Justin Jefferson says he should win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year ahead of Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. When asked to name the league's best receiver, his smile comes alive as he leans forward and proclaims, "Me! Me! I got to go with me!"
There's an electric swagger ingrained in this physically gifted 21-year-old Vikings receiver. But teammates and coaches swear the supreme confidence stops well short of arrogance and is coupled with a level of maturity that should alleviate fears that this rising superstar will grow unhappy and incompatible with a run-first offense built around Dalvin Cook.
Jefferson concurs. And, for the record, he and Cook both made the Pro Bowl while toiling together in Gary Kubiak's offense.
"I'm definitely an unselfish player," Jefferson said. "Football is not just all about throwing the ball. You got to run the ball, too. Defense has to be good. A lot of things have to work for our team to be successful.
"I'm not about to be a drama queen just because I'm not getting the amount of targets that I want."
At this point in the conversation, the elephant in the room is Jefferson's predecessor, Stefon Diggs. The co-author of the "Minneapolis Miracle" grew quite unhappy and incompatible with what essentially was the same system under Kevin Stefanski last year.
Diggs was fined $200,000 for skipping out on practice and meetings last fall. By spring, he had forced his way out of Minnesota and into the blissfulness of a Bills offense that has fed him a league-high 147 targets. His franchise-record 111 catches have helped the 11-3 Bills win their first AFC East title since 1995.
In a recent ESPN interview, Diggs said he lost trust in what the Vikings were telling him about his role and admitted, "Where they were headed in my eyes, it wasn't going to be in the best interest of my career. As a receiver, if you want to have success, you gotta catch the ball."
Jefferson, acquired with the first-round draft pick the Vikings got in the Diggs trade, has never met or talked to Diggs. But he calls himself a fan of Diggs' work ethic, his route running and his ability to create separation.
Asked if there will always be an underlying competition between the two of them, Jefferson doesn't shy away.
"I feel it will always be that type of conversation with us just because I'm replacing him and he went to a team where he wanted the ball a lot," Jefferson said. "So he's getting exactly what he wanted. He's doing things for his team and I'm doing things for mine. We are each our own player. We don't try to act like one another."
In the Big Easy
With two games left, Jefferson will be back home in New Orleans for a Christmas Day game against the Saints at the Superdome. A native of nearby St. Rose, he grew up the youngest of three sons of John and Elaine Jefferson.
Older brothers Jordan, 30, and Rickey, 25, played quarterback and safety, respectively, at LSU. Justin followed suit, somehow growing from a 5-7, 125-pound high school freshman to a 6-1, 202-pounder who won a national title with the Tigers at the Superdome 11 months ago.
"I got a picture of all of us in Saints shirts watching a game in 2009, the Super Bowl year, probably from when they beat the Vikings [in the NFC Championship Game]," said Rickey, who went undrafted and never played a regular season game but did spend the 2017 preseason with the Raiders and the 2018 season on the Saints' injured reserve.
"This is kind of a full-circle moment from growing up watching the Saints. But I can't ride with the home team on Christmas. I'm Skol Nation this time. We're really proud of Justin but he's not even scratching the surface of what he's capable of. He doesn't have a ceiling, and he's hungry as ever."
Numbers add up
Jefferson comes home as one of only three 21-year-old rookie receivers to make the Pro Bowl in NFL history. The others are Amari Cooper in 2015 and the SuperFreak himself, Randy Moss, who did it in 1998.
Jefferson has 73 catches on 103 targets for 1,182 yards (16.2) and seven touchdowns. The catches and yards lead all NFL rookies and have broken Moss' franchise rookie records. So have the six 100-yard receiving games, which are tied for fourth most by a rookie in NFL history.
Diggs, who has elevated Bills quarterback Josh Allen's game, has only 132 more yards, two fewer touchdown catches and is averaging 4.4 fewer yards per catch than Jefferson.
So, yeah, Jefferson disputes the notion that he would have to follow Diggs' lead and leave Minnesota if he wants to be successful as a receiver.
"Coach Kubiak definitely gives us a lot of opportunities," Jefferson said. "I feel like Stefon Diggs just wanted the ball a lot more than he was getting. I mean he's first in receptions, first in targets. But I'm still doing the same type of stuff and I'm getting  fewer targets than him. So the opportunities are there. He just wanted the ball a lot more."
