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Zulgad’s Roundup: Justin Jefferson excited to play an even bigger role in offense this season

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings
Nov 21, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) celebrates a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Jefferson set the record for the most receiving yards (3,016) in a player’s first two seasons in the NFL and his 196 catches tied Michael Thomas’ mark of catches in the first two years. So it sounds ridiculous to say that Jefferson will enter 2022 with an opportunity to improve his statistics, but that is a feeling many share with offensive-minded coach Kevin O’Connell now in charge of the Vikings.

O’Connell, who replaced Mike Zimmer as Vikings’ coach after last season, had served as offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams and was part of a Sean McVay-led coaching staff that utilized standout wide receiver Cooper Kupp in multiple ways. Last season, Kupp fell only 18 yards shy of breaking Calvin Johnson’s single-season record of 1,964 receiving yards.

Jefferson will play the Kupp role in Minnesota and the Vikings’ first pick in the 2020 draft is excited for an opportunity that should put him in a spot, or spots, to where he is never considered to be taken away by defenses.

“Just seeing what Cooper Kupp did last year, that gives me so much hope, gives me so much excitement to see what I can do in the same position that he was,” Jefferson told The Ringer’s NFL podcast. “Him being so close to reaching the record, him getting that triple crown, all those things that he accomplished are up in the air for me right now, so we just gotta buy into the system, learn the plays and we all have confidence that KO is going to distribute the ball to different people throughout the offense.”

Jefferson’s receiving yards since joining the Vikings lead the NFL and he needs 1,148 yards this season to establish the NFL mark for the most in a player’s first three seasons. Randy Moss had 4,163 yards from 1998 to 2000 after being drafted by the Vikings’ in the first round in ’98. Jefferson’s 1,616 receiving yards last season fell 17 short of passing Moss’ single-season record of 1,632 yards set in 2003.

Jefferson said that while he expects to be used like Kupp was with the Rams — a big part of moving him around will be to force defenses to show their plan pre-snap — he expects to have even more versatility.

“Pretty much where Cooper Kupp was at, that’s pretty much where I’m at,” Jefferson said. “But my ability to move in different positions is gonna be more. I’m able to go outside. You don’t really see Cooper Kupp lining up outside as many times as I would. Or me lining up in the backfield or lining up at different positions to get the ball.”

If Jefferson puts up the type of statistics many expect under O’Connell, the numbers he will get on a potential contract extension after the season also will be enormous. Tyreek Hill, traded by Kansas City to Miami this offseason, will have the top average annual salary among wide receivers for 2022 at $30 million. Former Packer Davante Adams, who was traded to the Raiders, is second on the list at $28 million.

Jefferson, 23, is under contract through 2024, including a fifth-year option, but he will be eligible to sign an extension after his third season. Jefferson’s base salary for 2022 will be $1.8 million and his salary-cap hit will be $3.6 million.

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