Justin Jefferson was beginning his offseason workout plan in Miami as the Vikings finalized their coaching staff, putting together a group under new coach Kevin O'Connell that will lead the team through the final years of the receiver's rookie contract.
There might be no player whose opinion matters more to the Vikings than that of the record-breaking 22-year-old, who admitted Tuesday he's kept an eye on the extravagant deals for Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs and Tyreek Hill that reset the receiver market this offseason.
So what was Jefferson looking for with a new staff?
"Well first, is he an offensive or defensive coach — is he on my side more or the defensive side more? And two, is he able to connect with his players?" Jefferson said Tuesday. "Does he have that relationship with his players where you can go up and talk to him at any time and really just be that coach you can call on at any time? Definitely looking at those two things."
The two-time Pro Bowler talked excitedly about mimicking the role Cooper Kupp had in the Rams offense under O'Connell, who became the Vikings coach after winning Super Bowl LVI as the Rams offensive coordinator. He relayed the conversations he'd had with Rams receiver Odell Beckham Jr. — whom Jefferson followed at LSU — about O'Connell's approach. And he became the latest player to project hope that the Vikings' big offseason changes will turn a middling team into a contender.
"It feels great, honestly — just for him to come in and be a laid-back coach ready to change the whole program and get us back on that winning stage," Jefferson said. "We're all excited. We've seen so many new faces in here, so many new coaches. We have so much potential on this team. We're all ready to get this thing started back up."
The Vikings have been all smiles through the first two days of O'Connell's first offseason program, talking optimistically about how a new culture could lead to changes in everything from the way players connect with their coaches to increased freedom for Kirk Cousins at the line of scrimmage and Jefferson and Adam Thielen in their routes.
For all of it to work, they will have to win more games this fall under O'Connell than they did in 2020 and 2021, when they finished a game out of the playoffs each year. Early on, though, both returning players and new free agents seem hopeful about the changes.
"I'm used to kind of this coaching change," said guard Chris Reed, who will play for his fifth team this year after signing a two-year contract with the Vikings. "I've had coaching changes in Jacksonville. Miami was a new coaching staff, Carolina was a coaching staff [change], so I've seen a little bit of everything. I've seen old-school, more new-school thinking. I just kind of think it's an environment that fosters the players taking over and growing, compared to a fear-driven system. I think that is going to be key to getting this team where it needs to go, and where it wants to go."
O'Connell talked with many of the Vikings' key players on the phone during the offseason, and safety Harrison Smith said he'd talked with defensive coordinator Ed Donatell "quite a few times" in the past several months. As the Vikings started their offseason program on Monday, players said, O'Connell centered on a theme that shouldn't surprise anyone who's paid attention to him this offseason.
"It was, 'Our team, our ways, our commitment,'" cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "Everybody being on the same page at the same time at all times. There's no 'I' or 'me' in this building; this is ours. That's what it's all about, being a collective one unit."
The Vikings are still nearly five months from their first meaningful game under O'Connell, and they've yet to see their full schedule. It'd seem difficult at this point, then, to guarantee that culture changes will produce a meaningful difference on the field.
But in O'Connell's first two days in front of Vikings players, excitement about the changes has some of the team's veterans talking boldly about what this team could achieve if it reaches its full potential.
"I think 'KO' came in and addressed [the roster] right away, bringing in 'Z' [linebacker Za'Darius Smith], bringing in a couple defensive backs," running back Dalvin Cook said. "We've still got some things we need to fill in. [We're] bringing in some offensive linemen [such as Reed and Jesse Davis] so we can have depth. Just having those right pieces to go win, I think we're right there at the door. We can go win the Super Bowl with this team we've got. Like I said, it's not just about me reaching and saying it, we've just got to go put the hard work in."