Loud and clear
Jefferson made these comments two days before last week's loss to the Bears. As Vikings fans know, there was a moment in that game that went viral and was used by some on social media to suggest there's trouble brewing with Jefferson and quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Jefferson finished with game highs for targets (11), catches (eight) and yards (104). But it was his reaction to an incompletion on second-and-goal from the 6 that gained the most attention after a loss that ended any realistic chance the Vikings had of making consecutive playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Cousins purposely threw the ball too high to avoid a defender. A leaping Jefferson got one hand on the ball, came down and screamed an expletive before saying, "Kirk! C'mon, throw the ball!"
Call it another weird side effect of COVID-19. Without a global pandemic, U.S. Bank Stadium would have been at earsplitting full capacity instead of empty and eerily silent enough for everyone to hear Jefferson's outburst.
After the game, Jefferson shot back on social media, saying the situation was being blown out of proportion and that he's, "no diva." Later, he told reporters, "Everyone knows Kirk's my guy."
"Kirk and Justin, they're on the same page," receivers coach Andrew Janocko said. "I would just say the emotional aspect of our workplace is different than other places. We play a game that's physical, that's emotional. And sometimes you see stuff like that. They're competitors. It doesn't mean that they don't like each other."
To illustrate his take on Jefferson's personality, Janocko points to what he calls his favorite play from Jefferson's season.
"It was Dalvin's touchdown on the screen at Green Bay," Janocko said. "Justin takes off running to try to get a block and he's throwing his hands in the air because he's so fired up for his teammate to score a touchdown. And then jumps on Dalvin.
"I know that's a little cliché but that really showed the type of person, the type of kid, the type of teammate he is."
Jefferson shrugs, saying there are many times when he too would keep feeding Cook the ball.
"If a playmaker is hot, give him the ball," Jefferson said. "Why not give Dalvin the ball if he's running pretty much 8 yards a carry? He's doing his thing so why not let him keep doing it?"
Receiver Adam Thielen called Jefferson "one of the most selfless people that I've been around as a receiver."
Safety Harrison Smith, "As a person, he seems pretty even-keeled and pretty calm — ahead of his years and mature."
And Cook sums up his thoughts by saying he loves being around Jefferson and that, "Everything about that kid is special. He's got special written on him.
"He's a first rounder and you're seeing him grind like he's a seventh-rounder," Cook added. "You see the difference of not being [complacent]."
Waiting his turn
Jefferson didn't become a starter until Week 3, when his breakout game produced seven catches for 175 yards, including a 71-yard touchdown that saw him introduce his "Griddy" dance to Purple Nation.
"I knew my opportunity was going to come," Jefferson said. "I was just waiting my turn. I needed more time. We didn't have any preseason for me to show them my ability to start Week 1."
An NFL receiver exercising patience? How does that happen?
"My whole career, I've been undersized and I didn't fit the right tangibles to be a top tier receiver," said Jefferson, who even on draft day watched four receivers taken before being picked 22nd overall.
"I've had to be patient. I had to put more work toward weightlifting. I had to get faster, stronger. All these things happened over time. They didn't just happen in one little year. This whole career, I've just been trying to stay my course and just be patient. I know things are going to come to me."
His family shared that feeling.
"Justin would be like 2 years old and in the layup line at my youth basketball games and shooting on a 10-foot rim and making it, like, consistently," Rickey said. "But he's always kind of been like a little man-baby, a little man-child.
"We were really tough on him. A lot of little brotherly fights, a whole lot of competing and just challenging each other and making each other tougher. Where he gotten to is a direct reflection of how we grew up. He's told us he's living this dream for all of us."
The Vikings have had six Associated Press offensive rookies of the year: Paul Flatley (1963) Chuck Foreman (1973), Sammy White (1976), Moss (1998), Adrian Peterson (2007) and Percy Harvin (2009). Jefferson said he deserves to be No. 7.
"Yeah because of the thing I've been doing and the swagger I've been bringing to the team," Jefferson said. "I feel like a receiver — a rookie receiver at that — hasn't had this type of performance in a [long time]. It's about time to switch up the awarding and give it to somebody other than a quarterback."
Actually, a quarterback has won only three of the last eight years. So maybe Jefferson has a shot to join Flatley, White, Harvin and even one of his childhood idols — Moss — as Vikings receivers to win the award.
"It means a lot just to be in the same sentence as Randy," Jefferson said. "It's been a dream for me this whole year to see the things I've been doing and seeing the amount of energy I've been bringing.
"You know," he added, "It has really been a blessing to be in this situation."