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Zulgad’s four-and-out: Many factors in potential Justin Jefferson contract but Kirk Cousins’ future shouldn’t be one

The expectation was that all-world wide receiver Justin Jefferson would receive a contract extension from the Minnesota Vikings last spring or summer after he became eligible to sign a second deal in the NFL.

Jefferson had proven in his first three seasons that he deserved to be among the highest-paid non-quarterbacks.

He led the NFL in receptions (128) and receiving yards (1,809) to earn the league’s Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2022, and had established the NFL mark for receptions (324) and yards (4,825) in the first three years of a career. He also did not miss a game.

But while there were many discussions between Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Jefferson’s representatives, a deal didn’t get done.

Jefferson didn’t pout or express frustration. He took part in all of training camp, was elected a team captain and did everything asked of him in what became a disappointing season for both the team and himself.

So how will Jefferson’s contract situation likely play out this time around? Let’s take a closer look.

Vikings general manager continues dialogue with Justin Jefferson's representatives

Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Adofo-Mensah has never created doubt about how much he wants to keep Jefferson. At the NFL Scouting Combine last February in Indianapolis, Adofo-Mensah said: “I don’t want to be the Vikings G.M. without that guy on our team. It’s a high priority.”

It was quotes like that that made many think a deal would have been done by now.

On Tuesday, the Vikings GM and coach Kevin O’Connell conducted their season-ending press conference, and Adofo-Mensah again sounded optimistic about the direction of the talks.

“I had a great dialogue with his representation this morning,” Adofo-Mensah said. “We have a great relationship. The good part is we have a shared history now. We did a lot of the work last season. We talked and we said, ‘Let’s plan to talk again soon.’ I’m always optimistic about those things. Obviously, we have to address that and a bunch of other things but looking forward to those conversations.”

Jefferson’s contract situation should be high on a Vikings priority list that includes the need to make decisions on pending free agents Kirk Cousins and Danielle Hunter before the NFL league year opens March 13.

Jefferson echoed his standard response to questions about his contract after the Vikings’ 30-20 loss in their regular-season finale on Sunday in Detroit.

“For me, I’ll just continue to play my ball and do everything that I can for us to get the win,” he told reporters after a 7-10 finish. “I feel like with my play and all of that, everything is going to happen the way it needs to happen. I will just continue to be myself and go out on that field and give it my all.”

When will it be time for Justin Jefferson's reps to play hardball?

Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Jefferson seems to be about as low-maintenance as any star receiver in recent memory. FOX cameras showed him expressing what could be described as mild frustration on the sideline Sunday in Detroit, catching the attention of Vikings fans who aren’t used to seeing him be demonstrative during a game.

No one could blame Jefferson, but the fact is Vikings fans are used to seeing Jefferson laughing with teammates and rarely coming across as angry.

At some point, however, Jefferson and his reps are going to have to begin playing hardball. Jefferson was absent from the team’s offseason activities last year, but said that wasn’t contract related and he took part in all of training camp.

Jefferson is set to make $19.743 million in 2024 on the fifth-year option of his rookie deal, but it would make little sense for him to report until he has the security and guaranteed money that would come with a multi-year deal.

Jefferson got a glimpse of what an injury can do this season when he missed seven games because of a hamstring issues and then was knocked out of his first game back because of a chest injury suffered against the Las Vegas Raiders.

While the Vikings were 2-8 in games in which Jefferson played and 5-2 when he was missing, Jefferson posted a 1,000-yard receiving season. In fact, his 1,074 yards on 68 receptions in parts of 10 games made him only the third player in NFL history to reach that yardage mark in a season of 10 games or fewer. The other two were Jim Benton in 1945 and Wes Chandler in 1982.

Jefferson was leading the league in receiving yards with 543 when he was hurt against the Chiefs in Week 5, and had 476 yards receiving after returning on a full-time basis in Week 15.

He did this while earning a base salary of $2.4 million.

What could a contract extension look like?

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t mistake Jefferson being a nice guy with him being willing to take a significant discount on his next contract.

Jefferson knows his worth.

“I’m in a different situation,” he said in September. “I’ve done something that no one has ever done in the history of the game. So my situation is a little bit different than everyone else’s.”

How different will his contract be from other wide receivers? That’s the important question.

Miami’s Tyreek Hill is the top-earning wide receiver in the NFL, making $30 million a season and with $72.2 million in guarantees on a four-year, $120 million contract.

The highest-paid non-quarterback in the league is San Francisco edge rusher Nick Bosa, who is making $34 million a year on a five-year, $170 million deal he signed last September after a training camp holdout. Bosa, who is getting $122.5 million in guarantees, is the 16th highest-paid player in the NFL.

Would Jefferson be willing to stay away from training camp if a deal doesn’t get done? There’s plenty of time for that to be avoided, but one would think that he would have no choice but to stay away.

Jefferson could be fined $50,000 per day if he skips camp, but that can be forgiven by the team because he’s on a rookie contract.

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Jefferson playing out his contract because of Cousins' potential departure makes no sense

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

There has been discussion among the Vikings fan base about whether Jefferson would refuse to sign an extension, if Cousins doesn’t re-sign in Minnesota and the franchise turns to a new quarterback.

Jefferson made it clear on multiple occasions how much he would like Cousins to return, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Jefferson enjoyed catching passes from Cousins more than he did backups Josh Dobbs, Jaren Hall and Nick Mullens.

But the flaw in this argument is that Jefferson would be willing to play out his contract — and risk suffering an injury — in order to try to get to free agency and sign elsewhere. Jefferson wants to win as badly as anyone in the Vikings locker room, but, more importantly, he wants to sign a second contract that will set him and his family up for years to come.

Does anyone really think Jefferson only will catch passes from Cousins, who turns 36 in August? Jefferson doesn’t want to play with backups, but if the Vikings select a quarterback in the first round, such as fellow LSU alumnus Jayden Daniels, it’s difficult to believe he would be upset.

If Jefferson is upset about Cousins potentially leaving, he is far more likely to demand a trade this offseason than play out his contract. But don’t fret about that unlikely eventuality.

If you want to worry about Jefferson’s situation, focus on these contract negotiations. Many thought they would have been done long ago.

Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Purple Daily Podcast and Mackey & Judd podcast at www.skornorth.com.

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Story originally appeared on Vikings Wire