Justin Jefferson of LSU was the fifth wideout taken in an NFL draft that went very deep at wide receiver in 2020. The Minnesota Vikings selected him with the 22nd overall pick that they had acquired in a trade for veteran WR Stefon Diggs, and by Week 3, Jefferson was put into the starting lineup as Diggs' replacement.
All Jefferson did that day was catch seven passes for 175 yards and a 71-yard touchdown. Since then, Jefferson hasn't just been one of the best rookie wide receivers in the league; he has been one of the best wideouts, period. Jefferson has four different 100-yard receiving days and is currently in the top 10 in the NFL with 918 receiving yards and 17.7 yards per reception.
Jefferson is blowing away his average projection, according to Football Outsiders' Playmaker Score. Although he was the fifth wide receiver taken, he was third in our projections of average expected yards per season. But he passed his 599-yard projection by Week 9. Here's a look at where the other rookies from this class stand heading into Week 13:
Where will Jefferson's season come out among the best rookie wide receiver seasons in NFL history? To answer this question, we turned to Football Outsiders' DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) metric. This looks at success on every play based on situation and opponent then compares it to the level of an average NFL backup wide receiver. (It's explained more here.) Importantly, it's normalized to every season's average offensive level, making it easier to compare this year's explosive offensive numbers to more defense-oriented seasons in the past. And despite this adjustment, you'll see below that Jefferson's season is extremely impressive.
We're ranking the top 10 rookie wide receiver seasons since 1985, which is as far back as we have play-by-play data to compute DYAR. The totals below include both receiving and rushing value, in the regular season only.
10. Ernest Givins, 1986 Oilers: 292 DYAR
61 catches for 1,062 yards, 3 TDs, 50% catch rate
Let's start by going back over 30 years to the Houston Oilers, before they even installed the run 'n' shoot offense. The Oilers drafted Givins out of Louisville in the second round and lined him up opposite veteran Drew Hill, with both receivers putting up 1,000-yard seasons in 1986. Givins wouldn't make our list if we were only counting receiving value, but he also had nine carries for an astonishing 148 yards. Six of his carries gained at least 15 yards, including a 43-yard touchdown.
Givins never crossed the 1,000-yard barrier again, but he had four other seasons with at least 900 receiving yards, and he still ranks as the all-time leading receiver for the Titans/Oilers franchise.
9. A.J. Green, 2011 Bengals: 296 DYAR
65 catches for 1,057 yards, 7 TDs, 57% catch rate
Sometimes, your top wide receiver draft picks take some time to develop. Sometimes they never develop at all. But A.J. Green was a superstar from the moment the Bengals took him fourth overall in the 2011 draft. He finished ninth in receiving DYAR among all wideouts as a rookie, and he made his first of seven straight Pro Bowl appearances. Green also added 152 yards in defensive pass interference flags to his 1,057 receiving yards.
What's interesting is that Green was a bit more of a deep threat in his first year, with 16.3 yards per reception. In subsequent years, Green had more targets and catches but never topped 15.1 yards per reception again.