In the Vikings’ final game of the 2020 season, Justin Jefferson put up another titanic effort to help his team end their campaign on a high note. He caught nine passes for a total of 133 yards, firmly etching his place in the history books with a 1,400-yard rookie season. It’s an incredible accomplishment for a rookie, and it’s put him in several headlines already, because those 1,400 yards are the most by a rookie in the Super Bowl era. But where does it rank among all of NFL history? Has any rookie ever had a better season, or does Jefferson have the all-time record?
Turns out, Bill Groman owns the all-time record, with 1,473 yards in just 14 games during his 1960 rookie season with the Houston Oilers. The award for the most impressive rookie season, however, probably goes to a player who made the history books just a few years ago with just 12 games.
Here are the eleven best rookie receiving seasons of all time, in ascending order.
11th Place: Harlon Hill, Chicago Bears – 1,124 Yards (1954)
Season High: 214 Yards vs. San Francisco Giants on October 31st, 1954
Hill needed just 11 games to put up one of the best rookie receiving seasons ever, and might be higher on this list if it hadn’t been for a Week 9 dud in which he caught just a single pass for eight yards. Hill had at least 100 yards in seven of his 11 outings, and found the end zone a total of 12 times (including four as part of his spectacular Week 6 performance.
When the Bears took Hill in the 15th round of the 1954 NFL draft (174th overall), they probably had no idea they were getting a difference-maker. That’s exactly what Hill became during his first three seasons, though, racking up over 3,000 receiving yards and 32 touchdowns en route to three consecutive Pro Bowl selections. He petered out after that, though, and never again topped 600 yards before retiring ahead of 1963.
10th Place: Bill Brooks, Indianapolis Colts – 1,131 Yards (1986)
Season High: 177 Yards vs. New York Jets on November 16th, 1986
Unlike Hill, Brooks played a full 16 games in order to reach his impressive yards total, and he did it despite having two receptions or less in seven of those games. He caught 65 total passes throughout the seasons, and found the end zone on eight occasions. Brooks was given a few chances to run the ball as well, but the result was a mere five yards on four attempts.
After putting up a brilliant rookie campaign, Brooks played for another ten seasons with the NFL for the Colts, Bills, and Redskins. He was never again able to match the totals he put up in his first year in the league, but he did manage to accrue just over 8,000 passing yards in his career (8,001, in fact). In his penultimate NFL season, he randomly became a major red zone target and caught 11 touchdowns in 10 games.
9th Place: Terry Glenn, New England Patriots – 1,132 Yards (1996)
Season High: 124 Yards vs. New York Giants on December 21st, 1996
Back before the dawn of the Tom Brady era, Terry Glenn had an incredible start to his career when he caught 90 passes for 1,132 total yards and six touchdowns. The most impressive part about his rookie season was the consistency he showed; Glenn caught at least four passes and compiled at least 63 yards in 13 of his 15 games in 1996, and topped 80 yards in eight of those games.
Though Glenn was never necessarily a legendary contributor in any particular season, his career was impressive in its own right. He caught at least 50 passes in eight different NFL seasons, and enjoyed a productive 12-year career between the Patriots, Packers, and Cowboys. All told, he caught 593 passes for 8,823 yards throughout playing days, and retired after a 2007 season in which he only got one target.
8th Place: Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints – 1,137 Yards (2016)
Season High: 156 Yards vs. Atlanta Falcons on January 1st, 2017
Thomas received a ton of hype headed into his rookie season due to his playing days with the Ohio State Buckeyes, even though he wasn’t drafted until the second round in 2016. He delivered on that hype by quickly becoming one of Drew Brees’ favorite targets, and saved his best performance for the final week of the season. Incredibly, he had at least 40 yards in every single game he played.
Since then, Thomas has been a force for the Saints. He seemed to get better every year, too; Thomas compiled 1,245 yards in his sophomore season, topped 1,400 the season after, and went on to lead the entire NFL with 1,725 receiving yards last season. Unfortunately, an ankle injury plagued him during the early part of the 2020 season, and it ended up getting bad enough that the Saints had to place him on the IR.
7th Place: Michael Clayton, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 1,193 Yards (2004)
Season High: 145 Yards vs. San Diego Chargers on December 12th, 2004
The seemingly Bucs made a smart move when they took Clayton with the 15th overall pick of the 2004 draft, and he rewarded them with incredible consistency. Outside of Weeks 3 and 12, the LSU product had at least four receptions and 53 yards in every single game of the season (he played in all 16). While Tampa Bay characteristically went 5-11, it wasn’t for lack of a talented wide receiver.
That’s about all there is to say when it comes to Clayton, who petered out quickly. Although he stuck around for another seven seasons in the NFL, he never again topped 500 receiving yards in a single season, and scored a touchdown just three times during that span. He went from being a promising wunderkind to a player that the Bucs didn’t see as worthy of a starting job by 2007.
