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Matthew Coller: On Justin Jefferson, Moneyball and Minnesota sports history

Rumors and debates about whether the Vikings should trade Justin Jefferson just won't stop

WEST PALM BEACH — Before heading to Indianapolis for the NFL Combine, I figured I could sneak down to Florida for a couple of days while the league was ramping up for offseason mayhem and play some golf, catch a spring training game and get a little beach time. Luckily the only major story in the NFL was that the salary cap was set to increase. But with that nugget, my email inbox filled with the following questions: “Does this mean JJ wants more money now? Does this mean it’s easier to sign JJ now? Is it time to trade JJ?”

Everybody wants to know what’s coming next with Justin Jefferson and what it all means. To answer the first two questions, I don’t think it changes much about the Justin Jefferson contract situation. He’s going to want to be the highest paid receiver in the league and the Vikings are either going to make that happen or trade him to someone who will or things are going to get ugly.

There could be complications if Jefferson wants to destroy AJ Brown’s fully guaranteed mark of $56 million. There could be bumps in the road if Jefferson wants three years instead of five. There could be some disconnect if Jefferson has a very strong opinion about the quarterback position. But none of those things should supersede the fact that the Collective Bargaining Agreement is set up for the teams to win these battles. Nick Bosa fought the 49ers until the last week of the offseason and ended up coming to a solid agreement on a contract last year because teams have the fifth year option and two franchise tags to use when they draft a successful first-rounder. That’s 2024, 2025 and 2026.

I suppose Jefferson could pull a George Costanza (or a Stefon Diggs as a younger generation might know it) and do everything he can to make the situation uncomfortable until the team moves on but the rules are the rules. Unless JJ plans to go full Carson Palmer and sit out actual games, it’s in his best interest to work with the team to come to a contract agreement.

As Vikings fans well know, there are lots of levers to pull to make a big contract work. It may sound scary to pay someone $35 million per year that doesn’t play quarterback but QBs are going to make $50 million from now on and even Nick Bosa’s cap hits don’t clear $21 million until four years after the day he signed the extension and, per, it can be restructured to the point of nearly cutting the cap hit in half in 2026. That took signing him to a five-year deal with a couple of void years tacked in the end but worth it in the case of a top five player at the position.

The shorter the deal, the less flexible. That is a legitimate issue. But overall with the cap set to continue increasing with more and more Amazon money coming the NFL’s way, JJ’s deal shouldn’t be impossible to work around considering that the Vikings do not have many other expensive contracts on the way that they have to sign outside of Christian Darrisaw.

It’s OK to spend money on great players. The Chiefs had the fourth highest amount of salary cap space allocated to their offense last year — the Lions were No. 1 and then Ravens and Browns.

Speaking of successful teams, outside of the Chiefs, who have the greatest QB of a generation, clubs with elite receivers have been having a lot of success lately. The top paid receivers are Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, Cooper Kupp, AJ Brown and Stefon Diggs. Hill’s team led the NFL in passing, Adams drove Aaron Rodgers’ two MVP awards, Kupp was the offensive player of the year and won the Super Bowl, Brown was three points from a Super Bowl and Diggs’ team has won four straight division titles since he arrived.

Yet you can’t open Twitter, Threads, Facebook, Instagram, Myspace or LinkedIn without seeing somebody proposing a trade to send JJ to somebody for draft picks.

What gives? Why would Vikings fans want to ship out a guy who is already one of their all-time best players before he can legally rent a car?

One thing is Moneyball. We have all been finely tuned over the last two decades since Moneyball become widely accepted to think of things in terms of efficiency. How can you maximize the assets that are allocated to you? Is an expensive great receiver better than three or four draft picks who will come cheap? Is trading him worth drafting a quarterback because if the QB becomes great then nothing else is more valuable.

