Souhan: In season finale, Jefferson leaves Vikings potent reminder of his value

DETROIT – A Vikings official pointed to a spot near the Vikings' locker room where he wanted Justin Jefferson to conduct his postgame news conference.

"Over there," the official said. "In front of the trash."

Jefferson's painful and impressive 2023 season ended with that bit of symbolism — the Vikings' one true superstar adjacent to that which is expendable.

In the Vikings' 30-20 loss to the Lions at Ford Field on Sunday, Jefferson caught 12 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown. The loss left the Vikings out of the playoffs with a 7-10 record, the first time they've reached double-digit losses since 2013.

Jefferson was not only brilliant when he played, he was also brilliant when financial advisers might have been telling him not to play at all.

Negotiations on a lucrative, long-term contract with the Vikings fell through last summer. Jefferson didn't hold out. He didn't "hold in" — which means showing up to work but not practicing or risking injury, which is the way T.J. Hockensen handled his contract negotiations.

Jefferson didn't shut down, either, after injuring his hamstring when the Vikings looked like a lost cause. Jefferson returned and played with the same passion and daring he displayed when the Vikings were winning 13 games last year.

"I can't say enough about him," Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell said. "It means a lot to him to be a captain of our team. He sets a standard of competing at a world-class level. There's a lot we can follow, as far as the example he sets.''

Jefferson played in 10 games this season. He produced 68 catches for 1,074 yards and five touchdowns. He has surpassed 1,000 yards in each of his four NFL seasons. Only Cris Carter, with eight, and Randy Moss, with six, have had more 1,000-yard receiving seasons in Vikings history.

Only four other NFL receivers have topped 1,000 yards in each of their first four seasons: Moss, Michael Thomas, Mike Evans and A.J. Green.

For all of his accomplishments, Jefferson has played in just one NFL playoff game, a loss last year to the Giants. Take that fact, blend in his apparent frustration on the field and sideline on Sunday, and factor in the Vikings' inability to sign him last summer, and you could presume that Jefferson will become the latest star receiver to become a headache. The Vikings, after all, are the franchise that traded Randy Moss and Stefon Diggs in their primes.

Jefferson said nothing after the game that would fuel fan paranoia about his future.

"It's not the type of season we would like," he said. "It was a tough season, it's a tough game that we play, but I'm always gonna be out there trying to give my all. I always want to go out there and try to make as many plays as possible, as many catches and touchdowns as I can, to make my team win. …

"Of course I want to be in the playoffs, competing for the Super Bowl. I want all of that. … It's a hard pill to swallow. … We're always going to lean on each other in this locker room, always want to be together. We're never going to point fingers or blame anyone. We're going to take it as a whole team."

I asked him whether he had an opinion on who should quarterback the Vikings in the future, and whether he would share his opinion with team management. "It's not really my question to really answer," he said. "It's up to management, up to the guys up in that front office. I'm always going to continue to be myself and play the way I play. Whoever it is, I'm going to continue to ball out."

The guess here is that the Vikings will pay Jefferson whatever it takes. Negotiations are tricky, but the Vikings sound determined to keep him, and Jefferson did nothing this season to indicate that he wants to leave.

Had someone asked Moss, Diggs or Carter to stand next to a trash can after a season-ending loss, that person might have ended up at the bottom of the barrel.

Jefferson didn't seem to mind.