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Connection with Jefferson, 6 Other Takeaways from League Meeting

The NFL's Annual League Meeting initiated rule changes that will be taught by coaches and implemented this fall.

It also provided several learning opportunities via media interviews with Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell, General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Owner/President Mark Wilf.

O'Connell and Adofo-Mensah explained the timing of the team’s trade with Houston, and O'Connell offered some insights on why he believes private workouts can be so valuable.

In addition to those topics, we've highlighted below seven other takeaways from this week.

  1. Maintaining connection with Justin Jefferson

The Vikings prepared for multiple scenarios this month heading into the start of the new league year.

When one outcome occurred, like a departure in free agency, they quickly implemented the next part of the plan.

O'Connell said this week at the NFL Annual League Meeting that he's kept star receiver Justin Jefferson informed along the way, from Kirk Cousins opting to sign with the Falcons to the Vikings signing free agent Sam Darnold and continuing to evaluate quarterbacks in this year's draft class.

While the Vikings have repeatedly said they are interested in Jefferson being a Viking for years to come, he's entering the fifth and final year of his rookie contract through an option exercised by the team.

"There's been a process with Justin and I in our relationship. From the end of the season, I've talked to him several times, just check-ins here and there and then clearly recently," O'Connell told Twin Cities media members this week. "Look, the things Kirk and Justin were able to do over these last couple of years, that's what I can speak to having been here with those guys. They've played together, they've done a lot of special things.

"That's not lost on me. That's not lost on Justin, but I think Justin is very excited about — he did step into a leadership role last year, became a first-time captain," O'Connell added. "I think he's excited about what that means for him moving forward, really being a pillar of leadership in our organization, and that's how I treat him. That's how our conversations and communication go, and I think the quarterback position, the path we're going to go, I think he's excited about spending time and getting to work with Sam in addition to our other quarterbacks and what this could look like to maybe being part of helping mentor a young quarterback."

Jefferson has recorded 1,0000-plus yards in each of his four seasons, a feat made even more impressive by the fact that he missed seven games in 2023 because of a hamstring injury.

It was a disappointing campaign for multiple players and the team, which started four quarterbacks within a season for the first time in franchise history after Cousins was lost to a torn Achilles in Week 8 at Green Bay.

In 2022, Jefferson set single-season franchise records for catches (128) and yards (1,809) in his first season in O'Connell's system, earning his third Pro Bowl and a First-Team All-Pro selection.

"Nobody has had more success through the first four years of his career than Justin Jefferson at the receiver position," O'Connell said. "That's fact. That's not just my opinion, and that can go a long way for a young quarterback, to have a guy like that in addition to Brian O'Neill and T.J. [Hockenson], and Jordan [Addison] had a great rookie year, and Aaron Jones has been wildly successful, so you just think about what we have within our offensive framework right now, I think it's a pretty special time, and I know Justin is looking at it like that as well. My hope is we get his contract done and take care of and he continues to be that pillar of leadership I look at him as within our team."

O'Connell was asked if he believes Jefferson's decision on signing a contract extension depends on what happens at quarterback.

"I do not. Needing to know and being a part of a collaborative process, which Justin is, are two different things," O'Connell said. "I've felt very strongly about keeping him — he's been informed, he's been in the loop where he's allowed to articulate things to me via our relationship, and that's really been through this whole process."

Wilf spoke with Twin Cities media members who traveled to Florida and reiterated the team's commitment to a contract extension with Jefferson.

"Justin's talent is pretty clear to anybody who follows the game or doesn't follow the game. He's a supreme talent, arguably the best receiver in the game and has grown into being a great leader of our football club and a great presence on and off the field," Wilf said. "We had productive conversations last offseason, and I know it will be the same way going forward this offseason. I'm looking forward to some positive conversations."

