Vikings WR Justin Jefferson quickly becoming a star in rookie season

Justin Jefferson #18 of the Minnesota Vikings scores a touchdown during the fourth quarter as Stantley Thomas-Oliver III #23 of the Carolina Panthers is unable to make the tackle at U.S. Bank Stadium on November 29, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. ((Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images))

Mike Zimmer is hoping it’s something he never has to consider, but the Minnesota Vikings have a plan if their quarterback room has a COVID-19 outbreak.

That happened to the Denver Broncos, who had to use a practice squad wide receiver as their emergency quarterback on Sunday after all four quarterbacks were put on the reserve/COVID-19 list. The result wasn’t pretty, a 31-3 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

So what do the Vikings do if Kirk Cousins, Sean Mannion, Jake Browning and Nate Stanley all get affected by COVID-19? Zimmer said Monday Adam Thielen is the emergency quarterback. Zimmer didn’t have that option Sunday, with Thielen currently quarantined and watching Sunday’s thrilling win at his home. Their emergency back-up? Tight end Kyle Rudolph.

“Hopefully we don’t lose four quarterbacks. We’ll just keep being really careful with our protocols and being smart with the masks and all those things. What happened to them was close contact, and we’ve been really diligent about that,” Zimmer said.

With the way Cousins has played since their bye week, the last thing Zimmer needs is for him to have a run-in with COVID-19. Cousins threw for 307 yards and three touchdowns Sunday, didn’t throw an interception but did lose a fumble that resulted in one of two Carolina defensive scores.

Cousins has led the Vikings to a 4-1 mark out of the bye, and his numbers don’t lie. Since Week 8, he leads the NFL in passer rating (124.3), is third with 12 passing touchdowns, third in completion percentage (72.4), fifth in net yards per attempt (8.6) and second in touchdown to interception ratio (12-1).

One of the biggest benefiters, especially with Thielen out Sunday, is rookie Justin Jefferson. He had seven catches on 13 targets for 70 yards and two touchdowns. Jefferson, the No. 22 overall pick, is already drawing comparisons to Randy Moss. His 913 receiving yards through 11 games leads rookies and is seventh in the NFL, and only Odell Beckham Jr. and Anquan Boldin had more in their first 11 career games since the NFL merger.

“It’s definitely hard to believe, it’s hard to really grasp what’s going on to say I’m having this type of rookie year and making history and making records and stuff, it’s been crazy. It’s been amazing,” Jefferson said Monday.

Jefferson was one of four receivers with seven catches in Sunday’s win. Zimmer chalks up Jefferson’s early success to consistent hard work.

“Sometimes they let it go to their head and they don’t work quite as hard. I saw him drop a ball in practice the other day and he never does that. I said to him ‘I don’t see you dropping balls.’ He said ‘You won’t see it again.’ He’s a pretty confident kid, but he works real hard. Everybody knows he’s good, it’s can he be great? That’s the big question,” Zimmer said.

After the Panthers scored defensive touchdowns on consecutive plays and the Vikings found themselves down 24-13 in the fourth quarter, Zimmer’s season motto came directly into play: Fight like crazy.

Jefferson’s second score of the day, and Bisi Johnson’s two-point conversion got Minnesota within 24-21. They trailed 27-21 with 1:51 to go when Cousins drove them 75 yards, going 6-of-7, and hit Chad Beebe for the game-winning touchdown. The drive probably should’ve never happened, after Beebe muffed a punt and gave the Panthers the ball inside the Minnesota 10.

Beebe got a second chance, and made the most of it.

“I’m sure he felt bad after muffing the punt, but those things happen. It’s not what you do, it’s what you make of it afterwards. You can’t take that one back, you’ve got to go on and continue to fight,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer spoke to reporters on Zoom Monday from his Inver Grove Heights home. NFL officials closed team facilities until Wednesday with COVID-19 cases on the rise across the country.

He was cautiously optimistic Thielen will be back this week after missing Sunday’s game due to COVID-19 protocols and watching the win from his home. Zimmer is also cautiously optimistic Dalvin Cook avoided serious injury on Sunday. Cook fumbled on the Panthers’ second defensive touchdown, and left the field unable to put weight on his right leg.

He eventually returned and finished the game with 18 carries for 61 yards, and four catches for 21 yards.

“I don’t know yet. I got a report this morning, he said he feels good but we’ll just see where he’s at,” Zimmer said.

The Vikings have the inevitable “trap game” this weekend. They’re 5-6, one game out of a spot in the NFC Playoffs and host the 1-10 Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday. They talk like they’ve learned their lesson after a 31-28 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, who came to Minneapolis 2-7 two weeks ago.

“There’s not any homecoming games. Even teams with no wins or few wins, it’s still a bunch of pro athletes with a bunch of pride,” safety Harrison Smith said. “They’re going to show up and they’re going to play hard, and they’re going to be coached well. Everybody up here is good, so you can’t start taking weeks for granted.”