Justin Jefferson, Tyreek Hill in race to break receiving mark

The Vikings' Justin Jefferson is on pace -- barely -- to break Calvin Johnson's single-season receiving record. David Berding/Getty Images

Ten years ago this week, Detroit Lions Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson broke the NFL record for receiving yards in a season. He finished the 2012 campaign with 1,964 yards, a mark that has withstood two notable challenges -- and faces two more this season.

Minnesota Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson has 1,623 receiving yards with three games left to play and is on pace to finish 7 yards ahead of Johnson's record. The Miami Dolphins' Tyreek Hill has 1,529 yards and would need to add 36 yards to his per-game average to get there. Both players have already exceeded their career highs in receiving yardage in their first year in new offensive systems, and each will have the advantage of an additional regular-season game.

Johnson broke San Francisco 49ers Hall of Famer Jerry Rice's record of 1,848 yards in his 15th game of the 2012 season, and reached his final total in game No. 16. The NFL added a 17th game to its regular season in 2021.

With the advantage of the extra game, the Los Angeles Rams' Cooper Kupp came within 17 yards of Johnson's record last season. The closest anyone came before then was in 2015, when the Atlanta Falcons' Julio Jones finished with 1,871 receiving yards.

Johnson was not available for comment this week, but in an interview with journalist Graham Bensinger earlier this year, he expressed surprise that the record hadn't yet been broken and said it was only a matter of time before the 17-game season ends it.

"I think you got to put it in context," Johnson said. "Prior to whatever rule changes, I think that's the only way to do it. More records will definitely come down. You've got an extra game to do it. It won't be easy by any means, but it'll happen."

Jefferson leads the NFL not only in yardage but also receptions (111) and targets (158) while playing for new coach Kevin O'Connell, who was the Rams' offensive coordinator last season as Kupp made his run at the record. Hill, meanwhile, has rewarded the Dolphins' decision to acquire him during the offseason for first-year head coach Mike McDaniel's scheme. He ranks second in yardage, receptions (109) and targets (152).

Let's take a closer look at the seasons Jefferson and Hill have produced and rate their chances for breaking Johnson's record.

Justin Jefferson: 1,623 yards

Yards away from breaking record: 341

Vikings' remaining opponents: vs. New York Giants (pass defense ranked No. 16), at Green Bay Packers (No. 3), at Chicago Bears (No. 17)

Why has Jefferson been so dominant? Minutes after the Vikings introduced him as coach in January, O'Connell grabbed a team staffer's phone and initiated a FaceTime call with his star receiver. As Jefferson grinned from ear to ear, O'Connell told him: "I hope you're ready, because you've got to do it all."

Jefferson took that challenge literally. He has played 95.6% of the Vikings' offensive snaps, an eye-popping figure at a position that requires constant downfield running. About a third of his 41 missed snaps came after O'Connell inserted backups during a lopsided loss to the Dallas Cowboys. For context, Hill has played 75% of the Dolphins' snaps, having rested on 207 plays.

Jefferson raised eyebrows shortly after his 23rd birthday this summer, predicting he would be considered the top receiver in the NFL by the end of 2022. He is well on his way, having earned more Pro Bowl votes than any player in the NFC and positioning himself favorably to earn his first All-Pro honors.

Of all the elite skills Jefferson has displayed, two stand out: his ability to get open and/or achieve favorable position on defenders, and his capacity to catch and hold on to the ball in traffic -- especially after some brutal hits from defenders.

A recent example of his route-running prowess surfaced last Saturday in the fourth quarter of the Vikings' historic comeback victory over the Indianapolis Colts. Matched up for much of the game against cornerback Stephon Gilmore, a two-time All-Pro, Jefferson ran a whip route fashioned after a play that Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp developed two years ago when O'Connell and current Vikings offensive coordinator Wes Phillips were Rams assistant coaches.

The route required Jefferson to initially head toward the sideline from the Colts' 8-yard line. He then made an initial cut inside, gave Gilmore a nasty stutter-step and then changed direction again toward the sideline. Gilmore fell several steps behind, leading to an easy touchdown.

"He ran three routes in one," Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "The confidence he has in himself is amazing. His attention to details on how to get open [and] how detailed he had to be to run that whip route on a guy like [Gilmore] who understands and knows the type of routes that are coming, was just incredible."

On the Vikings' next possession, Gilmore threw his shoulder at Jefferson just as he jumped to catch a 3-yard pass, hitting him squarely on the chin. Jefferson maintained control of the ball even as his head flew back and officials threw their flags.

Jefferson has absorbed three penalized hits this month, and several more that went unflagged. He has only one drop all season according to ESPN Stats & Information, one that quarterback Kirk Cousins threw a bit behind him.

Cousins was speaking after Saturday with his father, who said, "I think his best trait might just be his ability to hang on to the football."

"I said, 'I agree,'" Cousins said. "There are a lot of other traits that are hard to ignore about Justin, but I said, 'Some of these catches he is making ... they're just difficult.' To hear footsteps and not shrink back, not drop the ball, not hold on, and his ability to consistently hold on in traffic is just an elite trait."

