Justin Jefferson's skyrocketing ascension reached new heights during the 2022 NFL season. Before the season began, the Vikings superstar said he wanted to be known as the league's best receiver. He made a compelling case by leading in nearly every receiving category.
By Thanksgiving night, Jefferson had passed Vikings legend and Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss for most yardage in a player's first three NFL seasons. The 23-year-old Jefferson broke a record that stood for nearly 22 years with a leaping downfield grab through a Patriots double team of safety Devin McCourty and cornerback Jonathan Jones.
Jefferson has broken numerous records in his brief but dominant pro career. His most impressive season yet — as a unanimous first-team All-Pro selection, a Pro Bowler, and the Associated Press' Offensive Player of the Year who also received MVP votes — bolstered his feverish pursuit of the game's greats.
Jefferson has sprinted out of the starting blocks of his NFL career, leading a pass-happy league and producing at a faster pace than anyone before him. He already has the most yardage over the first three years. Now he's closing in on modern cohorts — Odell Beckham Jr. (54 games) and Julio Jones (56 games) — to become the fastest player to 5,000 career receiving yards. Jefferson is 175 yards shy through 50 regular-season games.
Jefferson has repeatedly said he's chasing a Hall of Fame jacket and a Super Bowl ring. He's also off to a faster start than anyone in Canton, including the leaders in career receiving yards — Jerry Rice, Larry Fitzgerald, Terrell Owens and Moss.
From the jump this season, Jefferson carved up defenses with big game after big game. He expressed surprise at how few Packers defenders were nearby during his 184-yard, two-touchdown afternoon in the season-opening win at U.S. Bank Stadium. That was the first of three times Jefferson reset his single-game career high, topping out with the Vikings' franchise record of 223 yards in a December loss in Detroit.
After Jefferson had 133 receiving yards against the Giants on Dec. 24, he had topped the century mark 24 times in 48 career games. Jefferson not only holds the NFL record for most 100-yard receiving games in a player's first three seasons, but will also have the most through four seasons (previously Moss' 23).
The arrival of head coach Kevin O'Connell from the Rams, where receiver Cooper Kupp led the NFL in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns the previous season, ensured Jefferson would have a chance to reach the same heights in a pass-heavy offense.
Jefferson met expectations by setting two Vikings franchise records with 128 catches for 1,809 receiving yards, becoming the youngest player to lead the league in both — surpassing Packers receiver Don Hutson, who had held the mark since 1936. O'Connell's offense set up Jefferson to catch and run, illustrated by his league-leading yards after the reception among NFL wide receivers.
Few players, and no other receivers, shouldered a heavier burden for their team than Jefferson this season.
He accounted for 28.3% of the Vikings' yards from scrimmage, trailing only a trio of running backs — Tennessee's Derrick Henry (36.1%), Las Vegas' Josh Jacobs (32.9%) and Cleveland's Nick Chubb (28.5%) — for the largest share for one team by one player.
As one of the NFL's most versatile threats, Jefferson consistently hit singles (a league-high 80 first downs) and home runs (a league-high 28 catches of 20-plus yards) to drive the Vikings offense.
When the Vikings spread the ball around, they frequently turned to running back Dalvin Cook and tight end T.J. Hockenson, who gained more than 500 yards despite playing only 10 games for Minnesota.
Even though the Vikings' final fourth-down pass in the playoff loss to the Giants didn't go his way, nobody was more productive this season on third and fourth down.
Jefferson led the NFL with 27 first downs and six touchdowns on third and fourth down, according to Pro Football Reference. The Browns' Amari Cooper and Lions' Amon-Ra St. Brown were the closest to matching Jefferson in those key moments.
Jefferson often fueled the Vikings' eight game-winning drives — with quarterback Kirk Cousins tying the single-season NFL record set by Matthew Stafford in 2016 — with big plays while trailing or tied in close games.
Jefferson's catches on third and fourth downs included the one-handed, 32-yard grab to convert a fourth-and-18 in Buffalo; a 47-yard, third-down catch in Washington while trailing 17-7 in the fourth quarter; and a 17-yard, go-ahead touchdown against the Giants on third down with a few minutes left in the Dec. 24 win.