There’s a troubling history with star receivers in Minnesota.
Already one of the league’s best receivers, Jefferson is on a mission to be the undisputed No. 1 player at his position — and in a business like the NFL, contracts do the talking when it comes to respect.
Jefferson still has two more seasons on his rookie deal but is eligible to receive an extension in the upcoming offseason. He’s been undeniably a good teammate and team-first player, but once the business side of the NFL comes into play, all bets are off on how a player may change their tone.
That’s a conversation for another day, but until then, Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell has continued to have talks with Jefferson, encouraging the 23-year-old to become more of a leader on the team.
Jefferson was asked for more details on those conversations, primarily addressing how his role as a leader will show not through words but through patience.
Justin Jefferson Urged to Not Be a ‘Virus’ to Vikings
O’Connell worked with the young receiver on making the most of his opportunities despite facing more attention than ever in his career.
“Yeah, I spent a lot of time with J.J. over the last couple weeks, just continuing to tell him how much I appreciate the leadership that he’s shown by not allowing that frustration to affect not only his play but our offense,” O’Connell said after Jefferson’s 147-yard, 10-catch performance over the New Orleans Saints on October 2, adding that despite facing a premier corner in Marshon Lattimore, he wanted to give Jefferson the opportunity to make plays.
“Huge performance. Gave him a game ball today. He earned that game ball today. In my opinion, he earned it in the preparation leading up to this over these last couple weeks,” O’Connell said.
When asked about those conversations with O’Connell, Jefferson echoed a message of being “patient” in the offense that’s learning to strike a balance between finding Jefferson and capitalizing on soft spots in coverage his presence on the field creates.
Here’s the full question and answer:
Q: When K.O. was talking about you being patient, what is it about you being patient that translates to leadership?
Jefferson: Just because I’m not being an emotional player. I’m not being a virus to the team. Just being frustrated. I’m going to be frustrated, but I’m going to keep that to myself. At the end of the day, if somebody’s double-teaming me, I can’t really do too much about that. That just shows you how much effect I have on the defensive side, just being a key player, just having them know where I’m at at all times. I mean, if I’m getting doubled, K.J. and Adam is getting one-on-one. We feel confident in those type of matchups getting the ball to them and making a play.
Jefferson, facing double and triple coverage against the Lions, helped open opportunities for his teammates. Despite it being a frustrating game, he took that on willingly and without much visible frustration, which is easier when the team is winning.
It was Jefferson’s least productive game of his career, posting three catches for 14 yards. Yet, there were no fits on the sidelines. Jefferson was the first player to celebrate with K.J. Osborn, who caught a game-winning touchdown against the Lions with 45 seconds left in the game.
“Going into my third year, playing the way I’ve been playing, [O’Connell] definitely wanted me to take on that leadership role. Not getting frustrated, not having those temper tantrums on the sideline when I’m not getting my way, that all plays a part,” Jefferson said in a postgame press conference. “If Adam and K.J. is eating, I love it. If we win, I love it. The doesn’t really matter about the stats that I get, the touchdowns I get, as long as we winning, our whole team is playing together.”
Vikings Should See Stefon Diggs as a Cautionary Tale
In the fallout of the Mike Zimmer era, the narrative surrounding Diggs’ departure from Minnesota shifted, becoming noteworthy in understanding how the Vikings can avoid a similar situation with Jefferson.
Following his trade to the Buffalo Bills, Diggs, in a farewell Players Tribune article, shouted out Kirk Cousins, Adam Thielen, Kyle Rudolph and the fans who made the start of his career so special. It was never Cousins’ contract extension, but more so the situation playing out in Minnesota that left Diggs disgruntled.
“What do I even say about Kirk? This is a man who has invited me into his home. Introduced me to his family. Put in the extra hours with us. He’s a guy who, through all the ups and downs over the last couple of years, I’ve developed a tremendous amount of appreciation and respect for. I’m definitely going to miss playing with and learning from him,” Diggs wrote.
NFL feature writer Tyler Dunne detailed in a series before Zimmer’s ousting that the surly head coach purposefully sabotaged offensive installs in the 2018 offseason to fit his idea of how to win football games — a more run-focused, clock-chewing style that allowed the defense to shine.
However, the offense, under John DeFillippo still had several explosive weeks under its belt — posting four games with over 400 yards of total offense heading into the bye week. Thielen was the first player ever to eclipse 100 yards in each of the first eight games of a season. Cousins eventually became the first quarterback ever to throw for 4,000 yards, 30 touchdowns and 10 picks or fewer while completing 70% of his passes. And Diggs was happy, seeing an average of 10 targets per game.
But despite those four 400-plus yard games by the offense, the Vikings were 1-2-1 in those games due to several factors: Daniel Carlson’s meltdown against the Packers, a scary incident involving Everson Griffen before playing the Bills that left “guys on edge,” per Dunne, and the defense hemorrhaging 556 yards to the Los Angeles Rams.
Under normal circumstances, the Vikings could’ve come out of the bye week facing a Sunday Night Football showdown with the Chicago Bears even better than 5-3-1. However, against a feisty Bears defense that led the NFL in turnovers and points allowed, the offense turned the ball over three times. Out of a frustrating 25-20 loss, Zimmer made a mandate to run the ball more, reverting the offense to an archaic state.
But when Zimmer got a taste of his own medicine, allowing 214 rushing yards in a Monday Night Football loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the coach shifted blame to DeFlillipo, firing the offensive coordinator in Week 14.
Diggs averaged 35.3 receiving yards per game the rest of the 2018 season, and the Vikings, at home, with a playoff spot on the line against the NFC North division champion Bears’ backups, produced 10 points and 164 yards of offense in a season-ending loss.
“That tells you everything you need to know about what the players think of Zim. Right there. That game,” an ex-Vikings assistant told Dunne.
From there, Diggs went through the motions and admittedly alienated himself from the team in 2019. He was working with his fourth offensive coordinator in five years in Minnesota, knowing Zimmer was ultimately the one behind the scenes pulling the strings of an outdated offense. The Vikings ranked 30th in pass attempts and 28th in passing yards that year. Diggs saw a career-low 6.3 targets per game.
The Vikings went on to win a wild-card game on the road in dramatic fashion over the Saints but ultimately were outclassed by the San Francisco 49ers in the next round — the last game Minnesota has played in the postseason over two years ago.
The Vikings were supposed to be a team entering their Super Bowl window after an NFC Championship game appearance, but with Zimmer at the helm and an offense brimming with star power, Minnesota was stagnant with Diggs slowly being phased out of their gameplans. He had five or fewer catches in 11 of 15 regular-season games in his final year in Minnesota where he was largely relegated to a deep-threat role in the offense.
The football world learned how much a star receiver can elevate a team when Diggs landed in Buffalo. He the league in receiving yards and catches and was the biggest difference-maker in bringing the Bills to their first conference championship game since 1993. Buffalo, in its third year with Diggs, remains firmly situated at the center of Super Bowl conversations.
Diggs still has games where he doesn’t see 10 targets, but the initiative is what matters when success has followed that offensive philosophy.
Bearing Diggs’ fading out of Minnesota in mind, keeping Jefferson well-fed should keep both the star receiver and the Vikings happier in the end.