Life Without Justin Jefferson: A 4-Week Trial Separation

It’s been a love affair between Vikings fans and Justin Jefferson from nearly Day One.

The first-round steal of the draft in 2020 at #22 overall, J.J. started making a splash early in his rookie year, and kept the pedal to the metal all season, culminating in 1,400 receiving yards, a second-team All-Pro nod, and a runner-up finish (to Justin Herbert) in the NFL Rookie of the Year Voting.

From there he has continued to blow past all of the continually-growing expectations. His receiving yards topped 1,600 yards in 2021 and 1,800 in 2022, with another second-team All-Pro selection in year two followed by a first-team pick in year three, to go with an NFL Offensive Player of the Year trophy.

No one in league history has more receiving yards after three seasons then J.J. He has been remarkably skilled, and remarkably durable across 3 full seasons and change, appearing in every game the Vikings have played from Week 1 of his rookie season through last week’s loss to Kansas City.

Early in the fourth quarter last week, J.J. limped off the field with a strained hamstring. The Vikings then proceeded to, predictably, fall short in their unlikely Jefferson-free comeback attempt against the Super Bowl Champions.

Sep 10, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) warms up before the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

How were they going to surmount Patrick Mahomes and Company without their lone Mahomes-level superstar? They gave it their all, and they fell short. And now, with the announcement that Jefferson has been placed on Injured Reserve, meaning a minimum 4-week absence, we’re going to find out what a Jefferson-free Viking team can do against at least four other NFL teams.

That will be an interesting experience for the Vikings and their fans, and one that may foreshadow a possible Vikings future. Jefferson is signed through the end of next season. He and the Vikings showed mutual interest during the pre-season in an extension, but that didn’t get done. By all accounts the problem was not money—the Vikings were ready to write the check.

But J.J. is smarter than the average MVP, and he prudently wanted to know who exactly would be throwing the ball to him in future years if he were to sign long-term. And there is the real rub: nobody knows the answer to that question.

How Can The Vikings Please Justin Jefferson?

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Oct 9, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) and quarterback Kirk Cousins. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports.

It seems that Justin Jefferson is not a card-carrying member of the American Association of Kirk Haters (AAKH). Say what you will about Kirk, but he has obliged the young star by targeting him with throws 529 times over the last 3+ season, to the tune of 360 receptions and 5,396 yards. That’s a Hall of Fame start to Justin’s career, and the last thing Jefferson wants is to derail what he’s accomplished already and what he certainly hopes to accomplish in the future.

A quarterback change that results in a middling pass partner, or worse yet, a second-tier draft choice whose eventual peak comps to a Christian Ponder or a Tarvaris Jackson is not part of Jefferson’s career plan. No, he wants a Kirk Cousins or someone else who he can safely believe will be as good or better. Given the lack of firm footing the franchise is on right at the moment, how does Minnesota respond to that?

The trajectory of the Vikings season has, to say the least, been disappointing. Now sitting at 1-4, the team has some collective looking in the mirror to do. And what would the mirror show them? Last year’s 13-4 squad seems as far in the past as the Purple People Eaters of the 1970’s.

Realists among us suspected the 2022 team was punching far above its weight class, and with a dramatically sub-par defense, a running game that was losing a past-his-prime superstar in Dalvin Cook, and questions across both lines and the defensive secondary, the 2023 edition was simply not positioned for more big things. Realistically, the best-case scenario was 9-8 or 8-9.

In addition, GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensa was dealt a short deck when it comes to salary cap space, and he’s been slowly trying to wiggle out from under a bevy of big contracts and dead cap hits, but that’s a multi-year project. So, what’s a GM to do? Extending Kirk is the one way to really control the future in a way that could satisfy Justin Jefferson, but it’s a clear impediment to regaining cap flexibility for the team, and really, if the Vikings are destined for a “lull” in their “competitive rebuild” in 2023-2024, does it make organizational sense to resign a 36-year-old passer anyway?

The clearest alternative that just might work would be tanking their way to a Top-5 draft pick, where the two clear-cut Top-Tier college quarterbacks, Caleb Williams of USC and Drake Maye of North Carolina, will surely be drafted. The final year of Jefferson’s contract would be very iffy in that scenario, catching passes from a Rookie, no matter the pedigree.

One need only look at the 2021 draft to see how iffy that can be, where Trevor Lawrence went #1 and has already been to a Pro Bowl, Zach Wilson went #2 and was subjected to the NY Jets fiasco and is now struggling to prove he’s worthy of being Aaron Rodger’s emergency injury fill-in after a single unsatisfactory season as a starter. #3 in that draft was Trey Lance, who the 49ers drafted after shipping 3 first-round picks and a third to Miami. The Niners immediately thrust Lance into a starting role, and then just as quickly gave up on him altogether, trading him to Dallas after two seasons–for a fourth-round pick–where he now resides as a backup.

What’s Next for the Vikings and J.J.?

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Jan 8, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) warms up wearing a shirt honoring Buffalo Bills Safety Damar Hamlin (3) before the game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports

After this year, the Vikings will have one more season to bask in the sunshine of Justin Jefferson’s smile and his unique talent, and potentially a second season in 2025 assuming they use the franchise tag to retain him for an additional year. Beyond that, who knows? As Minnesota sports fans, we know that the odds of seeing him play out his days here are slim.

In reality, Jefferson wouldn’t even be here in the first place if it weren’t for the Vikings’ wise decision to trade his predecessor and fellow perennial Pro-Bowler Stefon Diggs to Buffalo in exchange for the 22nd pick in the 2020 draft, along with some additional draft capital. Jefferson is moving down the same path, and it’s likely at some point we’ll see a similar conclusion.

If they do trade him, can the Vikings strike gold with another home run draft pick? That’s certainly possible—but, like drafting a franchise quarterback, drafting a replacement for Jefferson (or Diggs) is a roll of the dice that won’t work every time. So, it’s a conundrum, isn’t it?

Let’s watch how the next four weeks play out. If they lose this weekend to the hapless Bears, we’ll know we are witnessing the Nuclear Option. The following Monday night, it’ll be the currently 5-0 San Francisco 49ers—not a likely win. Then, a pair of road games versus .500-ish opponents: the rival Packers (2-3) and the 3-2 Atlanta Falcons.

With a healthy Jefferson, we’d be hopeful that a 3-1 stretch might be in our future; without him, it’ll be on Cousins, Jordan Addison, K.J. Osborne and the fragile purple defense to perhaps salvage a 2-2 split.  

But if it’s a Top 5 pick you’re interested in, that will be one (and maybe two) wins too many. There are some seriously BAD football teams competing for those top five positions that will make it very hard for a sub-mediocre-but-not-really-horrible team like the Vikings to compete. There’s the 0-5 Carolina Panthers and the 1-5 Denver Broncos, who have already given up 200 points.

Then the Vikings and four other 1-4 teams that include the struggling Bears, a Giants team that is averaging just 12 points scored per game, a Patriots squad that can go one better by scoring only 11 points per game, and an Arizona team that, like the Vikings, feel a little better (though only a little better) than their 1-4 record might indicate.

So, what will happen during this trial separation between the Vikings and Justin Jefferson? Will the purple push harder? Will they fold faster? Will Jordan Addison take a step forward in an already-bright rookie season? Will the Vikings start trading Kirk Cousins and other assets as they shift their attention to 2024 and beyond? And how will J.J. feel about all of this? So much to watch for, so much to feel anxious about, when watching our favorite ongoing soap opera, The Purple and the Restless.