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Like it or not, Jefferson and Vikings are handling his injury the right way

The star receiver talked about why he's frustrated by over reaction to his recovery from a hamstring injury

EAGAN — Justin Jefferson knows that he isn’t doing your fantasy team any favors. He is also aware of what is being said about his absence relating to his contract situation.

On Friday, the Minnesota Vikings star receiver expressed his frustration over the endless barrage of messages he has received on social media about both of those sentiments.

“Y’all have no idea,” Jefferson said. “It’s honestly crazy the amount of people that criticize you and talk very, very bad about you and call you different names when you’re just trying to be healthy and trying to be your best on the field.”

Jefferson has been out since the Vikings’ loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 5 with a hamstring injury, which had an initial prognosis of 4-6 weeks. This week’s Monday Night Football matchup with the Bears would mark the seventh week since his injury, naturally drawing questions of whether he is going to return.

The team has been playing coy on his comeback with head coach Kevin O’Connell saying that they are “continuing to ramp him up.” Jefferson was non-committal again on Friday about his status but did leave the door open to the possibility of playing against the Bears.

“We still have more days to practice and really evaluate everything but we’re going to weigh the options correctly and make sure I’m feeling well and prepared to play a game,” Jefferson said. “If I’m feeling good, I will play.”

When Jefferson initially went down, ESPN’s Adam Schefter sent out a tweet implying that he might not return this year due to his contract status. Schefter’s tweet said: “Here’s the other unspoken issue that could potentially lengthen Justin Jefferson’s absence: if the Vikings don’t win games and stay competitive, what is Jefferson’s incentive to rush back when he did not land the contract he wanted? His absence could last longer than expected.”

Jefferson is set to enter the final year of his rookie contract in 2024 and the team has repeatedly expressed strong interest in giving him a long-term contract extension. When Schefter hinted at Jefferson taking the rest of the year off the Vikings were 1-4 and looking at playoff odds that were lower than the chances of a 60 degree day in Minnesota in January. Now the Vikings are 6-5 and sitting in a playoff spot. Whether that part makes a difference or not is impossible to say since the Vikings bounced back into contention.

Jefferson has clearly not been happy with the implication though. Two weeks ago he declared that his goal is to reach the Hall of Fame someday and that doesn’t happen by sitting on the sidelines. On Friday he pushed back again against the idea that he ever would have stood idle over his contract.

“Everyone is going to have their opinions about what they think I’m thinking or what I’m doing… I know my position,” Jefferson said. “I know what I’m doing and I know it’s not for the contract. It’s not for the contract at all. I said that at the beginning of the season that it’s not my main priority…I’ve said many times the contract will come when it comes.”

The All-Pro receiver has recent history on his side when it comes to arguing that he was never going to sit out. Jefferson’s representatives and the Vikings’ brass negotiated an extension until the final days of the offseason while he took every rep in training camp practices, even the extra-physical joint practices. Other players on the team i.e. Danielle Hunter and TJ Hockenson missed some time as they worked out new contracts.

Jefferson said it has been agonizing to watch from the sidelines.

“It’s definitely not something I want to do but it just comes with the game,” he said. “It comes with trying to be healthy, trying to be 100% and taking the safe route.”

This particular injury does have a tendency to nag at skill players if they come back too early. In 2018 Dalvin Cook injured his hamstring and was slowed upon his return. Cook said during that time that he was playing at less than full health and it was reflected in his usage. He had 10 or fewer carries for four straight weeks while playing through the injury.

In 2019 receiver Adam Thielen hurt his hamstring making a circus catch against the Detroit Lions in Week 7 and then came back two weeks later only to reinjure it again on the first drive against Kansas City. He gained 27 total yards the rest of that season.

The Vikings would be making a mistake to take any risk of Jefferson running into a similar situation where he has to miss time because of the hamstring injury again this year or beyond.

“Justin means a lot more than these five or six games, as critical as they are,” O’Connell said. “His long-term career here is the priority.”

The handling of Jefferson’s injury may feel different than the past with similar injuries because it is. The current regime has been more cautious when it comes to player health, whether it comes to giving players fewer reps during training camp or not playing starters in preseason or waiting extra time with an injury. The approach has scored high marks with players. In the NFL Players Association’s survey last year Vikings players gave their training staff an A+ grade. Over the summer right tackle Brian O’Neill was brought along slowly as he returned from an Achilles injury and came back strong as one of the league’s top players at his position this season.

Considering the Vikings will need a full strength Jefferson to make the playoffs and have a chance against top NFC teams, there doesn’t seem to be any argument against letting him get to 100% — even if he’s on your fantasy team.

Jefferson shut down his social media pages on Friday. It’s unfortunate that he was forced into doing that. It’s a reminder of the pressure that players face to rush back into action.

“There is the good and bad that comes with it,” Jefferson said of social media. “Every athlete goes through it but you have to be true to who you are and the people who love you and support you and focus on that more than negativity.”

Whether Jefferson returns on Monday night or in two weeks against the Las Vegas Raiders, it does appear that there haven’t been any setbacks thus far. Jefferson and quarterback Josh Dobbs have started to get reps together in practice.

“We’ve gotten a chance to get some work and that’ll ramp up as he continues to feel comfortable and his workload increases,” Dobbs said. “Whenever he’s out there in the game, we will have had the adequate reps to go out and be on the same page to make sure we’re locked in and playing good football together.”

There is another part of Jefferson’s absence that belongs in the equation: The Vikings have had players rise to the occasion while he’s been sidelined. From the Kansas City game in Week 5 until last week’s loss to Denver, rookie Jordan Addison has 35 catches for 462 yards and five touchdowns. That’s 12th most yardage in the NFL during that stretch and the second most touchdowns.

Addison said that Jefferson has been working with him on the sideline throughout games making observations about the way the defense is approaching him. But from Jefferson’s perspective there is more to their relationship than just tips and pointers about opposing cornerbacks.

“I said it when he first came here, I wanted to take on that Adam Thielen role like he had for me,” Jefferson said. “Whatever he needs on and off the field I’m there for him. I know that him coming to Minnesota is a culture shock. He doesn’t have many people to talk to here. I just want to be that teammate for him that he can call on at any time to help with plays on the field or life in general.”

Along the way without JJ tight end TJ Hockenson has more catches than any other tight end in the league (50) and more yards (534). The Vikings have also found something in Brandon Powell, who has 21 catches for just over 200 yards as well.

So whether he returns on Monday Night Football or against the Raiders in two weeks, the Vikings and Jefferson should not regret the way they went about handling the situation and the last thing they deserve is to face backlash for approaching it with the best short and long term interest.