Zulgad: Justin Jefferson’s absence isn’t reason to panic … yet

Minnesota Vikings fans have spent more than a month preoccupied with whether their team will draft its next quarterback in the first round and how high general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah might have to trade up to get that top-level starter.

That question will be answered a week from Thursday during the opening night of the NFL Draft, and whether the fan base approves, they will likely face another reality once the excitement subsides.

That will be the fact that Justin Jefferson’s contract situation remains unresolved.

We’ve written plenty about this issue, including this February column on the reason for the potential hang-up and this one focused on what Adofo-Mensah had to say about Jefferson’s situation at the NFL Scouting Combine.

So why revisit the topic?

Because we are entering a new and important chapter of the story for both Jefferson and the Vikings. The team opened the voluntary portion of their offseason program on Monday without one of the NFL’s best wide receivers in attendance. The fact these workouts are voluntary tamps down the anxiety that might go with Jefferson, or anyone else, being absent. But when your best player and a guy who takes great pride in being a team captain stays away, it can’t be ignored.

This situation isn’t unprecedented. A year ago, Jefferson skipped all of the voluntary workouts before showing up for the mandatory minicamp. “I had a lot of stuff going on,” Jefferson said last June. “They didn’t really force me to come back too much, so it didn’t seem like I was missing too much, but they definitely wanted me back here.”

Jefferson spent the remainder of last season doing a marvelous job of handling questions about his contract. Last year, he had two seasons remaining on his rookie deal. That included the 2024 fifth-year option salary of $19.743 million, a bargain considering Jefferson’s 5,899 yards receiving is the most for any player in their first four seasons in NFL history.

There were some who thought Jefferson might balk at playing last year without a new contract, considering the risk that goes with being on a rookie deal and having no financial guarantees beyond that. But Jefferson didn’t stage a holdout, or hold-in, and did everything that was asked of him.

Jefferson had not missed a game in his first three seasons, so the threat of injury likely didn’t preoccupy his thoughts. That probably changed in a Week 5 loss to Kansas City at U.S. Bank Stadium, when Jefferson suffered a hamstring injury that cost him seven games. Despite playing in only 10 games, Jefferson was the lone Viking with more than 1,000 yards receiving (1,074).

It has been acknowledged that Jefferson and the Vikings were close to an agreement just before the start of last season, but what isn’t clear is why the contract didn’t get done and if that was a real setback or just a hiccup. If Jefferson signs right after the draft, that question will be answered and any potential animosity between the sides will be avoided.

If he doesn’t …

“I’m waiting,” Jefferson said during an appearance on “The Rich Eisen Show” on Feb. 8. “I’m looking for the bag, just like you are. I’m waiting for the call to experience that with my family. It’s life-changing. I’m waiting for it.”

It also seems unlikely that Jefferson will put himself at risk until he signs a second contract that figures to make him the highest-paid non-quarterback in NFL history, surpassing the $34 million a year that San Francisco defensive end Nick Bosa is making.

Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell recently said that he has kept Jefferson “in the loop” on the team’s plans at quarterback. Veteran Sam Darnold, signed as a free agent, is the Vikings’ current starter but the hope is the draft will produce the Vikings’ long-term starter. Jefferson certainly cares about who will be throwing him the ball but this focus on him not signing because of Kirk Cousins’ departure to Atlanta has been silly.

Jefferson’s focus is on how much he’ll be paid, and that’s what it should be. On Monday, when he addressed Jefferson’s absence, O’Connell didn’t sound concerned about the situation. “I’ve had a lot of great dialogue with Justin,” O’Connell said. My hope is we can get him around the team. We want him here as much as we can have him, but also understand there’s a lot of factors involved.”

The most important factor is obvious and the sooner that gets done, the sooner Jefferson will report to offseason workouts. If it it doesn’t get done, Jefferson’s presence at mandatory minicamp in early June won’t be a given and, at that point, hitting the panic button will become a real option.

Story originally appeared on Vikings Wire