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Zulgad: Justin Jefferson takes first step in proving he’s the NFL’s best wide receiver

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Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) tries to catch a pass in the end zone ahead of Green Bay Packers safety Adrian Amos (31) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022, in Minneapolis. The pass was incomplete. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

Justin Jefferson set the NFL record for most receiving yards in a player’s first two seasons with 3,016, and his 1,400 yards as a rookie put him second in league history among first-year wide receivers in the Super Bowl era. This type of success made it sound foolish to suggest that Jefferson had been underutilized by the Vikings, and yet that’s how it felt watching him on a weekly basis.

Jefferson was a key piece of the offense in 2020 and ’21, but he ran routes, made catches and carried himself like a guy who should have been the most important piece of the Vikings’ attack. Evidently, Kevin O’Connell felt the same way.

O’Connell had promised a significant role for Jefferson when he was named Mike Zimmer’s replacement in February and he wasted no time in making it clear that wasn’t lip service. The Vikings coach and chief play-caller dialed up Kirk Cousins to Jefferson plays time-and-time again in Minnesota’s 23-7 victory over Green Bay on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.

The result: Jefferson finished with nine catches on 11 targets for a career-high 184 yards, including a long of 64 yards, and two touchdowns. That was six more catches than any other Vikings receiver. Adam Thielen caught three passes for 36 yards, Dalvin Cook three for 18, Johnny Mundt three for 17 and K.J. Osborn three for 14.

Jefferson’s 158 yards in the first half set a Vikings record for receiving yards in an opening half. He has surpassed 100 receiving yards in a single half eight times since being the 22nd-pick in the 2020 draft, the most in the league.

Anyone who watched Jefferson in training camp knew a special season was likely and his performance on Sunday did nothing to quiet those expectations. Jefferson has made it known he wants to be considered the best wide receiver in the NFL and there’s nothing about the way he plays that makes that expectation sound silly.

Watching Jefferson destroy the Packers’ secondary, it’s clear he can’t be stopped in single coverage. The fact the Packers tried to do so on such a frequent basis was surprising. The important thing on Sunday, and something that didn’t happen nearly enough under Zimmer and offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak last season, was that O’Connell delivered on his promise to use Jefferson in pre-snap motion in order to figure out what the Packers’ planned to do and also make it far more difficult to track Jefferson.

Jefferson took 41 snaps on the outside, 12 in the slot, two in the backfield and one as a tight end, according to ESPN. Ninety-one of his receiving yards came from the slot and the other 93 from the outside. ESPN had Jefferson going in pre-snap motion on seven snaps and being targeted on four of those plays, including his first touchdown.

“That gets me to see what their defense is in,” Jefferson said. “If they’re in a zone look, if a man is coming to follow me, that’s kind of why I like the motioning. (That helps me) just to run my routes. If I’m getting a man look, if I’m getting a zone look. I definitely like the motioning, just seeing the whole field, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to be doing a lot more.”

Last season, the feeling of Vikings fans who enjoy breaking down film, and the team itself, was that in-game adjustments made it wise to abandon Jefferson. But O’Connell knows better. Stopping the 6-1, 195-pound Jefferson might be the goal, but it’s foolish for his own team to assist the opponent by going away from him just because of an adjustment. Professional sports isn’t about the initial adjustment, it’s about adjusting to what gets changed on you during a game.

No offense to Thielen, Osborn, or any other Vikings player who catches the ball for a living, but none of them are close to Jefferson when it comes to skill level. O’Connell, who spent last season as the offensive coordinator for the Rams and got a chance to work with standout wide receiver Cooper Kupp, has a player who might be more special in Jefferson.

The Cousins-Jefferson connection didn’t take long to start clicking. The Vikings faced third-and-5 from their own 39 on the game’s opening drive when Jefferson caught a pass over the middle that turned into a 30-yard gain to the Packers 41-yard line. Two plays later, Cousins’ short pass to Jefferson went for a 22-yard gain to the Green Bay 14. The drive ended with Jefferson catching a 5-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-1.

Jefferson added a 36-yard scoring catch late in the opening half to give the Vikings a 17-0 lead, but the most impressive connection between Cousins and Jefferson came with 5 minutes, 54 second left in the second quarter. The Vikings’ defense had stopped Packers running back AJ Dillon at the Minnesota 1-yard line on fourth down. The Vikings, holding a 7-0 lead, gained some valuable yardage as Cook rushed for 22 yards on three consecutive carries.

The Vikings had a first down at their own 23 as Cousins dropped back to pass and came under pressure. Instead of panicking, Cousins saw Jefferson open down field and ran up in the pocket before launching a pass that went for a 64-yard gain to the Green Bay 13. The offense did not get into the end zone — Greg Joseph kicked a 28-yard field goal — but Jefferson’s catch was a huge play as the Vikings began to pull away and got above .500 for the first time in 987 days.

Of course, this was only one game and there are 16 left. The Eagles, who beat the Lions 38-35 on Sunday, are likely to provide the Vikings a tougher test a week from Monday night in Philadelphia. The Eagles will put an emphasis on making sure Jefferson doesn’t repeat his Week 1 performance, but the Vikings aren’t going to dismiss Jefferson as a primary option just because the Eagles will focus on him.

Jefferson is a superstar — the Vikings’ best wide receiver since Randy Moss 1.0 — and O’Connell knows that. “I credit Justin for being able to handle a lot,” O’Connell said. “We move him around a lot, we ask him to play multiple spots, he’s not just an X receiver that lines up over here and dictates coverage. We’re not going to allow that to happen.”

And that means Jefferson’s production on Sunday should be only the beginning for a guy who appears set on proving he’s the best player at his position in the NFL.