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Matthew Coller: Justin Jefferson left a strong last impression in Detroit

The Vikings lost but the Vikings star receiver reminded everyone that he cannot be stopped

As Justin Jefferson’s agent and the Minnesota Vikings worked toward a contract extension during training camp, the superstar wide receiver could have limited his participation but instead he took every rep, including during physical joint practices. Two of his teammates played it safer, missing portions of camp while they waited to get things worked out. But JJ wanted to put on a show.

On Sunday with only about a 3% chance to make the playoffs, Jefferson again could have called into work with “general soreness” and nobody would have batted an eye. After the Vikings got down 13-0 against the Detroit Lions, he could have asked out of the game to protect his future negotiations. He did not. After he cleared 1,000 yards for the season, Jefferson could have taken a seat. He kept playing.

With only a few minutes remaining and his team down 10, the broadcast showed head coach Kevin O’Connell and Jefferson fist bump on the sideline. Surely he was telling Jefferson to take a seat, right? At that point the ESPN Gamecast was giving the Lions about a 90% chance to win. Nope. Jefferson trotted out and made a spectacular catch on a wayward throw that brought the Vikings deep into Lions territory with 4:15 left. He was playing to win.

A few plays later quarterback Nick Mullens’ arm got hit and the Lions picked him off. Jefferson’s freaky contortionist act reception would be his last of the season. He finished the day with 12 catches on 14 targets, 192 yards and a touchdown.

“It was tough year for him because of the types of goals that he has,” O’Connell said. “So watching him go out there and do what he did today under really difficult circumstances, speaks just so much to him and what he’s all about.”

When O’Connell finally took him out for the very last drive with the game already decided, he said that Jefferson wasn’t happy.

“He sets the standard of competing at a world-class level and there’s a lot that we can all follow as far as the example he sets,” O’Connell said. “I don’t know what his final numbers for the season ended up with. But I know Justin, in the games we had him, especially the full games we had him, was as dominant as any player in this league and it didn’t matter the circumstances that we were in as a team.”

Here are the final numbers: Despite missing seven games and having another shortened by an injury and playing with four different quarterbacks, Jefferson finished with 68 catches for 1,078 yards and five touchdowns. For context, Jefferson still had a top-25 season for a receiver in Vikings history.

“What makes him so special is the competitive drive to be great,” O’Connell said. “Thinking back to how he worked in training camp and how his early part of the season was going. So, my expectations are that Justin’s going to be a major part of everything we do around here for a long time.”

Being around here for a long time is still yet to be decided. Last offseason Jefferson’s negotiations did not result in a new deal but those were simply a nod to his excellence. Usually players on rookie contracts do not have contract talks until after their fourth season. Jefferson did after three because the team’s intentions to extend him were so obvious. This offseason there is more pressure. He is set to play on his fifth-year option and scheduled to be a free agent after that.

“It’s not really my question to answer,” Jefferson told reporters after the game. “It’s up to management. To the guys up in the front office.”

Of course, there are things in place to make it easier for the team to extend Jefferson like the franchise tag but even owner Mark Wilf said last summer he will be involved directly in getting a deal done. Still JJ holds all the cards, as was made very loud and clear on Sunday.

How much it will cost and how long it will take is a conversation for another day. On Sunday at Ford Field, the discussion was surrounding his roasting of the Lions, which did not get off to the fastest start and Jefferson showed emotion on the sideline following a botched end around in the red zone.

“Frustration is going to come sometimes when we don’t execute or we don’t capitalize on some opportunities and that’s all part of it,” O’Connell said. “I would be a little worried if it wasn’t like that to be honest with you, just because knowing who he is and how much this game means to him every single snap out there.”

What will be worth watching is the Vikings’ interpretation of what they saw from Jefferson against the Lions — not as it pertains to him, rather the quarterback situation. In three games with Nick Mullens at the helm, Jefferson totaled 417 yards and two touchdowns. Two weeks ago he was running open with a chance to win the game and Mullens underthrew him for an interception, otherwise those numbers would have been even higher.

Will the Vikings look at Jefferson’s showing with Mullens in place as evidence that he can take the team even higher if only Kirk Cousins was under center? Or will they look at the way he boosted Mullens’ performance as proof that a less expensive quarterback (who isn’t quite as turnover prone) can get huge production out of throwing to the world’s best receiver?

Time will tell. But on Sunday, in a game that was forgettable for most, Jefferson sent a message that no matter the circumstances he can be a one-man offense…and needs to be paid like it.

“I absolutely love coaching the guy, he knows that and hopefully we’re just getting started with him and where we’re going to take our offense,” O’Connell said.

Justin Jefferson

Jan 7, 2024; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) looks at the big screen during second half of the game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field.