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Justin Jefferson’s injury could make Vikings sellers at NFL trade deadline

A bad Minnesota Vikings early season just got a whole lot worse.

The Vikings are expected to place All-Pro wide receiver Justin Jefferson on injured reserve (IR), according to multiple reports, because of a right hamstring injury suffered in a Week 5 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Jefferson will miss at least the next four games while on IR. The earliest the 24-year-old could be activated is ahead of a Week 10 game against the New Orleans Saints.

“We’re going to have to medically make a good decision and help almost protect him from himself a little bit in a way where we’ve got to take care of him and get him back to 100 percent,” Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell said Monday.

Jefferson’s absence marks the latest and most significant blow to Minnesota’s disastrous start to the 2023 NFL season. The Vikings are 1-4, tied for the second-worst record in the league, with their only win coming against the winless Carolina Panthers. And losing Jefferson, the reigning Offensive Player of the Year and likely the team’s best player, could have Minnesota reevaluating the future of the franchise.

Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings looks on against the Kansas City Chiefs in the first half at U.S. Bank Stadium on October 8, 2023, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Chiefs defeated the Vikings 27-20.
David Berding/Getty Images

The Vikings, who have starting quarterback Kirk Cousins on an expiring deal, already started reshaping their roster in the offseason. And it has several veteran pieces that could be attractive to other teams at the trade deadline.

Jefferson missing time might be the final push the Vikings need to accept a harsh truth: It might be time to start over.

Could Vikings Trade Cousins?

Three of Minnesota’s next four games are on the road, with its only home contest in that span coming against the undefeated San Francisco 49ers. A turnaround during that stretch just got a whole lot more unlikely with Jefferson out of the lineup.

O’Connell acknowledged during a press conference Monday that the Vikings basically run their entire offense through Jefferson. The 6-foot-1 receiver led the NFL in receptions (128) and receiving yards (1,809) last season and was on top of the league in the latter category again entering Week 5. Jefferson has never missed an NFL game, making 53 consecutive starts. And he played 92 percent of snaps in that timeframe, per ESPN.

“It always affects you when you don’t have [No.] 18,” Vikings tight end T.J. Hockenson said Sunday. “I mean, his presence on the field takes double teams, takes all that stuff, and then he makes plays when his number’s called. Always tough to not have him.”

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Minnesota won the NFC North last season but significantly altered its roster before the latest campaign. Gone are veterans Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, Za’Darius Smith, Eric Kendricks and other established veterans. The Vikings were also noncommittal during the offseason on Cousins’ future.

Cousins, 35, is in his sixth season as Minnesota’s starter. But it may be his last. The four-time Pro Bowler is a free agent after this season. Vikings owner Mark Wilf was asked in August if he wanted Cousins back with the team in 2024.

Wilf’s answer wasn’t a resounding “yes.”

“We’ll leave that to [general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah] and coach [O’Connell] to work through those discussions,” Wilf said, via NBC Sports. “There’s always conversations on that. But our real focus is 100 percent on 2023 and getting where we need to be, and where I know we can be.”

Jefferson’s injury could be the spark that moves Minnesota’s focus to 2024. The NFL trade deadline is October 31. Cousins has a no-trade clause, meaning he’d have to approve a deal. But if the Vikings season appears to be lost, perhaps Cousins would be open to the idea of starting over for a QB-needy team (even if that meant learning a new playbook in the middle of the season).

USC Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Caleb Williams is widely seen as the top prospect in next year’s draft. Jefferson being out of the lineup could prompt the Vikings to move on from Cousins and other veterans with the intent of being in the hunt for the No. 1 overall pick.

And if the Vikings move Cousins, a fire sale may be in order. Wide receiver K.J. Osborn and linebacker Danielle Hunter are other notable Vikings playing on contracts that will expire after this season.

Jefferson Could Be Smart to Stay Out

ESPN’s Adam Schefter was quick to point out what he referred to as an “unspoken issue” that could potentially lengthen Jefferson’s absence: If the Vikings keep losing while Jefferson is out, will the star receiver have an incentive to rush back to the field? He certainly has a financial reason to stay away.

The Vikings and Jefferson negotiated for months during the offseason in an effort to agree on a long-term contract extension. But talks ended without a deal. Jefferson is making a $2.4 million base salary this season and would earn $19.7 million next season under the terms of his fifth-year option if he still does not have a long-term contract. Given Jefferson’s uncertain financial future and the current state of the Vikings, keeping a helmet off until being 100 percent healthy would be in the wide receiver’s best interest.