6th Place: Billy Howton, Green Bay Packers – 1,231 Yards (1952)
Season High: 200 Yards vs. Los Angeles Rams on December 7th, 1952
Howton’s brilliant 1952 season saw him post an unprecedented total for a rookie. It was easily a new record at the time, and would remain so for another eight years until Groman entered the NFL. Howton did the vast majority of his damage in just six of his games; he amassed 123 receiving yards in Weeks 2, 3, 5, and 10-12.
Though a league-leading 1,231 receiving yards would prove to be a career high for Howton, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t an incredible player throughout much of his career. He regressed a bit in his sophomore season, but would go on to have the best stretch of his career from 1954 to 1957, when he earned three Pro Bowl selections and led the league in receiving yards again in 1956.
5th Place: Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants – 1,305 Yards (2014)
Season High: 185 Yards vs. Philadelphia Eagles on December 28th, 2014
There have been few rookie seasons in NFL history that were as exciting as OBJ’s. A litany of one-handed catches (including one that was perhaps the greatest catch of all time) thrust him firmly into the headlines and breathed new life into an aging Eli Manning. All told, Beckham Jr. ended the 2014 season with 1,305 yards despite playing just 12 games, good for over 108 yards per game that year.
Beckham Jr. followed up his rookie campaign with two equally spectacular seasons, though a series of temper tantrums led many to believe he had attitude problems. Eventually, the Giants traded him to Cleveland, where he hasn’t enjoyed the same level of success. His 2020 season ended after just seven games due to an ACL injury.
4th Place: Randy Moss, Minnesota Vikings – 1,313 Yards (1998)
Season High: 190 Yards vs. Green Bay Packers on October 10th, 1998
No list of amazing wide receivers would feel complete without an entry from Randy Moss, who put the league on notice during his rookie season when he caught four of his five targets for 95 yards in the first professional game he ever played. Moss would go on to eclipse the 150-yard mark in three different games, including a 190-yard thrashing of the division rival Packers’ secondary.
You probably know the rest. Moss went on to have a legendary 15-year career with five different teams, though he’s best known for the twelve seasons he split between the Vikings and the Patriots. At the end of it all, Moss retired with 15,292 yards and an incredible 152 receiving touchdowns, earning him the nickname “The Freak” as well as entry into the Hall of Fame.
3rd Place: Anquan Boldin, Arizona Cardinals – 1,377 Yards (2003)
Season High: 217 Yards vs. Detroit Lions on September 7th, 2003
Boldin’s long and stellar career began with a bang. He caught ten passes for a total of 217 yards in the first game he ever played, which is of course a record for a professional debut and sits fifth on the list of best receiving games by a rookie all-time. He had at least 118 yards on four other occasions, caught eight touchdowns in all.
He’d go on to accrue 13,779 yards over the course of a great 14-year career, and never dipped below 500 yards in any given season. His best season came in 2005, when he totaled 1,402 yards in just 14 games, and ended up leading the league in yards per game. Not bad for a 54th overall pick, right?
2nd Place: Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings – 1,400 Yards (2020)
Season High: 175 Yards vs. Tennessee Titans on September 27th, 2020
Jefferson filled in perfectly for Stefon Diggs after he was shipped off to the Buffalo Bills, and though it was Diggs who ultimately ended up leading the league in receiving yards, Jefferson came pretty damn close to matching that production at a lower cost. He had six games with at least 100 receiving yards, and caught 79 of his 113 targets.
Jefferson’s got a promising future in Minnesota. His ability to burn opposing cornerbacks is bound to help him continue on his current path, and the guy makes some seriously athletic catches. If he was able to reach the 1,400-yard mark with Kirk Cousins as his quarterback, just imagine what he’ll be able to do if he plays with someone better.
1st Place: Bill Groman, Houston Oilers – 1,473 Yards (1960)
Season High: 182 Yards vs. Denver Broncos on November 20th, 1960
The stats of Groman’s rookie season are pretty ridiculous. He only played in 13 games, and managed to rack up over 100 yards in nine of those games. Outside of a Week 2 performance in which he caught just a single pass for eight yards, Groman had at least 73 yards in every game during the 1960 season.
The NFL didn’t get anywhere near as much Bill Groman as it deserved. He followed up his rookie season with a First Team All-Pro campaign that nearly rivaled his rookie season, but he suffered an injury in the AFC title game that year, and after that he was never the same. In fact, he never again topped 437 yards in a season. In fact, his career ended after a 1965 campaign in which he played five games and caught no passes.
It’s a horrible shame that Groman’s career was cut short by an injury, but his rookie season was unlike any other.
Featured image courtesy of Mike Morbeck, via Flickr.