Fortitude, Work Ethic, and Plain Old Greatness Helped Justin Jefferson Earn the 2022 NFL OPOY Award
Ever since Justin Jefferson entered the league in 2020, he’s exceeded expectations. As a first-round pick it’s hard, if not impossible in some instances, to do that. During his first three seasons in the NFL, though, Jefferson has done things on a football field that no one has done at his age.
And now, after a three-year journey of consistent hard work, fortitude, and a refusal to become complacent, Jefferson reached a new mountaintop in 2022. On Thursday night at the NFL Honors award, the Vikings wide receiver received one of the most prestigious awards in the NFL: the Offensive Player of the Year award.
Think about where this started. Sure, Jefferson was the 22nd overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, which undoubtedly puts pressure on a player. The journey to get there was not smooth by any means, though.
Jefferson finished high school in relative obscurity. According to the 24/7 Sports’ Composite rankings, the wide receiver entered college as the 2,164th ranked player in the country. Two thousand, one hundred, sixty-three football players were considered better than Justin Jefferson just within the high school class of 2017. Rivals listed Jefferson as a 2-star recruit.
That quickly changed at LSU. Jefferson played very little during his freshman season, but after that, the Tigers unleashed a beast that we have rarely seen at the college football level. During the 2018 season, Jefferson burst onto the scene as a starter, recording 54 receptions, 875 yards, and 6 TDs. Then, 2019 was even better, leading the NCAA with 111 receptions and putting together 1540 receiving yards and 18 TDs.
His record-setting CFP semi-final performance in 2019 against Oklahoma etched him into college football history forever and truly put him on the map prior to his NFL journey, but even then, he remained in the latter half of the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, being the fifth wide receiver to be picked.
Not to mention, that 22nd overall selection was discarded by the Buffalo Bills because they didn’t believe they could find a player the caliber of Stefon Diggs with that pick. Instead, they decided to ship that pick off to the Minnesota Vikings in order to acquire the bonafide star.
For the first two weeks of Jefferson’s NFL career, that appeared to be the correct move. Despite Jefferson being selected in the first round, the Vikings opted to start Olabisi Johnson over him for their first two games.
From that point on, though, Jefferson made it impossible not to start him. In Week 3, the Vikings finally threw the rookie into the starting lineup, and he put together a stat-line of 7 receptions, 175 yards, and a touchdown, albeit in a Minnesota loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Even still, Jefferson was off to the races and wouldn’t be stopped. He put up over 100 yards in 7 of his 14 starts and recorded a rookie receiving record of 1400 yards all through a 2020 COVID-19 season that might have been the worst possible time to enter the NFL.
He answered that 2020 season with an even better showing in 2021, putting together 108 receptions, 1616 yards, and 10 TDs. He became the first player in NFL history to record 3000 yards over his first two seasons.
However, something was still missing: winning. The Vikings had finished with 7-9 and 8-9 records during Jefferson’s first two NFL seasons, missing the playoffs in both years. That was something he wanted to change, saying prior to the 2022 season that he was not focused on his contract extension, and instead, he was all-in on the Vikings goal of winning.
The 2022 season began with a home game against the Green Bay Packers, and a chance for newly hired head coach Kevin O’Connell to prove that he could turn things around in Minnesota. Behind yet another terrific game from Jefferson, where he set the Vikings record for most receiving yards in the first half of a game, Minnesota toppled their division rivals, 23-7.
Jefferson was just getting started. From Weeks 4-9, the superstar recorded 100+ receiving yards in four of five games for the Vikings. The only game he didn’t get this done was in a measly 98-yard performance against the Arizona Cardinals.
The numbers weren’t the only thing catching NFL fans’ eyes, though. The Vikings were finding ways to win because of Jefferson’s big games. Minnesota was on a six-game winning streak heading into Buffalo to play the Bills, setting up a matchup of two 7-1 teams that appeared to be among the best in the NFL.
In that game, Buffalo jumped out to a 27-10 second half lead, seemingly outclassing Minnesota along the way. That is, until Minnesota’s star receiver decided to take over.
This isn’t to say that Jefferson wasn’t great while Buffalo built their lead. He recorded 4 catches, 86 yards, and a touchdown in the first half of that game. He simply took his game to another level down the stretch of this contest, something only he can do.
Even still, as the Vikings started mounting a comeback, it seemed futile. After scoring touchdowns on back-to-back drives to trim Buffalo’s lead to four points, Minnesota found themselves in a position where they had to convert a 4th-and-18 to stay alive in the contest.
Cousins took the snap, and for one of the few times that day, he faced virtually no pressure. Buffalo had sent just four pass-rushers, opting to protect the first-down marker. Lining up in the slot, his usual position during his time at LSU, Jefferson sprinted towards the first-down, sliding past four separate Buffalo defenders.
The man he had to beat was Cam Lewis, who was making what would end up being his only start of the 2022 season. Cousins heaved the ball, both players went up for the jump ball, and somehow, Jefferson hauled in a 32-yard reception with one hand, keeping Minnesota’s hopes alive. The play would be voted as the NFL’s Moment of the Year for the season.
In the end, the Vikings would finish the regular season with a 13-4 record, winning the NFC North division. Justin Jefferson recorded 128 receptions (7th-most all-time), 1809 receiving yards (6th-most all-time), and 8 TDs. His reception and receiving yard totals led the NFL, making him the youngest player ever to do so. All that, just six football seasons after not even cracking the top-2000 in his high school class.
Ultimately, Minnesota’s 2022 season ended in disappointment, losing in the Wild Card round to the New York Giants. In that game, some would argue that the main reason why the Vikings were winning games, their star receiver, simply wasn’t utilized enough during the game, finishing with 7 receptions for 47 yards.
The 2022 season may not have ended the way that Jefferson or the Vikings may have hoped, but it’s still a season worth celebrating. Minnesota made the playoff tournament for the first time since 2019, and their star receiver had his hands all over that process, resulting in his OPOY award.
Jefferson continues to beat the odds that were set before him coming out of Destrehan High School. He’s now just the fourth wide receiver to win the Offensive Player of the Year award since its inception in 1972. He joins Jerry Rice (two-time winner), Michael Thomas, and Cooper Kupp.
The Vikings star came into the 2022 season hoping to win and become the consensus No. 1 receiver in the NFL. To an extent, he accomplished the winning, and he certainly is the top receiver now.
Jefferson will assuredly come in with bigger and better goals for the 2023 season, whether it be an MVP award or bringing Minnesota its first Super Bowl title, and at this point, who are we to doubt him?
Josh Frey is a Class of 2020 graduate of The College of Idaho with a bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing. He also earned minors in History, Human Biology, and Journalism. When he’s not writing about the NFL, Josh enjoys marathon training, playing video games, or rooting for the Milwaukee Brewers and Bucks. For more of his opinions, check out his Twitter account: @Freyed_Chicken.