  1. Defensive focus in free agency refined by Flores

One win for the Vikings this offseason is returning all three coordinators from a year ago, so it will be the third consecutive season with Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips and Special Teams Coordinator Matt Daniels, as well as a second season with Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores.

When O'Connell and Adofo-Mensah arrived, they began transitioning to a 3-4 base defense, which doesn't happen overnight because of how long the roster had been built with a 4-3 in mind.

"I think every player we went out and identified, it was really about the fit With Coach Flo' and his staff and our defense, whether it's [Jonathan] Greenard or [Andrew] Van Ginkel, [Blake] Cashman, you talk about Shaq Griffin, you talk about some of the players that we were able to retain – starting with Harrison Smith and what he means to our team," O'Connell said. "I would just say, ultimately, that the package of players that all came together was designed to really be a major, major feature of what we wanted to do – younger, faster, you know, use whatever terms you want, they're Brian Flores kind of guys, and they're gonna have a major role within our defense."

Adofo-Mensah said the flurry of signings is the continued deployment of a plan that he's adapted as needed.

"I think we've gotten to a really great place where we knew this offseason would be key for us," Adofo-Mensah said. "To not just add good players but add players on our time horizon, but also with versatility that fit Coach Flores' defense, which we're excited about, and just learning a lot about, really, just trying to adapt my ideas on team building, my executive staff's ideas on team building, and then really working together with the coaches – we feel great about what we've done. And obviously it's not done yet; we've still got a lot of pieces to fill."

Adofo-Mensah was asked how much what has happened in free agency will affect the team's approach to the draft.

"I think it does to a point, but the draft should always be about acquiring great players. And I don't think what you do in free agency would necessarily change that," Adofo-Mensah said. "I think it would maybe shift certain things down a rung in the pecking order. So I think in that sense it maybe has, but our job is to evaluate the risk profile of every player, try to guess who's gonna be a great player and then try to go acquire as many of them as we can."

  1. Shaq Griffin's impact on CB group

The Vikings recently signed Griffin, a 2017 third-round draft pick who comes to Minnesota with 79 starts at cornerback and seven career interceptions.

O'Connell told media members Tuesday morning that Griffin is "a guy we've had our eye on for a while now." He added that the 28-year-old "fits the mold" of what O'Connell and Flores wanted to add to the cornerbacks room this offseason.

"He's a veteran corner that's got some length, got some physicality, can play at the line of scrimmage. He's always been a guy, going back to my time in the NFC West, you know, I just remember him being a really sticky, long corner that gave our receivers problems," O'Connell said. "We want to get to a place where we can play more man coverage; we want to obviously pair our pressures with some man coverage on the back side.

"And really, the more we can possibly add […] we can really look at some of our young guys once again to take that next step forward, another year development," he added.

O'Connell noted that adding Griffin to the mix as an outside cornerback likely provides the opportunity to move Byron Murphy, Jr., back to the slot on a more regular basis.

"Especially in those 11 personnel worlds, nickel defense worlds, [Murphy] can really shift back to that nickel spot, where he's one of the better nickels in the league, in my opinion," O'Connell said. "Anytime you make a move in the corner spot, you're really making a multifaceted move – when you've got a guy like Byron, who now can make sure he's shifting inside and being a real impact player."

  1. Optimizing Smith's 13th season

Vikings newcomers aren't the only ones psyched to play with Smith in 2024.

Smith restructured his contract earlier this month to remain in Minnesota for a 13th season, and O'Connell emphasized the impact the veteran safety makes both on and off the field.

"Harrison Smith is a guy, to me, he probably doesn't get enough credit for his leadership ability and his impact. His impact on me and his impact on Flo', and how our relationships have really grown," O'Connell said. "He's one of my favorite players I've ever been around. I think he's a perfect fit in Brian's defense from a standpoint of being a beacon of communication, the impact of getting him back around the line of scrimmage to be impactful both in the run and the pass game.

