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Is Vikings WR Justin Jefferson Headed Toward GOAT Status?

During my career as an NFL team executive, I saw some of the greatest wide receivers of all time up close. I witnessed Jerry Rice battling my Vikings in playoff games. As the general manager in Minnesota, I drafted Randy Moss and watched him catch 17 touchdown passes as a rookie. I always considered these two Hall of Famers as the unchallenged GOATs at their position.

Until now. 

This season, I’m observing the growth of a young phenomenon, who is quickly ascending to the point where I envision him challenging and perhaps eventually surpassing Rice and Moss. It's a lot of praise, but if he has their longevity and durability while maintaining his current level of production, it's feasible. He has the most receiving yards of any player in his first three seasons — 4,516 to already top Moss, the previous leader, by 353 yards with four regular season games remaining.

Of course, I’m talking about Justin Jefferson, the best receiver in the game. I'll go further, and I’ll call him the best player at any position other than quarterback. I only rank Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes ahead of him as the most talented, impactful player in the NFL. 

We’ve all seen multiple replays of his otherworldly, leaping one-handed catch on fourth-and-18 that saved Minnesota's chances at upsetting Buffalo a month ago. That ranks with David Tyree’s helmet catch in Super Bowl XLII as one of the greatest I’ve ever seen. 

Then on Thanksgiving night, he torched a Bill Belichick-led Patriots defense — that’s always set up to stop the opposing team’s best player — with nine catches for 139 yards and a touchdown. Yet, his most impactful play that night was drawing three defenders on a crossing route to set up Adam Thielen’s game-winning touchdown, which, as a team-oriented player, he was happy to do. 

Last Sunday in Detroit, he was double-covered all day and still managed to break the Vikings' single-game receiving yards record with 223. He also was robbed of another 32 yards when officials incorrectly ruled he stepped out of bounds after a late 39-yard gain. He leads the league with 1,500 receiving yards. If he averages 117 yards per game during the next four weeks, he’ll break Calvin Johnson’s NFL record of 1,964 set in 2012. 

J.J. — as he’s called by his teammates — was terrific in his first two Pro Bowl seasons. But he’s taken his game to an even higher level this season as he’s played a critical role in leading the Vikings to a 10-3 record and their current status as soon-to-be NFC North champions (with one more win or a Detroit loss). Then, we'll witness his maiden voyage on the NFL's biggest stage: the playoffs.

“He’s absolutely one of the most special players I’ve ever been around as a coach or player," first-year Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell recently said. "I’m just so proud of the way he battles, the grit, determination and preparation. People forget sometimes it’s only Year 3, and he’s learning and improving every week, but his talent and competitive drive make him a very special player.” 

O’Connell and quarterback Kirk Cousins have played a major role in elevating Jefferson‘s playmaking by regularly giving him double-digit targets and contested catch opportunities even as he faces consistent double coverage. 

The Lions shut down the Vikings' running game last week but still had to battle for a win due to great games from Jefferson and Cousins. This performance earned the respect of Lions coach Dan Campbell.

“We put a lot of strain on our front seven to take the run away because we used an enormous amount of resources on the back end with Jefferson," Campbell said after the game. "But, as you can see, Jefferson is one of those rare dudes you don’t see very often.”

I see Jefferson's skill set as Rice and Moss-like, including elite athleticism, great hands, outstanding route running, speed in and out of breaks, leaping ability, balance, body control, strength to take the ball away from defenders on contested catches with the savvy to find the ball at the last second and toughness to absorb big hits and hang onto the ball. Add in his competitiveness, attention to detail, work ethic and drive to be the best, and again those are similar to the all-time greats. 

Moss was the fastest and tallest of the three (but Rice and Jefferson also have good size). Rice played at an elite level for the longest period (10-time All-Pro and 13 Pro Bowl selections). It's unclear what the long term holds for the 23-year-old Jefferson, but he’s got a lot of great football ahead if he stays healthy, which is likely given his commitment to conditioning. 

Amazingly, Jefferson was the fifth receiver selected in the 2020 NFL Draft. He has said in the past his fall was due to NFL evaluators wrongly labeling him as a slot-only receiver coming off of his 111-catch final season at LSU, where he played on a national championship team with Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase

Jan 13, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; LSU Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow (9) celebrates with wide receiver Justin Jefferson (2) after scoring a touchdown against the Clemson Tigers second quarter in the College Football Playoff national championship game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Tom Brady-like chip on their shoulder from being passed over in the draft is another similarity between Jefferson, Rice and Moss. For Rice (No. 16 overall in 1985), it was due to coming out of a small college — Mississippi Valley State — and not being considered to have blazing speed. For Moss, it was due to the character questions from a high school fight and alleged failed drug tests that caused him to wind up at Marshall instead of Notre Dame or Florida State. That also dropped him from a top-5 pick talent-wise to No. 21 overall in 1998. 

We were thrilled to grab Moss at that spot in Minnesota, and it was a difficult negotiation for me with his agents who wanted him to be paid more than his draft slot, which I couldn’t do with the rookie salary pool under the collective bargaining agreement.  

One thing is certain in the case of Jefferson vs. Rice and Moss: J.J. is going to make a lot more money in the NFL than either of the other two. Rice’s highest single-season NFL salary was $5.6 million with the 49ers in 1996, and his career earnings were around $42 million during his 22 seasons. As salaries rose, Moss benefited by earning $83 million during his 14 seasons. His $9 million per year deal with the Patriots was his peak on an annual basis.

Jefferson will be eligible for an extension in 2023, and the Vikings will exercise his fifth-year option for 2024. He’s scheduled to earn a base salary of $2.4 million next season, but his future price tag has risen this season to where he’ll surely surpass the extension Tyreek Hill signed in March with Miami for $30 million per year in new money. Jefferson will probably surpass that by a significant amount with the salary cap rising exponentially in the next few years as the new TV money pours in.

After outperforming his rookie contract and with excellent negotiating leverage even with the Vikings having two more years of team control, there’s no way Jefferson will play next season without a new deal. If a new contract is not done by OTAs in April, we can expect a hold-in with him showing up for offseason meetings but not hitting the field until a deal is done. The Vikings have little choice but to get their best player signed and happy for the long term. 

It also helps Jefferson’s negotiating position that he is the most popular player among Vikings fans, who clamor at training camp open practices for him to do the Griddy. He’s extremely popular and respected league-wide as demonstrated by his status as one of the leaders among all positions in Pro Bowl voting by fans, coaches and players.

The endorsements also are growing for Jefferson, who has benefited from great mentoring from his older brothers Jordan and Rickey (both former LSU players) and from his fellow LSU Tiger and current Vikings teammate Patrick Peterson. The veteran cornerback is a future Hall of Famer and an excellent role model for Jefferson along with his receiving partner Thielen. 

Stay tuned. It’s going to be exciting to watch Jefferson beat NFL defensive backs for many years to come and potentially surpass Rice and Moss as the greatest wide receiver ever.

Jeff Diamond is a former general manager of the Minnesota Vikings and team president of the Tennessee Titans. He was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. You can follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffdiamondnfl.

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