Among all the records that exist in the NFL, 2,000 yards in a single season stands out among the crowd. There have only been eight running backs in league history to accumulate 2,000 yards on the ground in a single season. Hitting that benchmark presents multiple rewards coming in various forms like nicknames (CJ2K for Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson), a new contract, hardware (Offensive Player of the Year and MVP awards), and immortality (four of the eight are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with Adrian Peterson a lock to join that group one day). Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson announced to Twin Cities local media at the end of July that he thinks he can be the first at his position to total 2,000 receiving yards in a single campaign.
"I hope so," Jefferson told the Pioneer Press on July 25. "I think I can. Hopefully, everything goes right and I can get that 2,000 [receiving yards]. That's my goal. That would be big, just breaking the record my rookie year [most receiving yards by a rookie] and then breaking a record in my third year, that would be crazy for me. That's going to be a goal for me, for sure."
His confidence isn't unfounded. Jefferson leads the NFL with 3,016 receiving yards over the past two seasons since being selected 22nd overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. This represents the most receiving yards in a player's first two seasons in NFL history. His 196 career catches are tied for the most in a player's first two seasons in NFL history with New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (2016-17). Jefferson needs 1,148 yards in 2022 to set the NFL record for the most in a player's first three NFL seasons, a record set by another Vikings wide receiver, Hall of Famer Randy Moss, who had 4,163 receiving yards from 1998-2000.
Most receiving yards since 2020
* 2020 was Justin Jefferson's rookie season
Jefferson has been the featured target in Minnesota, having been thrown to on 27.5% of his team's pass attempts since 2020 with only new Las Vegas Raiders receiver Davante Adams (29.7) and Buffalo Bills receiver Stefon Diggs (27.7) having a higher percentage in the span of Jefferson's career. With a career yards-per-catch average of 15.4, the highest in the NFL since 2020 among players with a minimum of 150 catches, Jefferson would need about 130 receptions this upcoming season if he were to post that as his 2022 figure. His current career high is his 2021 season total of 108 receptions on 167 targets.
The current single-season receiving yards record holder is Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson, the former Detroit Lion, who utilized an NFL single-season record nine games with over 120 receiving yards in 2012 en route to the record of 1,964. He averaged 122.8 receiving yards per game, 16.1 receiving yards per catch, while playing all 16 games and hauling in an NFL-high 122 receptions on 204 targets that season. The toughest part of becoming the first wide receiver to 2,000 receiving yards is the required sustained level of excellence across an entire season. What led to the player known as Megatron falling short of 2,000 yards was he had four games, a quarter of his season, with fewer than 80 receiving yards. With the second-best pass catcher on that Lions team being tight end Brandon Pettigrew and the team's lead running back being Mikel Leshoure, defenses were able to focus on, and for brief spells, slow down Johnson throughout the course of his legendary 2012 season.
Last season, 2021 Offensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP Cooper Kupp totaled the second-most receiving yards (1,947) on the second-most catches (145) in a single season in NFL history, while also leading the NFL in touchdown receptions (16) and targets (191). Kupp's 2021 has a great case as the best single-season performance by a wide receiver, as he became one of four to win the receiving triple crown (lead the NFL in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in the same season) in the Super Bowl era joining Steve Smith (2005), Sterling Sharpe (1992) and Jerry Rice (1990). He was remarkably consistent, recording over 90 receiving yards in 16 of his 17 games played, including in 13 consecutive games (longest such streak in NFL history). What likely kept Kupp from reaching the 2,000-yard mark is he didn't have the single-game highs of Johnson's (six games of over 140 yards) as he only had two games with more than 140 yards.
Cooper Kupp 2021 single-season, all-time WR ranking
|2021 season||NFL all-time ranking|
Games with 90+ yards
* 90+ yards in final 13 regular-season games (longest such streak in NFL history)
The moral of both Johnson's and Kupp's close, but not quite runs at 2,000 receiving yards: you need to be essentially flawless. Fortunately for Jefferson, he now has one of the architects of Kupp's 2021 season as his new head coach and play-caller to help him figure out how to do it, former Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O'Connell.
"Absolutely," O'Connell said when asked on NBC Sports' Pro Football Live in March if he planned to make Jefferson his new Kupp. "The one thing about Cooper Kupp this past season is he lined up in a lot of different spots. It was hard for defenses to really know where he was. He did a lot of different things. He had an impact in a lot of phases of our offense beyond just catching a lot of balls and scoring a lot of touchdowns. There was a huge role for Cooper because of his willingness to be completely solidified in every phase, both the run and the pass."
In Jefferson's former offense that was run by the staff of traditional, defensive-minded head coach Mike Zimmer, Jefferson lined up outside in a typical No. 1 wide receiver spot on 75% of his offensive snaps in 2021, according to Pro Football Focus. Minnesota also utilized formations with three wide receivers on 53.8% of its plays, the eighth-lowest rate in the league. The Rams ran three wide receiver sets on 85.6% of their plays, the highest usage in the NFL. O'Connell plans to incorporate more pass-friendly formations into Minnesota's offense, adding more unpredictability to the Vikings' passing game and their predictable top receiving option in Jefferson.
