Vikings begin transition of bringing Jefferson back; he'll wait to play until he's fully healed

EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — Justin Jefferson has resumed practicing with the Minnesota Vikings this week, a significant step toward his return to the field from a hamstring strain that caused the first absence of his stellar career.

In some ways for the Vikings, it's as if he never left.

The 2022 AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year has been a constant and energetic presence on the sideline during games and in the building for meetings and walk-throughs throughout the week. The Vikings, coincidentally, have won all four games without him.

“I’m just happy to be a part of this organization with so many people helping me out on and off the field,” Jefferson said. "I’m just happy that I can continue to be that leader on the team, where you can’t say that I’m just sitting at home and worrying about trying to get back. I want to be there supporting my teammates and be in there hands-on.”

It's not unusual for players on injured reserve with longer-term rehabs to largely disappear from the weekly rhythms of team activities. For a record-setting superstar in his fourth year such as Jefferson, with whom the Vikings have yet to agree on a contract extension, taking his time to come back to protect his worth would have been an understandable approach.

Part of what makes Jefferson such an uncommon player is a relentless drive for excellence and dominance, though. He said Thursday he never considered shutting himself down for the remainder of the season even though the Vikings were 1-4 when he was hurt.

“That’s a no brainer. I’m always going to want to play football, whether we didn’t win a game or if we had won every single game,” Jefferson said in his first interview with reporters since Oct. 5, three days prior to the injury. “I love the game of football. I always say I want to be a Hall of Famer. I can’t be missing games for the fun of it and just because we’re not doing well. I know I have a big role in this season, and I know that every chance that I get to be on that field I want to make the most of those opportunities.”

Putting Jefferson on the field Sunday when the Vikings play New Orleans would "probably be a little aggressive,” coach Kevin O'Connell acknowledged. They could keep him out three more games and bring him back after the Week 13 bye. Or his return could land somewhere in between.

Regardless of the date, Jefferson said he won't play until he's fully healed.

“A hamstring is a difficult injury because it lingers and it comes back from time to time if you don’t put the right treatment into it,” Jefferson said. “I don’t want to go out there 80 or 90% and have the chance of hurting it again.”

The Vikings play on slit film turf at U.S. Bank Stadium, a type of artificial surface the NFL Players Association has pushed to retire because it has produced injuries at a higher rate than the other synthetics used around the league. Several teams have swapped theirs out recently. The Vikings are scheduled to do so prior to next season.

Jefferson said he had “a little tightness” in his hamstring before that game against Kansas City, when he slipped while going out for a pass in the fourth quarter. One of the NFL's best route-runners, Jefferson also said his footwork before the “freak accident" could have been better.

“It could’ve had a slight issue, but I’m not going to blame it on the turf,” he said, adding: “Every team is not going to have the perfect surface. That just goes back to me saying I need to be 100% whenever I step out on that field. I don’t want to have any doubts in my mind that it’s going to come back or continue to linger throughout the season.”