Jim Souhan
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DETROIT — Justin Jefferson made history during a pandemic, in front of seats either empty or filled with cardboard, in a meaningless game against a woeful opponent.

Once American life and football returns to normal, the details won't matter. All we'll remember is that Justin Jefferson made history.

The pandemic cost Jefferson practice and preparation time before the season. He was barely used in his first two NFL games. He played in a run-first offense, on a team that flopped. And he set the NFL rookie receiving yards record for the Super Bowl era.

Whatever else went wrong or sideways this year for the Vikings, their first-round selection of Jefferson proved to be prescient and perhaps job-preserving.

On Sunday Jefferson caught nine passes for 133 yards in the Vikings' 37-35 victory over the Detroit Lions. He finished the season with 88 catches for 1,400 yards, giving him the record for rookie receiving yards in the Super Bowl era. Bill Groman of the AFL Houston Oilers produced 1,473 yards in 1960.

Before breaking Anquan Boldin's NFL rookie record of 1,377 yards, set in 2003, Jefferson passed Randy Moss' Vikings record of 1,313, set in 1998, while wearing cleats honoring Moss. After the game, Jefferson immediately dedicated the game to another Vikings great, running back Dalvin Cook, who missed the game in the wake of his father's death.

"Shoutout to Dalvin — sadly he's not here to have this win with us, but we all did it for him,'' Jefferson said. "It's an honor to break Randy Moss' record. Him being a Hall of Famer and his just being so dominant in this league, to break his record is truly a blessing. It's truly crazy to be in this position."

With sure hands and smooth moves, Jefferson created two debates:

  1. Will he or Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert win the offensive rookie of the year award?
  2. Did Jefferson produce a better rookie season than Moss, or just one that proved more prolific?

Herbert plays the more important position and on Sunday set the rookie record for completions. He looks like one of the league's next great quarterbacks.

I'd pick Jefferson, but that might be a case of proximity bias. It's hard to imagine a better rookie than Jefferson, but Herbert burnished his credentials on Sunday as well.

Comparing any rookie receiver to Moss requires context. He joined an excellent offensive team and played opposite a Hall of Fame receiver in Cris Carter. Moss was used primarily as a deep route runner, and he excelled, producing 19.7 yards per catch and 17 touchdowns. Jefferson produced 15.9 yards per catch and seven touchdowns.

Jefferson was a more complete receiver, excelling on all kinds of routes, so he wound up with more catches and the record.

Does that mean he was a better rookie than Moss?

The real question is whether any rookie receiver has ever been better than Moss, who elevated a good team to Super Bowl-quality. He prompted the entire division to begin drafting bigger, more athletic cornerbacks to contain him. He made catches that perhaps no other receiver in league history could have made.

Jefferson was more productive, but Moss could have set an unattainable record if the '98 Vikings had used him differently.

Here's another question:

If the Vikings hadn't taken Jefferson, or if another team had, would the Vikings be facing an offseason overhaul?

Imagine this Vikings team without Jefferson, which was a real possibility. Not only was Jefferson the fifth receiver taken in the draft, he was taken one pick after Philadelphia chose TCU receiver Jalen Reagor.

Without Jefferson, the Vikings likely would have finished with double-digit losses, likely would have been eliminated from playoff contention earlier.

Rick Spielman's pick of Jefferson may have saved his job, and Mike Zimmer's.

"I love the way he competes," Zimmer said. "He catches everything. He continually gets better and better and better. He's a great weapon to have and should be for many years."

Jefferson wants to get his cleats signed by Moss, then place them in his trophy case.

He's 21 and in the last 12 months has starred on a national championship team and set an NFL record.

How he compares to Moss doesn't matter, so much as the fact that he does compare to Moss.