Jefferson on nearing the record: "If I even get close to it, it's just going to be exciting that I even got close to it. Of course I would want to get to it, but if we make it to the big goal as a team, the record doesn't matter."

Other factors affecting the race: Two of the Vikings' final three games are scheduled to be played outdoors and in cold weather: Week 17 at Chicago's Soldier Field and Week 18 at Green Bay's Lambeau Field. Jefferson has exceeded 100 receiving yards in four of his five outdoor games, including 193 at Buffalo in Week 10, but the schedule could pose a mild challenge. Since the start of the century, teams playing December/January games in Chicago and Green Bay have averaged about 11% fewer passing yards per game compared to indoor games over the same time period.

Of more relevance, however, is that the Vikings have already won the NFC North and have only a small chance to clinch the NFC's No. 1 seed. If they're playing for anything by Week 17 or 18, it will be to protect the No. 2 seed. Jefferson leads all NFL receivers in snaps (881) and routes (573), and O'Connell might prioritize his health over playing time -- if he can sell Jefferson on it.

"He's a guy that's going to fight me every time we try to start having that conversation," O'Connell said. "But we'll pick our spots." -- Kevin Seifert

Stat to know: Jefferson has excelled outside the numbers. He has 1,073 receiving yards on passes thrown to the sidelines, over 300 more than the next-closest receiver (Raiders' Davante Adams, 718), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Jefferson already has the sixth-most yards on passes thrown to the sideline in a single season since tracking for that began in 2006).

Final yardage prediction: 1,923. Jefferson has a real shot at the record, with his projection checking in 18 yards short. The projection assumes a 30% target share, which is a hair above his 29% rate this season (though he has been at or above 30% in three straight games). One potential roadblock is the schedule, as the Giants rank 17th, Packers 27th and Bears 16th in receiving yards allowed to WRs. -- Mike Clay

Tyreek Hill: 1,529 yards

Yards away from breaking record: 435

Dolphins' remaining opponents: vs. Packers (pass defense ranked No. 3), at New England Patriots (No. 9), vs. New York Jets (No. 4)

Why has Hill been so dominant? How quickly can Hill change a game? About eight minutes of game time. Hill gave a preview of what his first season with the Dolphins would be like during the team's thrilling comeback victory over the Baltimore Ravens in Week 2, during which he recorded four catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns in the final 7:54 seconds of the game.

"This guy is special. When you see [Hill] out there you want to cover him a certain way," Dolphins running back Raheem Mostert said. "Then you got [quarterback Tua Tagovailoa] just launching the ball. That's two touchdowns right there, put us right back in the game."

Hill would crack the top-10 list in receiving yards even if you counted only games in which he recorded more than 100 yards. He has shattered preseason skepticism about his effectiveness away from quarterback Patrick Mahomes, coach Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs, setting a career high in receiving yards with three games remaining in the season.

His speed is his trademark skill and he has incorporated that into his route running. According to NFL NextGen Stats, he has been wide open (more than 5 yards of separation from the nearest defender) on 24.3% of his targets this season.

The impact Hill has had extends even beyond his own statline. His presence on the field opens things up for teammates like fellow receivers Jaylen Waddle and Trent Sherfield -- the latter of whom exploited a gap against the San Francisco 49ers' coverage in Week 13 for a 75-yard touchdown when safety Talanoa Hufanga followed a motioning Hill pre-snap.

Hill on nearing the record: "My job each and every week is just to focus on the next game. So I can't look forward -- as bad as I want to sit here and say, 'Hey, I want to break the record,' that would be real selfish of me. I know my job as one of the leaders on this team is just to make sure we're doing the right thing and I'm also doing the right thing."

Other factors affecting the race: The Dolphins play two legitimate lockdown cornerbacks over their next three games in the New York Jets' Sauce Gardner and the Green Bay Packers' Jaire Alexander -- which could pave the way for big weeks from Waddle. But Miami needs to beat both the Jets and the New England Patriots in order to make its first postseason since 2016 -- so coach Mike McDaniel will surely pull out every possible stop in order to do so.

Hill has never shied from tough matchups and the Dolphins have often funneled their offense through him. The now seven-time Pro Bowler has more games with double-digit targets (9) than without and has at least 80 receiving yards in five of his past seven games. -- Marcel Louis-Jacques

Stat to know: Hill has 767 receiving yards on targets where the closest defender was 3 or more yards from him, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. He leads all wide receivers with 70 targets when he is open.

Final yardage prediction: 1,838. The projections show Hill with 9 more receiving yards than Jefferson, but, as noted, he's nearly 100 yards off Jefferson's pace so a long shot to break Johnson's record. Hill is projected with a hefty 32% target share, which aligns exactly with his rate through Week 15. Hill's schedule is a bit of a roadblock, as the Packers rank 27th, the Patriots 22nd and the Jets 31st in receiving yards allowed to wide receivers. -- Mike Clay