Why Vikings' Justin Jefferson has yet to get his big payday

Orlovsky: Vikings can't afford Justin Jefferson and Kirk Cousins (1:44)

Dan Orlovsky joins "The Pat McAfee Show" and weighs in on Justin Jefferson's and the Vikings' prospects in NFL free agency. (1:44)

Minnesota Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson has willingly answered questions for months about his ongoing contract negotiations. His genial replies have avoided alarming headlines, but a clear theme has emerged: From Jefferson's perspective, there is no precedent to the deal he will eventually sign -- with the Vikings or another team -- because there is no precedent to what he's produced during his first four NFL seasons.

Understanding that mindset helps inform why -- more than a year after Jefferson became eligible for an extension -- there has been no new contract. The Vikings are not playing hardball, and Jefferson has no reluctance about playing in Minnesota, multiple sources said during the 2023 season. Jefferson has publicly endorsed the return of free agent quarterback Kirk Cousins, but the unsettled nature of the position has not been a central focus of the talks, either.

So what has kept the sides apart at a time when some of the other stars of the 2020 draft -- including quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert -- have already signed extensions? We don't need to source that answer. Jefferson has all but told us himself.

As ESPN noted last March, a typical negotiation with a superstar of Jefferson's caliber would start with a baseline of making him the NFL's highest-paid player at his position. But Jefferson implied in September that he wasn't necessarily viewing the process that way. When asked if he would seek advice from players who have been in similar situations, he said: "I've done something that no one has ever done in the history of the game, so my situation is a little bit different than everyone else's."

By some metrics, he has produced a better start to his career than any receiver in NFL history, one that has put him on a genuine Pro Football Hall of Fame pace. His average of 6.5 catches per game is the second highest of any receiver in his first four seasons, and his average of 98.3 yards per game is the highest in NFL history -- for any career span. Among receivers who have played more than one season, Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson ranks a distant second with a career average of 86.1 yards per game.

During a promotional tour of radio row at Super Bowl LVIII earlier this month, Jefferson faced a more direct question about his stance. In essence, NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah asked him if he was looking at quarterback salaries rather than those of wide receivers to guide him.

"I'm definitely aware of what I've been doing for the organization, what I've done ever since I've stepped foot on this NFL field," Jefferson said. "So I'm definitely going to do what's right by getting the amount that I feel like I'm valued. I definitely will keep in mind the different stats and where I am as a player and as a receiver. So I'm definitely going to let the agent and all of that do all of the different negotiations and the different numbers.

"But I definitely would like and hope to be one of the highest-paid players and especially receivers."

As much as receiver value has skyrocketed in recent years, it remains well below that of quarterbacks. Based on average annual value, the NFL's highest-paid receiver is the Miami Dolphins' Tyreek Hill at $30 million. In 2023, 16 quarterbacks had contracts that averaged more -- topped by Burrow at $55 million.

If there was a deal to be made that merely topped Hill's, it stands to reason that would have happened already. Instead, Jefferson's responses to questions over the past few months suggest he is seeking something beyond the standard incremental market raise. When talks broke off last summer, the Vikings didn't have much financial incentive to accept it. Jefferson was under contract for two more seasons, after which the Vikings would have the franchise tag as a backstop.

Speaking generally last fall about the failure to reach an agreement, Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah noted that negotiations are "just two people trying to come together and see if their needs can be met and, at the time, it didn't feel that there was." But, Adofo-Mensah added: "There's a reason they don't normally get done two years early."

Regardless, would Jefferson be justified in such a stance due to his historic production? Those numbers led to the 2022 NFL Offensive Player of the Year award and coming in No. 2 in ESPN's 2023 player rankings. The only better player in the league, ESPN's voters concluded, was Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. And despite a right hamstring injury costing him seven games last season (and an early exit from two other games), Jefferson still finished with more yards (1,074) than any player in NFL history who had appeared in 10 or fewer games over the course of a season.

Along the way, Jefferson has emerged as the face of the Vikings' franchise. His post-touchdown "Griddy" celebration has lifted him to a unique position in the country's sports culture. When SiriusXM's Adam Schein asked him at the Super Bowl if he wanted to "break the bank," Jefferson laughed.

"I want to break the bank, and I want to be a part of an organization that wants me and to really give me what I deserve," he said. "So I feel like eventually the Vikings will do what they need to do to have me in the building. But I don't really know at this very moment, you know? Only time will tell."

None of this should be worrying. The Vikings have traded away two of the best receivers in franchise history -- Randy Moss (2005) and Stefon Diggs (2020) -- but there are no indications that they are even remotely considering it with Jefferson. And it's not surprising that a player of Jefferson's caliber has established expectations in the most ambitious terms imaginable, especially at a time when an agreement would likely cover the prime of his career.

While Burrow and Herbert have new deals, they are in the minority of the 2020 draft class. Seventeen of the 32 players selected in the first round of that draft remain on their rookie contracts, including Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and Dallas Cowboys receiver CeeDee Lamb. Nine others have either been waived or traded, leaving a total of six with new deals.

The odds remain in favor of an eventual agreement, but there really shouldn't be much mystery or speculation about why there has been no deal to this point. It's all out there in front of us.