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Matthew Coller: Does Justin Jefferson complicate things for Vikings?

Vikings receiver was on radio row Wednesday and was not shy about his contract situation

Radio Row is made for soundbites. Every show wants to score a comment from one of the dozens of NFL players and celebrities making the rounds that gets shared all over social media and makes headline news on TV. On Wednesday the man who made Radio Row dreams come true was Justin Jefferson.

On with Adam Schein of SiriusXM Radio, Jefferson said:

"I want to break the bank and I want to be a part of an organization that wants me and to really give me what I deserve. I feel like eventually the Vikings will do what they need to do to have me in the building, but I don’t really know at this very moment," Jefferson said. "Only time will tell, I feel like I have the right people in my circle to negotiate and do what’s right. I feel like this whole process of how we handled things and how we went accordingly with the season and the contract stuff, I feel like we did a great job with it."

Break the bank. Now that’s juicy. Only time will tell? Hoo boy.

Just kidding. There isn’t actually anything new about Jefferson’s comments.

Before the season opener, which marked an unofficial deadline to get an extension done last offseason, Jefferson noted the historic start to his career and said: “Of course I would want a contract to be done. But at the end of the day, it is all up to them and what the ownership want to do with that.”

Jefferson has never been very good at football’s art of word salad and double talk. Last year he was asked to rank his top five quarterbacks in the NFL and didn’t include Kirk Cousins. Merry Christmas, aggregation world.

Guess who Jefferson left off?????? OMGZ. Wow! Gotcha KIRK. Tremendous content.

We got the opposite version of this on Wednesday. In an interview with Rich Eisen, Jefferson said, “Kirk is great as a teammate, as a person…I feel like everyone, especially Vikings fans appreciate Kirk a little bit more now that we’ve seen him off the field.”

Obviously this means Jefferson wants Cousins back and the Vikings must break the bank for Cousins to return, right?

Well, it’s actually nothing new from Jefferson, who has repeatedly praised Cousins and made a very similar point at the end of the year.

“Me and Kirk have a great connection, even when he’s not throwing the ball,” Jefferson said in late December. “It’s definitely tough without him being there. His knowledge of the game, his awareness, it’s a piece missing.”

Now that we have cleared up that none of Jefferson’s commentary is controversial, let’s talk about where things stand with him this offseason and how he factors into the quarterback situation.

As it pertains to his contract, the Vikings have six months to work on an extension. Both sides want to get a deal done and everybody knows that Jefferson will be the highest paid receiver in the league. As optimistic as everyone seemed last summer, both parties had reason to wait. Jefferson’s side was in a spot to either get everything they were asking for or hang out until 2024 when the pressure would be greater on the Vikings to get the deal done.

The Vikings could approach it similarly to every other first rounder that signs an extension prior to the final year of their rookie deal. The collective bargaining agreement is set up to give the team an advantage with the fifth-year option and two franchise tags in their pocket so they could confidently hold off knowing that they hold some important cards.

This year everyone has more pressure to get something done. Guaranteed money for the player is much better than playing year to year on the option and franchise tag until 2027. Cap flexibility is way better for the team than taking the full brunt of the fifth-year and franchise tag cap hits. AJ Brown, for example, had cap hits of $5.6 million (2022) and $8.3 million (2023) and $12.4 million (2024) after signing a four-year, $100 million contract with the Eagles. Eventually it gets expensive but they were able to push the bigger numbers down the road and keep him cheaper during their winning window.

That brings us to Cousins and the Vikings’ timeline. Last year at the NFL Combine, general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said that Jefferson would be looped into discussions about the QB situation because he has that level of value to the organization. It does not stand to reason that his take on the QB would have a major impact on negotiations because the plan is to keep JJ around far beyond the end of Cousins’ career. But Jefferson could swing the Vikings’ tide by merely being himself.

If the Vikings were to extend Jefferson and keep his cap hits low for the first few years, they might believe they could make enough space for Cousins to return and still add free agents on the defensive side. They might see the next two seasons as the last chance to have a cheap megastar receiver, so why waste them doing the rebuild part of the “competitive rebuild?”

Jefferson is also so talented that he gives the offense a chance to flirt with elite-ness just by being in the lineup. Nick Mullens went for around 800 yards in two starts by pumping the ball his way over and over. If Cousins returns and isn’t negatively impacted by his Achilles injury, they will have a decent chance of returning to the playoffs. That might be what the front office and coaching staff wants after a 7-10 season that turned on the heat (right or wrong) on everyone.

But there is a counter argument regarding Jefferson’s talent. If we look back at rookie quarterbacks who have had success right away, there is something pretty noticeable. CJ Stroud found a No. 1 receiver in Nico Collins, Brock Purdy had Deebo Samuel, Dak Prescott had Dez Bryant, Russell Wilson had Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate, Ben Roethlisberger had Hines Ward. Could Jefferson’s mere presence weigh the chances of success heavily in a rookie QB’s favor?

How patient would Jefferson actually need to be with a young quarterback? Most of the best QBs took a huge step by Year 2, including Mahomes, Jackson, Burrow, Wilson, Herbert etc.

Everyone wants to win right away but it can’t be lost on Jefferson that the Vikings have zero playoff wins since he was drafted and they have been fighting the expensive QB contract fight every year along the way. It’s not a stretch to suggest the Vikings could have made the playoffs last year with a fully healthy Cousins but they were also 4-4 when he went down.

If Jefferson wasn’t in the mix, this probably wouldn’t be a tough conversation. They would appear so far away from contention with all the free agents potentially leaving the roster that there wouldn’t be any choice except to get younger at QB.

I suppose we have to address the idea of trading Jefferson and completely rebuilding from here around multiple first-round picks that he would be worth on the trade market. Outside of the Chiefs trading Tyreek Hill, it’s not clear that moving on from huge stars has been very beneficial to teams that have pulled the chute. Khalil Mack turned the Bears into an elite defense while the Raiders drafted themselves out of jobs. Denver sent Bradley Chubb packing. The Titans moved AJ Brown. Carolina traded Christian McCaffrey and so on. The league’s best teams are driven by stars and giving away a young one for hopes and draft capital dreams would be egregious. How many of those GMs who traded stars still have jobs, by the way?

Anyway, the Vikings should view Jefferson and a long-term extension as part of the solution. They should be aiming to make him feel like a true franchise player who they can build around for many years to come, not as a guy who should make them feel desperate for nine wins in 2024.

There is lots of time for his deal to play out and everyone will have to remain patient. If there’s a comment or quote that indicates this thing is headed for disaster, you’ll know it. 

Justin Jefferson

Justin Jefferson pregame