The Minnesota Vikings were all smiles entering training camp. The Kevin O’Connell era spread around some much-needed optimism, and there’s a layer of intrigue that hasn’t been seen since Mike Zimmer took over in 2014.
Perhaps no player should be more optimistic than Justin Jefferson. O’Connell helped propel Cooper Kupp to the receiving Triple Crown last season, and it’s hard not to believe he could have the same effect on Jefferson.
But even with a potential $40 million contract coming next offseason, Jefferson faces the most pivotal year of his young career. A trip to the playoffs, the claim to becoming the best receiver, and a massive contract are all on the line. But if the Vikings can win, the rest will take care of itself.
Jefferson may have altered the Vikings’ plans. They could have burned it all down this past offseason and focused on building a contender two or three years down the road. However, that would have ignored this franchise’s troubled history with receivers.
Sure, Ahmad Rashad was Bud Grant‘s playmaker in the 1970s. Anthony Carter was one of the league’s best receivers in the 1980s. Cris Carter did the same in the 1990s, and Randy Moss was a cheat code in the 2000s.
But things changed when the Vikings traded Moss in 2005. His departure was dramatically charged by a string of off-the-field issues and made fans leery that the next star receiver may want out too.
Percy Harvin appeared to be a long-term game-changer when the Vikings drafted him in 2009. But they traded him to the Seattle Seahawks three seasons later. Stefon Diggs should have been a franchise hero after his role in the Minneapolis Miracle, but a desire to play in a modern offense had him on the first flight to Buffalo.
Minnesota’s past has fans looking at Jefferson like Group of Five schools look at their emerging coach in college football. They would do anything to convince him to stay, and the Vikings are no different.
That’s likely why the Vikings went all-in on a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2019. They could have signed Marcus Mariota or considered drafting Malik Willis, but it wouldn’t have created a realistic chance to win, which is what Jefferson craves at this point of his career.
Jefferson has re-written the record books during his first two seasons, and at age 23, he is about to enter the prime of his career. However, he hasn’t spent a day over .500 since coming to Minnesota.
The Vikings could have assured him that better days would be ahead. However, the same thing transpired with Moss, who dominated the league but played in just one playoff game with the Vikings after they reached the NFC Championship in 2000.
There’s also the fact that Jefferson hates losing. He was a former national champion at LSU. Jefferson talks about Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase like a high school sweetheart. He wants to win, and he doesn’t want to wait to do it.
“Just coming from a winning team and then having a losing record definitely was difficult for me,” Jefferson said earlier this week. “But I’m ready to change things around. We’re all ready to change things around, get back to that old Vikings team that it used to be by getting to the playoffs and competing for that main goal that we’re trying to reach.”
Those comments insinuate that the worst thing the Vikings could have done was burn it down. It’s also why Kwesi Adofo-Mensah suggested that keeping Kirk Cousins was the best for the team, even if he wasn’t Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes.
But this isn’t just about the Vikings keeping Jefferson happy. This is about achieving his own goals.
Jefferson has repeatedly mentioned that he wants to be the best receiver in the league. While he feels he can reach that goal by working on the holes in his game, the best way to get there is by having a winning season.
When it comes to the best receivers in the league, winning is a common denominator. Kupp won a Super Bowl with the Rams last season. Tyreek Hill won one with the Kansas City Chiefs. Chase went to a Super Bowl with the Cincinnati Bengals, and Davante Adams should have gone to one with the Green Bay Packers.
All of these receivers have helped elevate their teams, and it led them to a massive payday. The only exception is Chase, who will get paid down the road.
Jefferson told reporters he’s not fond of money, but it doesn’t mean he’s willing to play for the veteran minimum to stay in Minnesota. He will want to play for an organization that can help him achieve his goals.
If Jefferson becomes the best receiver in the league, the Vikings will probably win more games. Jefferson will have a Brinks truck backing into his driveway if the Vikings win a few. And if that happens, he’ll be in Minnesota for the foreseeable future.