Personally, as I was sitting on the beach thinking about football, I couldn’t make it work. Jefferson’s impact on his quarterback is so immense that you vastly improve the odds of your quarterback playing great by having him, whether it’s Kirk or no Kirk. When JJ has been targeted over his career, he’s turned Cousins into an MVP. His QB rating on throws in his direction is 111.8 and he’s the only WR in the NFL to grade over 90 for the last four seasons in a row by PFF.

Did acquiring Diggs not help Josh Allen become an MVP-caliber QB? Did AJ Brown’s presence in Philly not help Jalen Hurts get to the Super Bowl? Did Brown’s absence not crush Tennessee’s QBs as they tried failingly to replace him in the draft? Is Brock Purdy out there doing it by himself or with All-Pro Deebo Samuel, the seventh highest paid receiver in the league? Decent quarterbacks can play great when their receivers make every play. Decent quarterbacks can get exposed when they do not have those guys.

In a league that sends the best offenses to championship weekend, it’s a tough sell to suggest that drafting a pass rusher and another receiver could add up to the type of value JJ has. What if the picks don’t work out? Then you gave up the world’s best driver of passing success for nothing.

Also, why would anyone be in a hurry to get rid of this man? He has been as well adjusted of a superstar as this town has ever seen. The most controversial thing he ever did was name his top five QBs and leave out Kirk. The worst thing he’s done for the team is be so good that he’s convinced them they are close to being legit contenders when they were too flawed to actually be contenders. He’s so good that it’s impossible to do a complete tear down. He’s put up records, provided endless entertainment and been a standup citizen. And we think trading this guy will be somehow good?

There is the other part. Nobody actually thinks the Vikings are better off without him. I’m not totally convinced the Moneyball lovers believe themselves when they come up with convoluted trade proposals.

Dec 31, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) looks on before the game against the Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Dec 31, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) looks on before the game against the Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium.

My theory is that it’s a defense mechanism. Minnesota sports has so often seen their star players leave. Randy Moss went 17-0 with Tom Brady and set the touchdown record. Kevin Garnett won a championship and screamed “anything is possible” while wearing a different jersey. Johan Santana counts. Percy Harvin counts. Kevin Love counts.

On the other side of the coin, the athletes who stayed didn’t bring a title here. Joe Mauer, Mikko Koivu, KAT (maybe this year!) and so forth.

It feels like a lot of folks are preparing themselves for the worst. “If JJ doesn’t want to stay, then forget him, he was never worth it anyway!?”

Plus any time a player is negotiating a contract extension fans inevitably want him banished and then delete those tweets as soon as the guy signs. I’m not sure what it is that tweaks folks so badly about pro athletes negotiating deals. We have gone so far past comparisons to your job or mine. They live in a different universe and I’m pretty sure we all understand that when teams are worth $6 billion then the most valuable players will get a good chunk of that. I don’t suggest watching any sport except table tennis if that is a huge turnoff for you.

It isn’t selfish to negotiate a deal. It isn’t diva behavior. It’s just business. Trust me, when the Vikings cut Adam Thielen and Eric Kendricks, two of the greatest players to wear purple, last offseason people called the team wise and shrewd for doing business.

Anyway, the NFL is going to give teams $255 million to work with. Surely a chunk of that can go to the player who owns the team’s single-season receiving record. Surely if the Vikings have competent management then they can build a team when the hardest part of finding a truly elite player at arguably the second most valuable position in the sport has already been given to them, right? Surely we realize that the same Vikings who drafted Diggs and JJ also picked Laquon Treadwell, right?

I did have this thought on the four hour plane right back: I don’t really know whether they would do something like this or not. Under Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer we could predict the offseason and draft to the letter because we had a huge sample size. Could the new-ish management agree with the fake trade inventors in my inbox? Maybe. Could the Wilfs not want to foot the guaranteed money bill and force a trade? Maybe.

As with most things this offseason, I have no idea what’s coming next. But I do know that if you want more Minnesota sports regrets, trading a guy who broke Cris Carter and Randy Moss records is probably a good place to start.