MINNEAPOLIS -- The cleats Minnesota Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson wore in his final outing as a rookie paid homage to the Hall of Famer whose long-standing franchise records he topped in the last three games of 2020.
Trying to wrap his head around the 1,400-yard receiving mark he reached in Week 17, surpassing the team rookie record of 1,313 yards set by Randy Moss in 1998, Jefferson threw out a request. He wanted Moss' signature on the cleats so they could be displayed among his prized football possessions.
Weeks later when they met virtually ahead of the Pro Bowl, Moss gladly obliged. The Hall of Famer also waxed poetic about Jefferson's achievements, which included a franchise-best 88 catches after Moss notched 69 in 1998.
"When I say I am happy for you, I'm happy for the Vikings organization finally being able to get a wide receiver in, to come in the door showing his stuff," Moss told Jefferson. "Justin, I'm proud of you, bruh. My rookie of the year."
A million-watt smile stretched across Jefferson's face. The player he grew up watching and trying to emulate then asked Jefferson to "send me (a pair) with your John Hancock on it."
The Vikings haven't had a rookie make an impact like Jefferson since Moss was named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1998. Wide receiver Percy Harvin was the last Minnesota player to earn the honor in 2009, but his numbers (60 catches, 790 yards and six touchdowns) weren't close to those of Jefferson, who was the only offensive rookie named to the Pro Bowl.
When you ask Jefferson why he should win, his answer is simple: He performed better than anyone else while shattering the lofty expectations of replacing Stefon Diggs, who was traded to the Buffalo Bills last offseason.
"Just changing the game," said Jefferson, speaking on behalf of Pepsi's Zero Sugar Rookie of the Year campaign. "Coming in to an environment, replacing a player that did tremendous here, and then (my) first season having over 1,000 yards with all that's going on with COVID, coming here late, not having preseason, starting the third game of the season. A lot happened for me to not be able to have the season that I did."
While many often hit the so-called rookie wall, Jefferson ran right through it looking more like a polished veteran running routes than even Moss in his early days.
It's a credit to the skills Jefferson, who was a zero-star recruit out of high school, learned from longtime NFL and college coach Jerry Sullivan, who helped with his releases and how to stem his routes during three seasons at LSU. The boulder-sized chip he kept on his shoulder to "not be the next Stefon Diggs but the next Justin Jefferson" helped him block out the notion he was filling a void.
Jefferson, the 22nd pick of the 2020 NFL draft, had a more productive season than any Diggs had in Minnesota, and he did so with fewer chances. Teammate Adam Thielen said Jefferson "100%" raised the ceiling of the Vikings' offense.
If there was any moment that showed Jefferson he could do this for real, it was against the Tennessee Titans in Week 3 -- his first start. He caught seven passes for 175 yards and a touchdown and introduced the NFL to the "Griddy," a toe-tapping touchdown celebration that spread across the league.
"Being given that opportunity and doing the most with that opportunity and having over 100 yards and scoring my first touchdown, all of that was phenomenal," Jefferson said. "To do that on a good cornerback also, that really gave me that boost, that confidence to go out there and keep playing at a high level."
Jefferson, 21, continued to perform at an elite level while getting far fewer looks than other top wideouts. His 1,400 receiving yards were the fourth-most in the NFL, and he did so with 41 less targets than Diggs, who led the NFL with 1,535 yards and 166 targets. The Cowboys' CeeDee Lamb was the closest rookie receiver behind Jefferson with 935 receiving yards and 74 catches on 111 targets.
"I had 1,400 yards with 88 receptions with one of the least amount of targets in the league," Jefferson said. "If I'm able to do that I've just got to keep making the most of my opportunities and whenever the ball comes my way, make a play."
Jefferson's case for Offensive Rookie of the Year is bolstered by the fact that he was often treated like a No. 1 receiver by opposing defenses. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Jefferson was tied with Packers All-Pro receiver Davante Adams with 606 receiving yards against press coverage, the most in the NFL.
He flipped the narrative of being only a slot receiver and thrived no matter the situation, particularly against man coverage. Jefferson generated more yards per target (13.2) against single coverage than any other wide receiver, according to Pro Football Focus.
Jefferson "overly topped" his expectations as a rookie, which included seven Griddy celebrations to go along with his seven touchdowns. Even if he doesn't win, it's clear Jefferson has arrived.
And the Moss comparisons make the future that much more exciting.
"It's unbelievable to actually be compared to one of the best receivers ever -- a Hall of Famer, at that," Jefferson said. "It's an honor, it's a blessing. There's so much more for me to overcome, so much for me to learn and to see. I'm looking forward to see what I have for next season."