject is broached: winning.
Every single player on this list — outside of Jefferson — has made big-time plays on the game’s biggest stages.
Although Jefferson’s heroics against the Green Bay Packers in Week 11 last season will be tough to forget for football fans in Minnesota, he needs to be part of a winning team that will allow him to join the other players mentioned by making iconic plays in the playoffs. To be the best, one has to play their best when the lights are brightest, which is precisely what Kupp did last season.
With Kevin O’Connell‘s arrival, the expectations for Jefferson’s Vikings are firmly set at Playoffs or Bust. The former Rams’ offensive coordinator should assuredly help Jefferson find more easy looks by allowing him to play in the same system that saw Kupp almost make NFL history last year.
But even if Jefferson not only breaks Randy Moss‘ single-season franchise record for receiving yards but also Calvin Johnson‘s NFL record of 1,964 yards from 2012, it will be difficult to give him the positional championship belt if it doesn’t translate into winning. And, to be perfectly clear, Jefferson can only be responsible for so much.
At the end of the day, is it Jefferson’s fault that he’s played for a team with the league’s 27th-worst defense since he entered the league? Whether it’s right or wrong, winning still plays a huge factor whenever folks find themselves nitpicking between the game’s best. If the defense can take a considerable step forward in O’Connell’s debut season in purple, that should allow Jefferson the opportunity to perform in the playoffs.
If he can see his production grow with the arrival of O’Connell’s system, it’s only a matter of time until Jefferson cements his status as the Best Receiver on the Planet by making big-time plays in big-time games.