Justin Jefferson has a rare earnestness about him when he’s being interviewed. The Minnesota Vikings’ star receiver never comes across like he’s dancing around anything with pre-prepared answers or that he’s irritated by difficult questions. Jefferson’s vibe is that of a young guy who loves chatting football. That trait earned him the Korey Stringer Media Good Guy award from the Vikings’ beat writers this year and it’s been on display in interviews at the Pro Bowl and radio row over the last week.
On Wednesday he appeared on CBS Sports Radio and was asked about whether he thought the Vikings could win a Super Bowl with Kirk Cousins at quarterback.
“I honestly do,” Jefferson said. “Kirk is an outstanding quarterback. I feel like Kirk just needs to out there and have fun with it. Have that confidence, have that swagger, trust his playmakers.”
Jefferson got the other natural question about whether Cousins could be traded and said he “definitely would not mind him staying” in Minnesota, but understands the NFL “is a business.” Later in the interview, the host inquired as to which quarterbacks Jefferson would most like to play with in the league and he mentioned Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. As one does.
Jefferson’s answers were interpreted differently by all sorts of between-the-lines readers. The Pro Bowl receiver seemed to urge Cousins to believe in himself more but if Jefferson wants Kirk sent to Siberia, he didn’t show it. At the same time, he acknowledged the possibility of Cousins being shipped out and didn’t exactly fall into a state of despair.
In similar fashion, Jefferson gleefully talked last week about his new coach Kevin O’Connell while at the Pro Bowl.
“I have been watching the Rams offense for a minute now, they get their playmakers the ball,” he said. “They have some tremendous plays. Cooper Kupp is wide open all the time. This is my first head coach that’s gonna be on the offensive side instead of the defensive side, so I’m happy.”
Maybe a little less is left to the eye of the beholder there. Jefferson dealt with dry spells in his targets this season, which led to frustration. Following a game in Los Angeles, head coach Mike Zimmer admitted that Jefferson was upset and said that he told Cousins to push the ball downfield to the team’s best player. However, at season’s end, Zimmer snarked about the idea of getting Jefferson the team record in receiving yards and the 22-year-old receiver couldn’t hide his disappointment in the post-game interview.
It’s clear that Jefferson is aware of what other top receivers around the league have on their side. Davante Adams has the league MVP at quarterback. Kupp has Sean McVay dialing it up to him all day long. What receiver wouldn’t want those things.
After last year’s occasional discontent, there were comparisons to the Vikings’ situation with Diggs in 2019. Diggs lost his patience with Zimmer’s run-first offense and the team refused to engage with him on the matter. So with every Jefferson comment comes a trip down memory lane that the Vikings were boxed into trading the Minneapolis Miracle receiver, who has proven himself to be extremely right in Buffalo over the last two years.
On one hand, Vikings fans could be worried that if they stick with Cousins long term, he won’t be aggressive enough to lean into Jefferson’s talents and the receiver will grow disenchanted. He was given 20 fewer contested catch opportunities last year than the NFL leader despite 37 more total targets, per PFF.
Another way of looking at it is: If the Vikings move on from Cousins and draft a quarterback who turns out to be a bust, Jefferson will be even more irritated.
Nobody can blame Vikings followers for living in a constant state of waiting for the other shoe to drop. The recent history of elite receivers, Moss and Diggs, has seen them both exit under less than ideal circumstances.
But that conversation shouldn’t be happening right now.
First, Jefferson is on his rookie contract. If we include the fifth-year option in the equation, he will be a Viking until at least 2024. With new CBA rules that make it extremely difficult for players to hold out, the only way out of town would be to pull an Odell Beckham or Jamal Adams in which the noise about the player’s unhappiness becomes so loud the team has to make a move.
We aren’t anywhere close to that. Jefferson just set the record for the most yards by a receiver in his first two years and — despite room to grow the number — he finished fourth in the NFL in targets. The team is not in a position where it’s Super Bowl or Force A Trade.
That doesn’t mean that, in a world of player empowerment, Jefferson is too Minnesota Nice to someday demand to play with Patrick Mahomes, but the Vikings have time to start heading in the right direction before they reach get-me-out-of-here mode.
The QB decision and Jefferson’s target numbers will be at the center of discussion but they only be determining factors of his happiness if the team isn’t going anywhere in the next few seasons.
What do recent forced exits by young, gifted players have in common? Diggs knew the Vikings missed their chance in 2019 and were about to lose a bunch of players and suffer a setback. Beckham was aware the Browns weren’t going to the Super Bowl with Baker Mayfield. Adams was running away from a brutal Jets organization at warp speed. Julio Jones said that he wanted to go somewhere to win when he asked out of Atlanta.
Winning teams haven’t had this issue. Diggs’ targets went down in Buffalo from 2020 to 2021 without any drama. Beckham didn’t reach double digit targets in Los Angeles until the NFC Championship game. Cincinnati’s Tyler Boyd sunk from 108 targets last year to just 88 this season. I’ve yet to spot him campaigning to be relocated.
If the Vikings get their rebuild — err, retool, readjustment, reposition, reworking — right over the next two years and win games on the back of a complete team, they will end up with Jefferson spending a long, long time in Minnesota.
We have seen the difference in player attitudes between winning and losing seasons in recent years with the Vikings. After 2017, Eric Kendricks, Diggs and Danielle Hunter all took team-friendly deals. By 2021, the Vikings paid full price for everyone, giving Dalvin Cook and Harrison Smith top-of-the-market deals and spending $10 million on Patrick Peterson when other veteran corners got less around the league.
Jefferson won’t be any different. What the Vikings’ new front office has to figure out is the best way to get back to that place where players believe Minnesota is a place they can win. That starts with a pending quarterback decision. If Jefferson truly loves Cousins but the team improves because of it, he’ll forgive them and talk earnestly next year about how he loves the new QB.