Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. Also a published author, Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
It was nearly one year ago that the Minnesota Vikings signed Kirk Cousins to a two-year, $66 million contract extension.
One of the major benefits of the deal at the time was that it would lower Cousins’s cap hit to $21 million in 2020, allowing the team to spend on at least one big-name free agent.
That free agent turned out to be Michael Pierce, who opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID concerns.
That was just the first of the hurdles that came after Cousins’s new deal. The Vikings lost Danielle Hunter to a season-ending injury suffered on the first day of training camp and underestimated how difficult it would be to replace veterans like Linval Joseph, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Everson Griffen.
And then Cousins opened the season with a poor stretch that saw the team go 1-5 and the veteran QB lead the league in interceptions by the bye week.
Now there are murmurs that the Vikings could consider trading Cousins, in part because it seems to be a buyer’s market when it comes to QBs (see: Wentz, Indianapolis) but also because Cousins’s cap hits over the next two years of $31 million and $45 million create significant challenges in adding to a roster with many needs.
It’s hard not to imagine what things would look like in Vikings land had the team allowed Cousins to play out the final year of his deal and become a free agent. We’d be talking about all the trade possibilities and the wonderment of the five potential first-round quarterbacks.
We would be investigating DeShaun Watson scenarios, thinking about Sam Darnold, fiddling with the possibilities of bridge quarterbacks like Ryan Fitzpatrick or Jacoby Brissett. Oh what a time it would be.
Of course there’s more to the benefits of QB flexibility than just offseason entertainment. The last time a Super Bowl did not have at least one QB on a rookie contract was 2016 when Matt Ryan faced Tom Brady. Having seen the Vikings finally get bit by the cap last year, it’s easy to understand why the rookie-contract quarterback feels like a golden ticket.
The Eagles, Rams and Chiefs were able to sign players all over the field to enhance their rosters around young QBs. Heck, two of those teams overpaid receiver Sammy Watkins.
This year would have been the year to have a bunch of cap space, too. The free agent market is expected to be flooded with cap casualties and players that only a handful of teams can afford.
An extra $31 million would be like going shopping and being escorted to the back where only the “premier” shoppers are allowed. Oh yes, we do have a top-notch pass rusher, we keep Carl Lawson in our VIP room. Just show us your cap numbers first. OK approved!
Instead the Vikings are looking in the bin where they sell all the movies from the 80s and 90s. Hey, there can be some good movies in there. Top Gun! Dumb and Dumber! Let’s call those a decent WR3 and situational pass rusher. That’s about all the Vikings will be able to afford, even with plenty of effort with cuts and restructures. Per OverTheCap.com they are expected to be around $9 million over the cap before any surgery to the roster happens in the coming weeks.
All of that makes the chances of the Vikings immediately filling holes feel pretty bleak. As we saw last year, relying on rookies and unproven development players can hit or miss and the Vikings need help on the offensive line, defensive line, cornerback and safety.
When you say that a team doesn’t have enough talent to compete for a Super Bowl and not enough cap space or draft capital to greatly improve, the first word that comes to mind is “purgatory.”
So let’s try looking at it another way.
The other option to create cap space is giving Cousins another contract extension either this offseason or next. That might not seem like a favorable option but stability at quarterback might actually have its benefits unlike previous seasons with superstar QBs around the NFC.
Going forward, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers probably aren’t long for the conference. There might be a second window that opens up with Cousins.
It wasn’t so long ago that the Vikings went to the NFC Championship game while spending a great amount of cap space on the QB position. In 2017, Sam Bradford had an $18 million cap hit, Case Keenum cost $1.9 million and Teddy Bridgewater $2.1 million.
The Vikings were able to work around their cap hits by nailing draft picks like Eric Kendricks, Danielle Hunter and Stefon Diggs. With numerous key players on rookie deals, it balanced out the money spent on QB. Minnesota’s front office could aim for the same type of build only with stability at the quarterback position.
The 2015 draft class will be nearly impossible to repeat but Justin Jefferson, Irv Smith Jr., Cam Dantzler, Jeff Gladney, Ezra Cleveland and whoever they draft this year in the first round will be cost controlled for several years.
That scenario banks on the draft – which is generally pretty random. It banks on getting a little extra cash to make some savvy free agent moves like they did with Linval Joseph and Terence Newman once upon a time. That’s not always sustainable either. But it might just be the only shot they have if the Vikings aren’t willing to risk going bust on a draft pick QB or a QB-for-QB trade.
The extension route is less dramatic. It’s less enticing. It might be making the best of the situation that the Vikings put themselves in with last year’s extension.