Could Justin Jefferson Reunite with Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase?
Updated: Jul 18, 2022
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Just imagine it: Joe Burrow takes the snap, he drops back and looks to his left - Ja’Marr Chase, his top target, is covered. He scans the rest of the field, slipping and sliding past oncoming defenders, deftly avoiding their outstretched arms. Joe rolls to his right and uncorks a bullet to the sure-hands of his newest favorite target - his former LSU teammate and current Minnesota Vikings superstar Justin Jefferson. Sound too good to be true? Probably, yeah.
On the Bill Simmons Podcast in early July, NFL sportscaster Peter Shrager reported that Burrow was training in Newport Beach, California with Chase and the aforementioned Jefferson. Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last five years, you’re probably aware that Burrow, Chase and Jefferson teamed up to form the most devastating offense ever seen in college football. Together, they spearheaded an undefeated run for the Tigers, culminating with Chase winning the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best receiver - as a sophomore - Burrow winning the Heisman Trophy as college football’s best player, and LSU earning its fourth national title in school history. Oh yeah, and Jefferson only led the entire country in receptions with 111.
After that remarkable season the LSU trio would be broken up. Burrow, who’s college eligibility was over, was selected with the first overall pick by the Bengals. Despite some gaudy statistics (did I mention he had more catches than anybody in 2019?), Jefferson would be the fifth wide receiver selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, falling all the way to the Vikings with the 22nd pick. All he’s done since then is put up some insane numbers - 196 receptions, 3,016 receiving yards and 17 receiving touchdowns in his first two NFL seasons with two Pro Bowl selections and two Second Team All Pro nominations to show for it.
Jefferson has been as good as advertised. So has Burrow. And Chase, well, if you need me to remind you how spectacular Chase was last year then I regret to inform you that you are on the wrong website.
Now, Jefferson is entering his third year in the league. Given the reports that he’s working out with Burrow and Chase, that begs the question: could we ever see Jefferson in a Bengals’ uniform alongside his former LSU teammates Burrow and Chase?
The short answer: probably not. The long answer is much more complicated.
Let’s start with Jefferson’s contract situation. As a rookie selected in the first round, he is locked into a collectively bargained rookie contract. The money amount isn’t important here, what’s important are the years - and the sneaky team option lingering in the background.
As I mentioned before, Jefferson has been nothing short of spectacular since entering the NFL in 2020. I mean, he’s been named an All Pro twice in his first two NFL seasons for crying-out-loud. Given his early success, and the potential for even greater returns in the future, the Vikings would be mad to let him get away.
With that in mind, it’s almost a sure thing that the Vikings keep Jefferson beyond the end of his rookie deal. There are two ways they can keep him in house: 1) handing him a long-term extension, or 2) exercising their fifth-year team option.
Either way, there’s approximately a 0.01% chance Jefferson hits the open market in the next two years. Even in the most apocalyptic scenario (say, a torn Achilles or ACL) the Vikings would almost assuredly exercise the fifth-year option on Jefferson just so they could use the extra time to evaluate his health and future potential. One way or another, Jefferson will be in Minnesota until at least 2025.
But let’s say Jefferson doesn’t get hurt, continues to perform at a high level, and maintains his status as one of the best young WRs in the NFL - how could he end up in Cincinnati? Could a trade be in the cards? And what would it take to pry Jefferson away from Minnesota?
Although the Bengals have a reputation for being an exceptionally conservative franchise, they’ve actually been active on the trade market in the past. Just last year, the Bengals acquired starting defensive tackle B.J. Hill from the New York Giants in a trade that involved former Bengals’ center Billy Price. In 2010, the Bengals traded for safety Reggie Nelson. Of course, there’s also the blockbuster Carson Palmer-trade, which saw the Bengals unload the disgruntled quarterback to the Oakland Raiders in return for a 2012 first-round pick and a 2013 second.
