EAGAN, Minn. — The iciest thing about Minnesota on the first day of August might have been the chain hanging from Justin Jefferson’s neck. As the third-year wide receiver strutted onto the grass at TCO Performance Center on Monday, joining his Vikings teammates for a walk-through at training camp, shades masked his eyes, twisted hair dangled beside his diamond-studded ears, and a gleaming necklace decorated his No. 18, a jersey shared by dozens of decals and hundreds of fans across the club’s billion-dollar campus.
Of course he was playing it cool. He’d earned it.
“Oh man,” says running back Alexander Mattison. “I mean, he had confidence before. But it’s even higher now.”
The Vikings do not always register on the national radar. Maybe because they’re Midwestern, not coastal. Maybe because the Packers, their chief rivals, have enjoyed back-to-back Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Maybe because they’re one of 12 teams without a Super Bowl win. Maybe all of the above.
Jefferson, all of 23 years old, is taking care of that.
Since the Vikings drafted him 22nd overall in 2020 out of LSU, “Jets” has blazed the hottest trail of any wideout in team history. After debuting with 1,400 yards — a total that Packers-turned-Raiders star Davante Adams has reached just once — Jefferson hit 1,616 in 2021, besting the career mark of his outspoken Vikings predecessor, Stefon Diggs. In an increasingly pass-happy league, he’s racked up both volume and big plays. Alongside Dalvin Cook, he makes up one of the most explosive skill groups in the entire league.
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He’s also the NFL equivalent of a pop star. In the Internet Age, Instagram clips are just as liable to invite a kid’s fandom as “Monday Night Football.” It should be no surprise that Jefferson, practically a kid himself, lists his signature celebration, the Griddy dance, among his career achievements. When you score a lot, you celebrate a lot, and Jefferson’s viral moves made him the first NFL player to be incorporated as a character in “Fortnite.” Fantasy players nationwide crave his weekly production.
“Aw yeah,” he answers. “I mean, just off of the two years that I had, just setting records and being on the top of (lists) with Randy Moss and other guys that broke records in the league, and then of course the Griddy has been coming out and being a big part of … trend-setting. It’s been a crazy two years.”
Catch Cody Benjamin’s full interview with Justin Jefferson from Vikings camp right here:
Jefferson is aware of his influence. And if, somehow, his teammates are not, they learn quickly.
At one point Monday, during afternoon padded practice, he galloped toward his fellow catchers with a proclamation: “I’m in his head already! I’m in his head already!” He was referring to rookie cornerback Andrew Booth Jr., who’d just mistimed coverage on a deep ball, having had to defend Jefferson’s speed a few plays earlier. There is fast, and then there’s explosive. Leaner now (195 pounds) than when he entered the draft (202), Jefferson is both, always breaking off the line with suddenness. He swears he’ll outrace anyone, anywhere. And that’s regardless of whether he’s indulged in his favorite snack (Twix) or pre-game meal (pasta) before running.
“It don’t matter if I think they’re faster than me or not,” he says. “I always have confidence in myself. That’s just me. I’m a competitor. If we’re playing cards, or we’re racing, or we’re playing football, I’m always competitive.”
“I get to play with two of the best in the game,” Osborn says. “Adam, looking at defenses, he’s going on Year 10, he knows so much. And JJ and his athleticism … I’d say me and JJ (win the race). JJ gon’ say himself. That dude do got some long strides.”
Jefferson calls his route-running his best asset — “just being able to create space” — and checks all the typical boxes when citing his steps for success: studying film, knowing opponents’ tendencies and preferences. But it’s hard not to keep coming back to the confidence. When it comes time to line up, eye to eye, with a cornerback on Sundays, swagger is what he channels.
“I always gotta have that mindset,” Jefferson smiles, “that nobody can guard me.”
Ego is darn near a requirement of elite NFL receivers, but this particular trait, at this particular position, always feels especially notable in Minnesota. Maybe, again, it’s the Midwest reputation, the “Minnesota Nice” passivity that surrounds a team never quite good enough to win it all but never quite bad enough to be blown up. Jefferson’s quarterback, Kirk Cousins, is arguably an embodiment of the steady, albeit unspectacular, Vikings flow. And so it’s both amusing and fitting when Jefferson is asked to describe his QB in one word and, after a pregnant pause and chuckle, offers this: “Different.”
This wide receiver isn’t afraid to be himself, to embrace said ego. He chirps like the self-imposed face of the team from the sidelines. He dances his way to the end zone. He wears the glitzy jewelry to practice. But for now, at least, Jefferson also stands out for the way he exudes such belief in himself: casually, and without pretense. When he walks in this direction, to be interviewed after two hours of sprinting under the 85-degree rays all of Minnesota wishes it could bottle up for winter, he does so with an easy smile on his face. He is carrying zero weight, freed of any pressure to clear the bar he’s set so high.
“My family … taught me to be humble, to accept what I get but don’t take it for granted,” Jefferson says. “I try to have as much fun as possible. I try not to take this game too seriously, you know? I like to just come out here, relax, do what I gotta do, have fun. At the end of the day, I’d rather be doing this than doing some other job that I wouldn’t like doing.”
So on one hand we have Jefferson as one of the most productive young receivers the NFL has ever seen, justified in any grand gestures of self-importance in a sport that pays his position exceedingly well. (After a lucrative offseason for receivers, he knows he could be the game’s highest-paid a year from now: “I mean, I hope so. Right now, I’m mostly focused on the season, just trying to get back to that winning record, being in the playoffs, getting to that big goal, reaching the Super Bowl and winning it. But of course I would like to be one of the highest paid, for sure.”) On the other hand, we have Jefferson downplaying his own stage, basically resting on the blessings of God-given gifts. The one whose default attitude is jubilance, who delights in teaching a reporter how to do the Griddy, and hyping him up even as he fails to dance as smoothly as the millionaire athlete.
Whatever Jefferson’s exact formula, it’s working. Because any peer who will talk about him admires him. (Surely Cousins is included, because nothing melds different personalities like 1,400 yards and 10 touchdown connections.) Those physical gifts are unteachable. And deep down, Jefferson knows — really, truly knows — he can be the best if he keeps growing.
“He went back to the shed (this year), grabbed a couple more tools, and he’s ready to go,” says Mattison, who foresees even more action for Jefferson under new coach Kevin O’Connell. “I think with all that natural stuff that he has, along with the work that he puts in, the sky is the limit for him. From an outside perspective, it’s like, ‘Man, you’ve accomplished so much.’ But for him, he doesn’t think that. And so that’s what’s scary. He doesn’t believe that he’s accomplished enough. He wants more. And that hunger and that love for the game is gonna fuel a Hall of Fame career.”
Jefferson has no qualms admitting his sights are set on a Canton bust, even two years out of college.
“Everybody wants to have that dream of being up there at the end of that Super Bowl game, the confetti coming down, putting the ring on your finger,” he says, “but at the end of my career, being a Hall of Famer, that’s what I strive for. I wanna be the best at my position, and I wanna be recognized for that.”
He just might end up lifting all of Minnesota in the process. And maybe, if the stars align and the ball keeps coming his way, outfitting some of his fellow Vikings with some ludicrously expensive jewelry of their own.