MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The pass-catching prowess Justin Jefferson has displayed to date, not yet halfway through his third NFL season, has put him on a track to become one of the all-time greats.
Regardless of where the lanky Louisiana native with the enviable blend of route-running precision, reliable hands and pure open-field speed lands on the league's career lists at retirement, Jefferson has given the Minnesota Vikings the kind of game-breaking threat and defense-altering presence that the nature of the NFL demands these days for teams to win.
Those that don't have a player like Jefferson, or a player close to his caliber, are just going to have a hard time keeping up.
“Any time you see guys coming into the league with those mannerisms, that maturity level, that focus, good things tend to happen to those guys," Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson said. “I just can’t wait to continue to see his growth.”
Peterson has long had a front-row seat for this rise. He became a close friend of the Jefferson family at LSU, when Jordan Jefferson was the quarterback whose kid brother came to campus to hang out — and declare around age 10 his goal of being one of the best wide receivers to ever play the game.
With 94.1 receiving yards per game, according to Sportradar, Jefferson has the highest average of all-time. He has already established several league records for production spanning a player's first three years, with 11 more games to build on his totals.
The Vikings (5-1) missed the playoffs in each of Jefferson's first two seasons, but their offense under new coach Kevin O'Connell has not only taken more of a pass-first direction.
“K.O. and the rest of this coaching staff is doing a great job of getting me open and moving me around a little bit so we can avoid those double teams and triple teams,” Jefferson said. “So it’s really kudos to them.”
Minnesota’s primary rival has more evidence of how vital an elite pass-catcher is to consistent success. After trading two-time All-Pro Davante Adams to Las Vegas during the offseason, Green Bay is just 3-4 and ranked 23rd in the league in points per game.
Arizona, which visits the Vikings on Sunday, can offer yet more proof. DeAndre Hopkins returned last week from a six-game suspension and immediately gave Kyler Murray and the Cardinals (3-4) a jolt in their highest-scoring game in four years under coach Kliff Kingsbury.
Hopkins had 10 catches for 103 yards and drew three penalties on New Orleans defensive backs. Since Hopkins arrived in 2021, Arizona is 9-2 when he plays and 5-9 without him. His 10,684 career yards receiving are the second-most behind Julio Jones among active players.
“Whether that affects calls or awareness of where he is, it’s going to add some things to what you’re thinking and what you’re doing,” Vikings safety Harrison Smith said. “It’s a team game, but he adds a threat of always being able to go up and make a play.”
BIG SHOTS WANTED
The Vikings are 10th in the NFL in yards passing per game, but only 20th in yards per passing play — one sign of the respect Jefferson draws from opposing defenses.
Deep safeties are a regular part of the strategy, so the Vikings have relied more on play-calling creativity, route-running precision and yards after the catch than long passes. The Vikings have the third-fewest (15) completions of 20-plus yards in the league, according to Sportradar.
“We’re mixing it up, spreading the ball around a lot more,” Jefferson said.
KLIFF AND KYLER
The relationship between Kingsbury and Murray has always been unique, with the quarterback granted ample leeway to speak his mind to the coaches in the meeting room or on the sidelines. That was on display last Thursday, when TV cameras caught Kingsbury and Murray in a brief argument after a timeout. Whatever was said appeared to help, because the Cardinals rallied for a 42-34 win over the Saints.
Both the coach and quarterback downplayed the interaction this week, chalking it up to competitiveness. The 42-year-old Kingsbury has often joked about the differences between him and the 25-year-old Murray.
“That’s why I don’t have kids yet,” Kingsbury said, grinning. “I avoid the dramatic interactions as much as I can. But those situations — we’re trying to win, trying to play better on offense, intensity is ratcheted up, it’s game time, that’s the relationship. We both want to be really good on offense.”
DON'T FORGET HIM
Adam Thielen needs one touchdown to tie Anthony Carter (52) and five catches to tie Steve Jordan (498) for third place in both categories on the all-time receiving lists for the Vikings. Thielen has 23 receptions for 234 yards and three touchdowns in four career games against the Cardinals.
Second-year Cardinals cornerback Marco Wilson was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week after producing his first career interception — and first career touchdown — by snatching a pass that bounced off a Saints receiver and running 28 yards to the end zone. That gave the Cardinals the lead (20-14) for good.
Wilson, a fourth-round pick in the 2021 draft, has steadily become a key piece of the defense.
“Just like bad plays, you’ve got to put good plays behind you,” Wilson said. “I’m going to focus on this week, try to make some more plays like that so I can get more awards.”
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