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Vikings look to Justin Jefferson for even greater leadership role now that his new deal is done

Vikings look to Justin Jefferson for even greater leadership role now that his new deal is done


EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — The wide receiver position in the NFL has been home over the years to some of the most dynamic yet moody superstars in the sport.

Justin Jefferson was voted a team captain for his age-24 season by his Minnesota Vikings teammates.

For all the accomplishments on the field that earned him the league’s richest non-quarterback contract, Jefferson has made his mark with the Vikings as a leader.

“He means the world to that locker room,” coach Kevin O’Connell said. “He’s a culture-changer.”

That reputation was cemented last year after Jefferson suffered a hamstring strain that ultimately kept him out for seven games.

“The way he handled it and the work he put in and then ultimately the way he hit the field and immediately produced and led when he was able to come back,” O’Connell said, “I think served a huge message to the rest of his teammates: He’s a guy that we can not only really count on, but he’s a guy that sets the tone of this entire organization.”

The Vikings over time have experienced as much internal disruption around the frustration of standout receivers as any team, from Randy Moss to Percy Harvin to Stefon Diggs. After finishing his college career with a national championship at LSU, Jefferson has yet to win a playoff game in the NFL, but there hasn’t been a public hint of discontent from him with the direction of the team or his role on it.

“I love every single thing about it. From the fan base to the coaches, to the teammates, to the owners that support this organization, everything has been phenomenal,” Jefferson said on Tuesday at a news conference at Vikings headquarters to discuss his new deal.

Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah recalled a message Jefferson sent him after he was hired in 2022, lobbying for the retention of wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell from the previous staff.

“He said, ‘Hey man, I’m not that type of guy. I don’t ask for anything. But I’d really like to work with coach McCardell. He pushes me to be great,’” Adofo-Mensah said. “I think that says a lot about not just his coach but about Justin and the types of things he wants for his career.”

The leadership role for Jefferson has only begun, now that Kirk Cousins — who threw the ball on all but two of his 31 career touchdown receptions — has departed and J.J. McCarthy has been drafted as the potential next franchise quarterback. McCarthy also came to the NFL fresh off a national championship, with Michigan.

“I’m going to be that main person of being in his ear and try to teach him and try to prepare him for what we’re about to go through,” Jefferson said. “I love his confidence, I love his attitude and of course, him coming off a championship, you can’t have any more confidence than that.”

The Vikings were delighted to have this deal done before the mandatory minicamp, with a couple of weeks left in the offseason program to give McCarthy — and new quarterback Sam Darnold — some time to throw to and mesh with Jefferson.

“The pitch and catch factor will always be part of playing our game. You can have a bunch of lines on a sheet of paper, run it against every coverage known to man, feel good about the what and the why, but you’ve still got to have that how and that feel between player to player,” O’Connell said.

Jefferson was joined on Tuesday by his parents, John and Elaine, and one of his older brothers, Jordan, in a living example of the environment that shaped his competitiveness, determination and integrity while growing up in Louisiana.

As Jefferson discussed the point in his career path when he was an undersized and overlooked recruit out of high school, he recalled complaining to his parents about not being big or strong enough. His mother smiled and nodded in corroboration of the story.

For all the highlight-reel plays Jefferson has made over his first four years in the league, the one that stood out to Adofo-Mensah wasn’t even among the highlight clips. It was a fumble recovery that kept a last-ditch drive alive in the game against Detroit last season, one play before his leaping third-and-27 catch converted a long-shot first down.

“He sprints back to the other side of the field and desperately recovers the ball so that we have the chance to snap the ball,” Adofo-Mensah said. “That’s the one that I’ll tell my kids that I got to see.”

TOP PHOTO: FILE – Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) celebrates after catching a pass for a first down during the second half of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers, Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

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