"And, you know, I think Minnesota Vikings fans, and the idea of getting to hear them absolutely go berserk for No. 22 running out of the tunnel again, [is incredible]," O'Connell continued. "However long Harrison wants to play, look, I want him playing on the football team that I'm coaching."

O'Connell did acknowledge there will need to be strategy in place to keep Smith physically as healthy as possible throughout the stretch of an NFL season.

"I think the depth of our safety position, with Cam [Bynum] and Josh [Metellus] kind of leading that room with Harrison, and then the young players we have in that room, we [can't] play Harrison as much as we did," O'Connell explained.

"I do think we're gonna have to be really smart. I think we found a nice sweet spot of how we get Harrison prepared without taxing him so much that Sundays become too much as they stack one upon the other," he said.

  1. O'Connell's work with young QBs

Wilf spoke with media members about a variety of topics and was asked about his impression of O'Connell's ability to work with young passers.

First and foremost, Coach O'Connell is an outstanding leader of men in the building and of the organization as a whole," Wilf said. "I think what he's brought in terms of culture, both him and Kwesi to our organization since Day 1, has been truer than ever, and we've been super pleased as ownership with the kind of culture that leadership has brought to the building.

"The fact that he's also a highly [regarded], a top talent as far as evaluating the position, working an offense and knows how to get it done. I think that's going to come in handy as we move toward our goals, which are Super Bowl championships," Wilf added. "So I think for us as Ownership, we've given them this direction generally, 'It's about sustained success.' I think that's what we're driving for, and that's part of the evaluation and the decisions, and this has been a good offseason thus far."

  1. Evaluating "field vision" in QBs

During his roundtable discussion with media members, O'Connell was asked if it's most difficult to assess a quarterback's field vision.

O'Connell first emphasized the multiple aspects he's looking for in the position, and then explained the way he does work to identify players who have the strongest vision on game day.

"When you really study it, what translates to third-and-7 in the NFL? What translates to, you know, the type of passing offense that we want to be from a standpoint of what we want to build to?" he said. "Make no mistake about it – there's going to have to be a transition period. I would like to think we will continue to be a top five or six passing offense; just getting out of bed in the morning. But that's just not the reality of the NFL and how competitive it is. So what I'm really looking forward to is building and evolving and building an offensive system for production, for moving the football, possessing the football, coming off of where we were last year from a turnover standpoint. And how that evaluation process of these guys fits in the mold.

"It's just trying to see those flashes. It's trying to see feet, eyes, footwork, rhythm, balance, base in their fundamentals, and then, 'Oh, take a look at that guy seeing coverage and saying yes and no to throws, anticipating windows.' You've gotta dive in on that," O'Connell continued. "And when you see it, you've gotta be ready to try to find more of it. I like to ask the players about those plays: 'Hey, take me through your thought process.' Really allow them to start building rapport with me of what it's going to be like when they come to Minnesota. I think that's the best way to coach the position. And where you can get guys to maximize their skill sets."

  1. Interest in hosting an NFL Draft?

During his session with Twin Cities reporters, Wilf was asked about Minneapolis possibly being considered as a host location for the NFL Scouting Combine, which has been held in Indianapolis since 1987.

Wilf pointed toward the possibility of hosting an NFL Draft, which was held in New York every year from 1965-2014 but has since moved to Chicago (2015-16), Philadelphia (2017), Dallas (2018), Nashville (2019), Cleveland (2021), Las Vegas (2022), Kansas City (2023) and is scheduled for Detroit next month and in Green Bay in 2025.

"We've been actively having conversations with the league, combine potentially, draft certainly. It's been going around the NFC North, and why not Minnesota? We've proven we can do big events in an incredibly special way," Wilf said. "Our facilities and more importantly the community steps out in a way that's special. I think we've put a lot of effort into the draft, and we'd love to have a draft here in the not-too-distant future. They're well-aware of that interest, and there's a process. We're working with the community to try to see if we can get toward that window."