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Why Justin Jefferson’s record-breaking Vikings extension was always in the cards

MINNEAPOLIS – Last weekend the Minnesota Vikings coaching staff received the weekly practice plan. Numerous grids were printed on the white sheets of paper, showing the schedule for each day. Most of it was to be expected. Red zone situations, early down simulations, kicking periods. Underneath Thursday’s slate, however, was a specific two-minute lineup.

Some employees wondered why.

The answer?

“Jets,” they were told.

This was the first indication that the team’s biggest superstar, wide receiver Justin “Jets” Jefferson, would arrive in Minnesota this week for a mandatory minicamp.

Then it was Monday morning. Most of the staffers sat quietly in their offices in the TCO Performance Center. Some drank coffee. Others scribbled notes in preparation for meetings with players. It was fairly quiet until the clock struck 8:18 am

“Holy f—!” a coach shouted down the hall.

Heads held high. Pens fell against desks. Phones pinged with the news: the Vikings and Jefferson had agreed to a four-year, $140 million contract extension, including $110 million guaranteed. Jefferson had become both the highest-paid wide receiver in NFL history and the highest-paid non-quarterback.

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Vikings’ Justin Jefferson agrees to a four-year, $140 million extension

Staffers texted each other fire and airplane emojis. Others replied with Griddy dance gifs.

It was finally over. You no longer have to answer questions about when the deal would take place. You no longer have to read fake rumors on social media about possible transactions. You no longer have to wonder if the final piece of the team’s offseason plan would fit into the puzzle.

“Justin has earned this contract,” owners Mark and Zygi Wilf said in a news release, “and we are thrilled that he will remain a Minnesota Viking for a long time to come.”

This agreement took more than a year of negotiations, but not because both sides wavered in what they wanted. The first time general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah talked about the possibility of a Jefferson extension, he called it a “champagne problem,” meaning it’s a topic to celebrate, not overwork. Jefferson actually doubled down on that thought, admitting last spring that he did not “see the looming expansion as a cloud over my head.”

“The contract is part of the game,” he said.

Apparently the game within the game is the hoopla that comes with these kinds of discussions. Jefferson didn’t attend voluntary OTA practices last year, telling people privately that he couldn’t bear to be away from teammates and the game he loved. There was public speculation that his absence was a sign of dissatisfaction or a lack of agreement between him and the organization. It wouldn’t be the last time.

Negotiations continued in the week leading up to the Vikings’ 2023 season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At the time, several staffers shared their belief that the two sides would reach an agreement soon.

Jefferson ultimately accepted the risk of playing another season without a long-term contract, and in Week 5 he strained his hamstring. Some outside talking heads thought Jefferson would sit out the entire season. Internally, the Vikings never doubted Jefferson’s desire to return to the lineup.

“When he talks about wanting a gold jacket,” a team official said at the time, “he means it. And he knows you have to play to earn that.”

He returned in Week 13 against the Las Vegas Raiders and was speared in the chest while attempting a catch over the middle of the field. An ambulance took him to the hospital during the match. But he was cleared to play and did so the following week. He stood out over the final five games of the season and finished the year with over 1,000 yards, capping a streak with the most receiving yards in NFL history through his first four years.

Standing against a concrete wall in the Ford Field tunnel after the Week 18 loss to the Detroit Lions, Jefferson was asked if he could imagine a Super Bowl with the Vikings.

“Always,” he said defiantly. “As long as I’m part of the team, I always think we have a chance.”

Jefferson didn’t give credence to the idea that last season changed his long-term outlook in Minnesota. Still, hypotheses ran rampant. Jefferson loved catching passes from Kirk Cousins, but he was always aware of (and open to) the possibility of playing with a young, newly drafted quarterback. That didn’t stop some from assuming that Jefferson would make a knee-jerk reaction if Cousins ​​signed with the Atlanta Falcons.

Trade ideas became fodder for clicks. One day, New England Patriots fans felt like they had a chance to land Jefferson (due to incorrect reporting), and the Cincinnati Bengals were next. This spring, Adofo-Mensah responded passionately to the rumors at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

“A lot of what I hear,” Adofo-Mensah said, “is completely untrue. But I can’t come here and tell you what’s true and what’s not true, because that’s not how I promised to do this work. But I can tell you that we are excited about the conversations because he is someone we have wanted to have with us for a long time.”

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GM: Vikings never considered trading Jefferson

Several months later, Adofo-Mensah described Jefferson as the “lynchpin” of the team’s organizational shift after Cousins. The Vikings created nearly $100 million in cap space through 2025 so they could pay their biggest stars, including Jefferson. They believe they can optimally develop quarterback JJ McCarthy in the first round — in part because they have Jefferson, who is both a safety valve on the field and a supportive teammate behind the scenes.

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Why JJ McCarthy (and those close to him) saw the Vikings as a ‘dream scenario’

The Vikings’ playbook literal underlines the organization’s top-down commitment to Jefferson. Many of their formations and terms include words associated with Jefferson, whether it be his home state (Louisiana) or his favorite dance move (Griddy). Head coach Kevin O’Connell has long viewed Jefferson as a partner in many ways, one of the few men on earth talented and intelligent enough to transfer his brainstormed offensive ideas to the field.

Seeing such a player leave the building, especially during a period of organizational change, would have been a nightmare. The Vikings wanted to keep their most important player from the start. They thought they were so aware of Jefferson’s plans that he would be present at the mandatory mini-camp this week.

All along, their beliefs were well-founded. The proof is in the $140 million.

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(Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)