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Moss redux: Jefferson has opportunity to bring back memories of Rookie Randy under the lights

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Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) celebrates after catching a touchdown pass in the third quarter during an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Minneapolis. The Titans defeated the Vikings 31-20. (AP Photo/David Berding)

Randy Moss’ rookie season got off to an impressive start as he caught 17 passes for 273 yards with four touchdowns in his first four games. But Moss, the 21st pick in the opening round of the 1998 draft, was yet to have the signature game that would put him on the map in the NFL. That came in the Vikings’ fifth game of the season against the Packers on a Monday night in Lambeau Field.

Before a national television audience on ABC, and with the NFL stage all to himself, the 21-year-old caught five passes from Randall Cunningham for 190 yards with touchdown receptions of 52 and 44 yards in a 37-24 victory on Oct. 5. A 75-yard touchdown catch by Moss was wiped out by a holding penalty but, in the moment, helped to establish the greatness that was to come. Moss would put together another memorable performance on national television that season, catching three passes for 163 yards and three touchdowns in a Thanksgiving Day win at Dallas, but it was the Green Bay game that established him as one of the most exciting players in the league.

And that brings us to the opportunity that, 22 years later, will present itself for another 21-year-old Vikings rookie wide receiver. Justin Jefferson, selected with the 22nd pick in the 2020 draft, has caught 16 passes for 348 yards and a touchdown in the Vikings’ first four games. Jefferson barely played a role in the Vikings’ first two games, catching five of the six passes on which he was targeted for 70 yards, before breaking out the past two weeks against Tennessee and Houston. He has caught 11 of the 14 passes thrown to him for 278 yards and one touchdown in that time.

Other than the touchdown total, Jefferson’s stats mirror those of Moss’ through four games. One can only imagine what would have happened if offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and Kirk Cousins had trusted Jefferson from Day 1. Now that there seems to be complete faith in Jefferson, one has to wonder what the plan is for him on Sunday night when the Vikings play in Seattle in a nationally televised game in Week 5.

Sound familiar?

This isn’t an attempt to draw comparisons between the 2020 Vikings and the 1998 edition. The latter went 15-1 and came within a heart-breaking loss of advancing to the Super Bowl. This year’s Vikings are off to a 1-3 start and look like a team that probably should be more worried about draft position than trying to get into the postseason. But if you don’t think Jefferson could have an absolute break-out game on Sunday in Seattle, you aren’t paying attention.

The Seahawks’ pass defense is absolutely awful. Seattle is ranked last in the NFL, giving up an average of 401 passing yards per game. Cousins has plenty of faults, including his play in prime time, but he does possess an arm capable of launching the ball deep for Jefferson and Jefferson has proven that, if given a chance, he can catch that pass. Go back and look at his 71-yard touchdown reception against the Titans a few weeks back, and the moves he made after the catch, if you don’t believe me.

Seattle will be without safety Jamal Adams (groin) on Sunday night and cornerback Quinton Dunbar (knee) is questionable. Jefferson, meanwhile, is full go and likely would love the chance to prove to the rest of the NFL that he is the best of the six wide receivers who went in the opening round. That includes four players — Las Vegas’ Henry Ruggs, Denver’s Jerry Jeudy, Dallas’ CeeDee Lamb and Philadelphia Jalen Reagor — who went before Jefferson.

Jefferson currently leads all of the first-round wide receivers in receiving yards and is second to Lamb (21 catches) in receptions. Imagine if he hadn’t been basically forgotten about in the first two games.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer would tell you that what’s in the past is in the past and isn’t worth talking about. He’s right. So let’s focus on the future, or at least two nights from now. That’s when Jefferson should repeatedly get the football and when Al Michaels (who called Moss’ breakout game) will get the opportunity to gush about another unbelievable performance by a young player wearing purple.

Cousins has the ability to make this happen for Jefferson. If he does, Jefferson has the ability to put up this line: Nine catches, 204 yards and three touchdowns.

Welcome to the national spotlight, Justin.