"I see that with Justin [Jefferson], I see an incredible, incredible skill set, but I also see a player we can move around," O'Connell said. "We can make it hard for defenses to know where he's going to be. He doesn't have to line up in the same spot all the time. He doesn't have to run the same type of routes all the time. He's dynamic with the ball in his hands. He's willing in the run game. This guy's a special, special player. I loved him a couple years ago when he was coming out of the draft. We [Los Angeles Rams] obviously weren't in a position to possibly get a chance to coach him. You still go through the process. You see the traits, you see the skill set. He's really just grown from Day 1."
After going back and watching film of the Rams' offense and the NFL's reigning Offensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP, Jefferson knows he's going to have plenty of opportunities as O'Connell's new passing game muse.
"Just watching Rams highlights and tape of so many different plays that Coop made, I now see why Coop was so wide open so many times," Jefferson said in a training camp sit-down with NFL Network. "I was always at home thinking about, 'why is this man wide open', he's the main target, but he's always wide open. Now, I see it going over the different plays and installs, seeing the different routes that he ran. It's so wonderful being in this type of offense now, especially not being in that style of offense. It's definitely exciting to see."
Unlike Johnson and Kupp to a certain extent, with the early injuries to Rams running back Cam Akers and then-Rams wide receiver Robert Woods last season, Jefferson should be surrounded by more offensive talent than either of the previous closest players to 2,000 yards, which makes it harder for opponents to zero in on him each week.
"I think he's [Jefferson] got an incredibly bright future, he's already a superstar in this league in my mind and no better way to build your offense obviously through the lens of a quarterback first and foremost always, but when you have a weapon like that [Jefferson] in addition to [wide receiver] Adam [Thielen], [tight end] Irv [Smith], [running back] Dalvin [Cook], our great guys up front on the offensive line. It's been fun to study," O'Connell said. "Justin Jefferson's going to have a huge role in our offense and continue to ascend in this league. Cannot wait to start coaching him."
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Jefferson himself hasn't been able to contain his enthusiasm when talking about the juxtaposition in the run-focused attack under Zimmer and his staff versus the more pass-friendly scheme O'Connell is importing from the defending Super Bowl champion Rams. The Vikings ran the football 43.5% of the time since 2020, the 10th-highest rate in the NFL. In Jefferson's first two seasons, Minnesota passed on 56.5% of their offensive plays, which was the 10th-lowest rate in the NFL. However, the Rams' 36.3 pass attempts per game ranked as the ninth most in the NFL.
"It's [the Vikings' offense] not a run-first offense anymore," Jefferson said, when appearing on NFL Total Access NFL Network on June 24. "Just us being able to put different people in different positions and distributing the ball, really. I'm so excited in this offense, us just learning the plays, going through it with our defense and stuff. We're all excited, we're all happy to have [O'Connell]. It's definitely a different vibe and different connection in the building with him there."
At 23 years old and entering his third NFL season, Jefferson has taken the initial first steps toward what he hopes will be a career capped with a bust in Canton, Ohio, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Becoming the first to 2,000 receiving yards in a single season would be a selling point on his NFL career resume. Simply breaking Johnson's single-season mark of 1,964 would increase his chances of ending up in Canton significantly as Johnson was able to get in on the first ballot despite only playing nine professional seasons, which left his career totals lower than the usual standard.
"I want to accomplish so much, it's an endless list that I want to accomplish," Jefferson said. "At the end of the day, I want to be a Hall of Famer. So, in order to reach that position, that position is so much more that I have to accomplish, so much more that I have to set for myself to better myself and really to learn. I just can't wait to really just see how far I can really go. This is just the start of my career, and there's just so much more I have to learn, so much more I have to do for myself to really get on that platform of being a Hall of Famer."
The next big checkpoint in his NFL career is the second contract, which Jefferson will be eligible to negotiate and sign with the Vikings following the conclusion of the 2022 season, his third in the league. Adams (five years, $140 million) and new Miami Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill (four years, $120 million) reset the market for wide receiver contracts at 29 and 28 years old, respectively. If Jefferson rewrites the single-season receiving yards record at his age this season, the numbers on his next contract could make Adams' and Hill's look like bargains.
"I mean, I hope so," Jefferson said to CBS Sports in August when asked about potentially becoming the highest-paid wide receiver in the NFL. "Right now, I'm mostly focused on the season, just trying to get back to that winning record, being in the playoffs, getting to that big goal [2,000 receiving yards], reaching the Super Bowl and winning it. But of course, I would like to be one of the highest paid, for sure."
Having logged a first two seasons like none other in NFL history, don't be surprised if O'Connell's presence in Minnesota helps Jefferson eventually summit the NFL's pass-catching Mount Everest, completing a season with 2,000 receiving yards.