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Justin Jefferson’s record-setting rookie season comes to an end but the best is yet to come

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Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) makes a reception in the second half against the Detroit Lions during an NFL football game, Saturday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

There will be plenty of negatives to pick apart from the Vikings’ 7-9 finish this season. A bad start (1-5), a defense that wasn’t up to Mike Zimmer’s standards when the season began and was riddled with injuries by the end of it, three losses in the last four games. The list doesn’t end there and the Vikings are going to have to deal with the reality of what went wrong in the coming weeks.

But there was one huge positive that should provide the Vikings with a starting point for how they run their offense in 2021. Wide receiver Justin Jefferson, taken with the 22nd pick in the first round of the draft last April, caught nine passes for 133 yards Sunday in a 37-35 victory at Detroit to finish his rookie season with 88 receptions for 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns.

Jefferson’s yardage total set a rookie record for the Super Bowl era, breaking the mark held by Arizona’s Anquan Boldin (1,377 yards) since 2003. Jefferson established the record in the third quarter Sunday when he caught a 14-yard pass from Kirk Cousins. The all-time rookie record for receiving yards in a season was set by the Houston Oilers’ Bill Groman (1,473) in 1960. The Oilers were members of the AFL at the time.

Jefferson, obtained with a draft pick in a trade with Buffalo that sent disgruntled wide receiver Stefon Diggs to the Bills, broke Randy Moss’ franchise rookie record for receptions in Week 15 when he reached 70 catches in a loss to Chicago. Moss set the mark in 1998 and also had the team receiving yardage mark (1,313) before Jefferson passed him on Sunday, while wearing cleats that honored Moss.

“It’s an honor to break Randy Moss’ record,” said Jefferson, who is a leading candidate for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, along with Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. “Him being a Hall of Famer and him just being so dominant in this league. To break his record is truly a blessing. It’s truly crazy to be in this position. The cleats, I had to honor him. I had a good chance to break the record today, so I had to put him on the cleats. I’ve got to get him to sign them so I can put them in my trophy case.”

Much like Moss was fueled by the fact that he was not taken until the 21st pick in the 1998 draft, Jefferson was motivated from hearing that many thought he could only play slot receiver and then four teams took wide receivers before the Vikings finally stopped his fall.

Even the Vikings might not have realized what they had  with Jefferson — at least not at first. Jefferson rewrote part of the rookie record book for wide receivers, despite being basically a non-factor in the first two games of the season. He caught only five passes (on six targets) for 70 yards in the Vikings’ opening two games, both losses, before having a breakout performance (seven catches for 175 yards and a touchdown) in a Week 3 loss to Tennessee. That was one of seven games in which Jefferson exceeded 100 yards receiving.

Jefferson wondered what his statistics might have been like, if he had been a primary target of Kirk Cousins’ from opening day. “What if I would’ve had those two games starting?” Jefferson said. “And having the same targets I had this year. Who knows what I would’ve (done) with that? I guess I’ll just wait until next year to start out from Week 1 and hopefully I get more yards than I did this year.”

One would think the Vikings will adjust their offensive philosophy to balance it out and go away from a heavy reliance on the run game and Dalvin Cook. (The Vikings entered Sunday ranked eighth in the NFL with 437 rushing attempts and 27th with 476 passing attempts.) Cook, who did not play Sunday following the death of his father last week, is an outstanding running back, but Jefferson figures to only get better and that means making him the featured player in this offense will keep the Moss comparisons coming.