If the Gloves Come Off, Vikings Can Use a Powerful Negotiating Tool with Justin Jefferson

Justin Jefferson Can Make History Against Dallas
Oct 9, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports.

Is there a franchise tag in Justin Jefferson’s future? The Vikings can use the controversial tactic next offseason if need be.

The 24-year-old receiving phenom is one of the NFL’s preeminent stars. After four seasons, Jefferson has eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards four times. The final 1,000-yard season — the one that just passed in 2023 — arrived despite the receiver fully missing seven games, losing time in a pair of others, and then working through the late-season QB disaster. He was been a second-team All Pro a pair of times and a first-team All Pro once. Oh, and then there’s the Offensive Player of the Year Award and the 5th-place finish in MVP voting for the 2022 season.

Dec 24, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) catches a touchdown pass from quarterback Nick Mullens (not pictured) as Detroit Lions cornerback Cameron Sutton (1) defends during the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

So, Justin Jefferson happens to be pretty good at playing football.

And, to be sure, the Vikings readily acknowledge as much. Kwesi Adofo-Mensah referred to the pending Jefferson extension as a “champagne problem,” phrasing that denotes complexity while nevertheless acknowledging that every single NFL team would be thrilled to have this problem.

Hence, champagne. Needing to pay a historically-great player who hasn’t hit his 25th birthday is a wonderful burden for an NFL GM.

But despite the repeated claims from Adofo-Mensah that an extension is a foremost priority, Jefferson remains unsigned beyond 2024. The receiver is moving into the 5th-year option from his rookie deal, meaning he’ll command $19,743,000 in guaranteed salary in 2024. Everyone agrees, though, that the playmaker needs to get a robust, long-term contract.

Vikings Can Use an Unpopular but Powerful Negotiating Tool with Justin Jefferson

Earlier this week, the NFL officially moved into the franchise tag period.

Teams like the Chicago Bears (Jaylon Johnson), Jacksonville Jaguars (Josh Allen), Baltimore Ravens (Justin Madubuike), and others have the tag in their back pocket if they can’t arrive at a long-term resolution. And, of course, one thinks of Mr. Kirk Cousins, the QB who arrived in The Gopher State following consecutive franchise tags from a Washington team that never fully committed to him.

Nov 6, 2022; Landover, Maryland, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) celebrates with Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports.

Generally speaking, the Vikings eschew the strategy. The last time is was used in Minnesota was to retain safety Anthony Harris after a pair of excellent seasons. Coincidentally, Harris’ tag year — 2020 — was the same year that Jefferson got drafted.

By all accounts, Adofo-Mensah is a tough negotiator. He’s willing to grind out contracts and isn’t afraid to kick back the decision day if he’s not comfortable with finishing off a deal (Marcus Davenport’s void date adjustment most recently, but Cousins’ unresolved contract dilemma is the most high-profile example). So while there’s tremendous benefit to locking up Jefferson, Adofo-Mensah’s track record is littered with examples of a willingness to stick to his guns.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings Training Camp
Jul 28, 2022; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah looks on during training camp at TCO Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

If Jefferson somehow moves through the upcoming season without an extension, the Vikings will deal with a media storm and perpetual headaches in press conferences. Jefferson could become unhappy and the GM will get ample criticism (with PFT’s Mike Florio getting a head start). More than a few Vikings fans would voice their concerns.

And, truth be told, some folks at TCO Performance Center would even be nervous.

Venturing into that future, though, would involve Minnesota realizing that they have their franchise tag holstered for 2025. Tagging a receiver during the current offseason means committing to a single season at a fully guaranteed $20,672,000. Next year’s number could be higher, but not by too much.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions
Jan 7, 2024; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Jordan Addison (3) catches a pass for a touchdown and celebrates with wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) during second half of the game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports

In other words, the Vikings’ management may be looking at the Jefferson conundrum as one that’s not particularly pressing, at least not when it comes to their star receiver walking in free agency anytime soon. At worst, Minnesota is sitting on a couple seasons of team control and roughly $40 million in fully guaranteed money for Mr. Jefferson. In the world of NFL finances, that’s a bargain.

In that scenario, Justin Jefferson could reasonably demand a trade. And, truthfully, it would be hard to blame him.

Extending Jefferson during the current offseason offers the potential of liberating $14,894,400 in the budget. The Vikings, at least in the short term, could have their purple cake and it it, too. Keep their cornerstone player around for the long haul while also getting increased financial freedom to compete. No doubt, the extension option is the best one for Minnesota and Jefferson.

Don’t forget, though, that the organization still has a pile of leverage in negotiations due to the rookie contract’s 5th-year option and then the possibility of applying the franchise tag. The hope is that both — the rookie-contract option and the franchise tag — become moot since the player and team finalize a deal in short order.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference and Over the Cap helped with this piece.

K. Joudry is the Senior Editor for Vikings Territory and PurplePTSD. He has been covering the Vikings full time since the summer of 2021. He can be found on Twitter and as a co-host for Notes from the North, a humble Vikings podcast.