The Minnesota Vikings arrived at the NFL scouting combine on a mission, at least when it came to the media portion of the event. Beyond discussing the hiring of defensive coordinator Brian Flores and a host of impending salary cap cuts, the team's leaders were determined to express how much they love receiver Justin Jefferson as negotiations for a contract extension loom.
"I don't want to be the Vikings GM without this guy on our team," general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said.
"One of my favorite players I've ever coached," coach Kevin O'Connell said.
"When you have guys like that in your building," Adofo-Mensah said, "[you] try everything you can to not let them out."
Sometimes you'll see an NFL team hold back its true feelings about a player in public to avoid influencing the negotiations. If Adofo-Mensah doesn't want the job if Jefferson leaves, is there any price he wouldn't agree to?
In the case of Jefferson, however, there's no use in pretending. He earned All-Pro honors in 2022 at age 23 after leading the NFL in catches (128) and receiving yards (1,809) and built a case to be considered the NFL's best receiver. The Vikings would be committing team-building malpractice if they didn't plan to do everything imaginable to strike a deal.
For his part, Jefferson betrayed no hesitation about an eventual precedent-setting payday. Speaking in January, he said that a new deal "comes with the success" and added: "It's not really something that I'm really worried about or I have my mind set on. It's just really performing for my team, just doing whatever I need to do to get this team to where we want to go. But the money stuff, that comes with the job."
The floor of negotiations is the $30 million annual value receiver Tyreek Hill got last spring as part of the trade that sent him from the Kansas City Chiefs to the Miami Dolphins. Assuming both sides accept that deal as a baseline, the more difficult part of the talks would be the length. A three-year, $95 million deal, for instance, would put Jefferson in position for a second payday at age 26, when most players are up for their first. Even a five-year, $165 million extension would give Jefferson another crack at new money at age 28.
The length of Jefferson's deal would correlate with more than his next bite at the financial apple. It would also connect with the one issue that sources around the league say could bog down these negotiations: The Vikings' plan at quarterback for the timeframe of Jefferson's contract.
Adofo-Mensah has said he expects quarterback Kirk Cousins to be the team's starter in 2023, but Cousins' contract is set to expire next spring and it's not yet clear if the sides will allow it to play out. Jefferson has been outspoken in his support of Cousins over the past three years, but he also understands the reality of having a quarterback who is approaching his 35th birthday.
First, pairing Cousins' salary with a Jefferson contract extension would require some care in terms of salary cap management. The Dolphins, for example, paid Hill to play alongside quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who at the time was two years into his rookie contract that consumed only $8.3 million in cap space for 2022 and $9.6 million in 2023. But it's far from an impossible task. This season, for instance, the Los Angeles Rams will have receiver Cooper Kupp on the books for $27.8 million in cap space while quarterback Matthew Stafford plays under a backloaded deal that will count $20 million against the cap.
Cousins is set to count $36.3 million against the Vikings' cap in 2023, but that number would reduce dramatically only if he and the Vikings agree on a multiyear extension. The Vikings could backload Jefferson's next contract with big, fully guaranteed base salaries, but again, that maneuver usually requires a five- or six-year duration to maximize its impact. And even in that case, Jefferson almost certainly would transition to a new quarterback over that time frame.
All receivers know how much the quality of a quarterback can affect production, and thus, future earnings. So it was notable that in January, when asked if he wanted to stay in Minnesota, Jefferson answered with decidedly neutral phrasing.
"I mean, I will be wherever I'm wanted," he said. "If they want me here, I'm here. That's not something that I can really control."
If the Vikings wanted to play hardball, they could pay him his $2.4 million salary for 2023, pick up his fifth-year option of $19.7 million for 2024 and then use the franchise tag to retain his rights in 2025 and 2026, an approach that would cost about 30% less than signing him to a multiyear extension.
The tone of last week's comments makes it hard to imagine the Vikings shifting into a confrontational negotiating stance, and in fact, Adofo-Mensah and O'Connell told a group of local reporters they will keep Jefferson looped in on their offseason plans. Substantive negotiations aren't likely to happen until after the Vikings get to the other side of free agency.
But at this point, the team seems eager to strike a deal, and Jefferson appears to accept the reality of what's coming. There's no reason to hide it.