Vikings

The Vikings Must Adhere To the Justin Jefferson Principle

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In 2021, Justin Jefferson left the field disappointed that he didn’t break Randy Moss’ single-season receiving record. But he broke Moss’ franchise record in the most nonchalant way possible last year. His 23-yard reception midway through the first quarter of the New York Giants game on Christmas topped the 1,632 yards Moss had in 2003. The jumbotron flashed a graphic congratulating Jefferson, but most of the crowd missed it.

Jefferson is making historic results feel routine. After topping Moss’ franchise record last year, his next milestone will be breaking Calvin Johnson’s single-season NFL record of 1,964 yards. Johnson set that record in 2012, and like with Moss’ record, Jefferson will have an extra game to reach that mark. He came close last year. Entering the Giants game on Christmas, Jefferson needed 125 yards in Minnesota’s final three games to break the record and was averaging 115 per game.

“I don’t know,” he said when I asked him if he thought he could break Johnson’s record. “I mean, it is definitely close, but just with the success that we have — the yardage, the longer plays that I’ve been having, I’ve been doing pretty good. If I even get close to where this is gonna be, it’s exciting that I even got close to it.

“Of course, I would want to get to it, but I mean, if you make it to the big goal, then it doesn’t even really matter.”

We all know what he means when he says “the big goal.”

The Minnesota Vikings cannot take him for granted and won’t. They are likely working on a contract extension that will pay him handsomely. But they also have to ensure there is a winning team around him. Like when Mike Tice implemented the Randy Ratio in 2002, the Vikings must adhere to the Jefferson principle. Tice wanted to throw the ball to Moss at least 40% of the time; Minnesota needs to always have a winning team around Jefferson.

That’s an increasingly quixotic task. Kirk Cousins carries a $36.25 million cap hit next year, and they need to overhaul the defense. Cousins may not drive winning like Patrick Mahomes or Joe Burrow, but he creates a valuable floor. Moss had a rotating door of quarterbacks in Minnesota, including Spergon Wynn, Todd Bouman, and Jay Fiedler. Jefferson deserves better.

Cousins is always healthy, meticulously prepares for games, and can run Kevin O’Connell’s offense. Jefferson seems to appreciate him, even if he knows Cousins doesn’t have Burrow’s swagger. Cousins may not be the long-term answer, given he’s entering his age-35 season. But he should remain under center until the Vikings draft or acquire a superior quarterback. That’s a worthy task, but few quarterback prospects pan out, even those who teams select early in the draft. And Minnesota gave Cousins a fully guaranteed $84 million deal in 2018 because so few quarterbacks hit free agency.

On the other side of the ball, it would be easy to blame Minnesota’s porous defense solely on Ed Donatell. But O’Connell signed off on the switch to a 3-4 defense, and the Vikings didn’t have the proper personnel. Part of that is that much of Mike Zimmer’s core is aging. Eric Kendricks isn’t as fast as he once was, and Jordan Hicks isn’t prime Anthony Barr. The cornerback situation is even concerning. Patrick Peterson is going to be 33 and a free agent. Cameron Dantzler continues to be inconsistent, and Duke Shelley only emerged late in the year.

O’Connell has to make the right choice at defensive coordinator, a decision he’s labored over since firing Donatell at the end of the year. But Kwesi Adofo-Mensah also has to draft effectively. Lewis Cine and Andrew Booth Jr. were hurt last year, and Akayleb Evans suffered three concussions. But Evans and Brian Asamoah showed out when they were on the field, a good sign of Adofo-Mensah and his staff’s ability to find value later in the draft.

But Adofo-Mensah and the Vikings are under a different kind of pressure than if they had burned it down last year. Jefferson has put Minnesota in win-now mode not only because he values winning over individual accolades but because he’s kept them from being a .500 team. The Vikings were 11-1 in one-score games, losing the one that mattered most. However, it’s not hard to believe they would have been closer to .500 in those games if Jefferson wasn’t available.

Not only did he make a miracle catch in Buffalo, but he creates gravity every time he steps on the field. He draws attention away from other receivers, allowing T.J. Hockenson to excel as a hybrid tight end and K.J. Osborn to have a mini breakout. Furthermore, he gets open on crucial third downs and occasionally stole turnovers away from opposing backs. He’s the center of gravity for the Vikings, the player who can turn them into a contender. So far, he’s been content and actively avoided becoming a diva. But that will change if they don’t put winning players around him.

Jefferson’s rookie deal is up in two years. Even if he signs an extension, there’s no guarantee he’d play it out in Minnesota. Any team would pay top dollar for him, and players can force their way out of bad situations. He has a coach he likes and a quarterback who can get him the ball. But they need to revamp the defense, find a capable WR2, and think about a succession plan for Cousins this offseason. The Vikings find themselves in such a world when they have a receiver capable of doing something none of his peers have done before.

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