So, what would a trade package for Jefferson look like? It would likely look something like the package offered by the Miami Dolphins to the Kansas City Chiefs for WR Tyreek Hill. In return for the six-time Pro Bowler, the Chiefs received a 2022 first-round pick, a 2022 second, two fourth-round picks and a 2023 sixth-round pick. Jefferson would cost at least that, and probably more considering his age (23 vs. 28) and lack of off-field concerns. However, the Bengals do have an ace, and possibly two, up their sleeve.
The biggest chip the Bengals could realistically offer, in return for Jefferson, is fellow 2020 draftee Tee Higgins. While Higgins has been a valuable and beloved member of the Bengals, he has not, at least up to this point, been the dominant force that Jefferson has been. That said, Higgins is still a fine player in his own right and would be an excellent consolation prize for the Vikings to go along with a first-round pick. Tee Higgins and a 2023 first-round pick in exchange for Jefferson - who says no first, the Bengals or Vikings?
The big speed bump preventing a deal like this being considered, let alone in the works, is the lack of any real necessity or urgency. The Bengals are doing just fine in the WR-department. Chase and Higgins are still on their rookie deals, and Tyler Boyd is on an affordable contract and is still performing at a high level as the slot receiver. The Vikings just hired a new head coach, Kevin O’Connell, who will be tasked with implementing the system he ran for three years as the offensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams. They’ll want to see how all the pieces fit together before breaking them apart.
However, there is a scenario where Jefferson could become available a lot sooner than anyone could have imagined - if his relationship with QB Kirk Cousins sours to a point of no return. Just so everyone is aware: I AM NOT ROOTING FOR THIS TO HAPPEN! I hate when athletes don’t honor their contracts or let personal conflicts affect their on-field performance. This is professional sports, after all. Do your job, you’re being handsomely compensated for it.
At the same time, though, we’ve seen situations like this play out before. Just look at the NBA, for example. Every year, one player or another is unhappy with his situation, demands to be traded, and voila - they're gone. Of course, it doesn’t really happen like that in the NFL. There are too many players, the sport is too scheme and coaching dependent, and the precedent hasn’t really been established.
The Palmer trade is an example of how a disgruntled, big-named player can position himself so an amicable trade can be made. Palmer, who’d quarterbacked the Bengals through seven seasons, was fed up with the team’s lack of success and a perceived notion that ownership was too stubborn and cheap to do anything about it. It took some time and some posturing by both sides, but eventually, a deal was reached.
If Jefferson were to demand a trade, he’d have no shortage of suitors. The one advantage the Bengals would have, if something like this were to happen, is that they would likely be high on Jefferson’s wish list.
Jefferson has never been shy about heaping praise on his former LSU QB. In an interview with Colin Cowherd on The Herd, the candid receiver admitted that Burrow has a little something his current QB doesn’t: “The thing about Joe that’s a little bit different, I feel like Joe has a little bit more swagger,” Jefferson said. “He has that confidence on the field, he’s not scared to get hit. I feel like as a quarterback, that’s a big trait to have.”
My eyes just bulged a bit. That’s not nothing. Clearly, Jefferson has a lot of respect for Burrow. At this point, who doesn’t? But the fact that he made such an observation has me salivating at the idea that he will try to join his boys in Cincinnati someday.
So, a trade is a possibility, however unlikely. The reality is that the Bengals don’t really have an incentive to make the trade at this point and Jefferson has no need for a career-shakeup, either. In Minnesota, Jefferson is the undisputed #1 WR, despite the presence of Adam Theilen, an excellent receiver in his own right. If Jefferson were to end up in Cincinnati, he’d fall behind Chase in the pecking order.
Is there a chance? Sure. There’s also a chance that my apartment gets struck by a meteor and kills me before I get to publish this article - fat chance for both, I say (as I knock on wood). Jefferson will probably stay in Minnesota for much of his career, if not all of his prime. If he ends up in Cincinnati with Burrow and Chase at some point, it will probably be nearer to the end of his career than the beginning. Still, it’s hard not to imagine the incredible potential of the three “Bayou Bengals” reunited in Cincinnati. Maybe someday, Bengals fans, maybe someday.