There weren’t many things that went right for the Minnesota Vikings last year, but the one thing everyone can agree on is that Justin Jefferson looks like the real deal. The Vikings got value for the 22nd-overall pick, who exploded after being inserted into the starting lineup in Week 3 and quickly became one of the NFL’s top receivers.
Right before the Vikings took Jefferson, the Philadelphia Eagles were on the clock and desperate for a wide receiver. While some preferred Jefferson’s athleticism, the Eagles took Jalen Reagor because he was a better fit for their scheme. The result had Rick Spielman laughing with excitement and put a franchise wide receiver into their lap.
But the Eagles could have just as easily taken Jefferson and left the Vikings in a tough situation at 22. So while it’s more fun to laugh at Doug Pederson and Howie Roseman, it’s fair to wonder how the Vikings would look entering this season if Jefferson were in Philadelphia.
Coming off the Diggs trade, the Vikings needed to hit on a receiver during the draft. They had tried to find the next Stefon Diggs in the later rounds for years, but Rodney Adams, Bisi Johnson, and others never became a superstar like Diggs.
With Jefferson, the Vikings got exactly what they wanted to fill Diggs’ spot. Jefferson replaced Diggs seamlessly in the Vikings offense with speed, route running, and a flair for spectacular catches. Hence, it’s hard to imagine a world where the Vikings succeed without him.
While there’s a chance the Vikings could have found a receiver that had a solid rookie year, the odds of him producing a historical season were slim. Without Jefferson on the roster, the Vikings would have funneled the passing game through Adam Thielen and hoped that Johnson and Tajae Sharpe would have been enough to carry the offense.
Kirk Cousins’ disastrous start to the season could have gone worse with subpar weapons, and Dalvin Cook’s midseason explosion would have been stifled with eight guys in the box. With the offense in disarray, there would be no way to keep up with a defense that ranked 29th in points allowed, and the Vikings would have cratered to five or six wins.
That could have been enough for major changes this offseason. Spielman and Mike Zimmer could have been fired, leading to a new era for the Vikings. While some would love to see Zimmer’s old-school ways go back to 1990, there’s no guarantee that a new-school coach would have more success in Minnesota given its current roster construction.
The changes could have made their way onto the field: The Vikings may have been more aggressive to replace Cousins. Armed with a top-10 pick, they could have selected Justin Fields or any quarterback they desired, and 2021 could be in a situation a lot like the one the Detroit Lions are going through.
But there’s also a chance that things would have been fine if Jefferson wasn’t on the board. With the 22nd and 25th-overall pick, the Vikings could have selected Jeff Gladney, who they took with the 31st-overall pick after a trade with the San Francisco 49ers, and doubled down on the secondary by taking Antoine Winfield Jr.
With Anthony Harris’ future up in the air, selecting Winfield could have strengthened the Vikings’ secondary last year and allowed them to trade Harris for a mid-round pick. This could have given the Vikings more flexibility to trade up in the second round or add another player in the third or fourth round.
The Vikings could have also just decided to take another receiver. Tee Higgins and Michael Pittman Jr. had solid rookie seasons, and Laviska Shenault could have been an offensive weapon the Vikings haven’t had since Percy Harvin. If the Vikings wanted to trade up in the second round, they could have had a chance at Chase Claypool, who burst onto the scene with a four-touchdown game against the Eagles.
While none of these names are on the same level as Jefferson, it could have provided a safety net. Additionally, if the Vikings didn’t need to trade their original picks, they could have still gotten Ezra Cleveland, Cameron Dantzler, and some of the other picks that had success last year.
The Vikings probably still go 7-9 in this scenario, but it leaves enough to convince the Wilfs to give Zimmer and Spielman one more chance. It also could leave the door open to select Rashod Bateman, Elijah Moore, or a different receiver in the 2021 draft.
Fortunately, Vikings fans don’t have to deal with this alternate reality. With Jefferson in Minnesota, they haven’t missed a beat after trading Diggs and will look to turn that into a run back into the playoffs this season.