EAGAN, Minn. — Just before practice, Justin Jefferson sprinted toward the end zone bleachers, waving his left arm as a sea of Purple & Gold-clad Vikings fans roared in excitement during Saturday's Back Together Weekend at Twin Cities Orthopedic Performance Center.
Football is back. And so is the bona fide star of Minnesota.
Jefferson's contagious charisma radiated through the Vikings first training camp practice open to fans. No. 18 jerseys were everywhere. Fans roared his name, and a few youngsters were able to offer high-fives as he took the practice field.
The fourth-year receiver put on a show during the session, catching two long touchdowns from Kirk Cousins. One was capped by his signature Griddy dance, and the other with a bow, thanking Vikings fans for filling the bleachers.
Entering his fourth season, Jefferson remains on a historic and record-setting pace. His 4,825 receiving yards are the most in NFL history by a player in his first three seasons. In 50 games, he's scored 25 touchdowns and caught 324 passes. Last season, he led the league in receiving yards (1,809) and receptions (128) and notched a third straight All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection.
View frame-by-frame photos of Vikings WR Justin Jefferson's catch from QB Kirk Cousins during 2023 Vikings Training Camp practice.
Jefferson also won the Offensive Player of the Year Award from The Associated Press. In just three years, he's blossomed into a superstar at a premium position and become a face of the NFL.
Eventually, he'll be rewarded with a new contract. But it's not the money on his mind. Instead, he's hyper-focused on routinely beating double coverage and helping the Vikings win.
"That's not the worries that I have right now," Jefferson said during a media session earlier in the week. "I'm all about winning a Super Bowl, just getting the wins and being on our team. The contract is gonna play itself [out], and I'm just out here to play football."
Jefferson once again enters training camp with the spotlight on him. He'll be the fixation of every defensive coordinator, opposing No. 1 cornerbacks and hard-hitting safeties. He'll have to operate without former teammate Adam Thielen for the first time in his career.
The team drafted rookie receiver Jordan Addison in the first round. Jefferson is embracing his new role of mentor and leader to Addison and the rest of the receiver room.
"Just like when I came in, Adam (Thielen) was that person for me who took me under his wing and showed me the ropes and taught me how to be a professional," Jefferson said. "That's the role that I'm playing with him. Anything that he needs, I'm there for him. We're here to teach him a lot of things to be a better player."
Head Coach Kevin O'Connell has high hopes for Addison and anticipates Jefferson will thrive as a leader.
"He's learning from the best player at the position he plays in football, watching him work every day to what J.J. does on Sundays and throughout the season speaks for itself," O'Connell said. "But what a lot of people don't get to see is the way the guy works, the way he is in meetings, the way he collaborates with myself or Kirk or Wes [Phillips] or Keenan [McCardell] on what we're doing offensively and just the overall feel of J.J. as a pro… I think that will be great for Jordan."
Addison, receiver K.J. Osborn, tight end T.J. Hockenson and running back Alexander Mattison all highlight what should be an explosive Vikings offense that is entering its second year in O'Connell's system. Despite all the weapons at Cousins' disposal, Jefferson and the Vikings know the bulk of defensive focus will be on containing No. 18.
Defenses throw everything at Jefferson to slow him down. It starts with physical jamming at the line of scrimmage by opposing cornerbacks. Then, there's hand-grabbing downfield to disrupt his routes. While Jefferson battles the cornerback, there is often a safety over the top who is ready to bounce when he breaks open.
Jefferson is likely to keep garnering double coverage, but he's ready for it.
"As always. That's nothing new. But I love the target on my back. That means more pressure on me, that means more people looking at me, and it opens more people. The target's always been on my back, ever since the second year, so it's nothing new. I've just got to keep facing those difficulties and find new ways to get open."
Jefferson shared a moment with Vikings Ring of Honor member and Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter on Friday.
Carter tweeted that Jefferson "has worked on a couple of different things to make his game even better this year" and that it's "scary for the league." On Saturday, Jefferson again proved why he's one of the league's best.
"There are certain types of players you want around — players who love football, are great at football, make their teammates better, have that winning spirit," Vikings General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said. "I'll never forget when I first met him; he just talked about winning."