MINNEAPOLIS/ZOOM — Asked twice about his future in the final week of the regular season, Kirk Cousins gave few details but offered up a basic wish: He’d like to remain a Minnesota Viking.
That’s the right thing to say when you’re under contract for $45 million, and a head coach with whom you don’t appear to get along is on his way out of town. But is it realistic that Cousins could see a fifth year in purple considering his onerous cap hit?
The Vikings have change coming at general manager and head coach, and according to Mark Wilf, devising a plan at quarterback will be left up to the new decision-makers. More notably, there was no endorsement of the quarterback from ownership.
“[W]e're going to get a head coach and GM in place and work with them and evaluate those kinds of decisions,” Wilf said Monday after dismissing Zimmer and Spielman. “Where our roster fits, what we have, what we don't have, what we need. It's not a simple answer on all of this. I don't want to be a, to use a phrase, a Monday Morning Quarterback on the situation because we have to look forward and we're going to have to bring in the right people to answer that question.”
And a critical question it is.
Cousins’ salary has always been an albatross but never to the extent that it is now. The quarterbacks’ percentage of cap has ranged between 10.6 and 16.6 percent in his previous four years as a Viking. In 2022 he accounts for 21.4 percent of the pie, and according to OverTheCap.com, the Vikings are more than $16.2 million over the limit in effective cap space.
If things were going well with Cousins, this would be an easy juncture to extend Cousins and lower his cap as the Vikings did before 2020. But the biggest decision for the new leaders will be to answer the burning question: Are things going well enough with Cousins to further the team’s commitment?
By the numbers, Cousins technically improved on his 2020 season even though the results were hardly more satisfying. He cut his interceptions down by six and his sacks by 11 with three fourth quarter comebacks and the second-most touchdown throws in his career. (He also had his lowest QBR, yards per attempt and completion percentage in the last three years, so it wasn’t universally better.)
As usual, though, the Vikings offense didn’t produce in line with Cousins’ output. He became the first quarterback ever to throw for over 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns with fewer than 10 interceptions and miss the playoffs… twice.
In seven seasons as a starter, he has never won fewer than seven games and never more than 10. Cousins ends 2021 with a 59-59-2 all-time mark. Stunningly average for his perceived productivity.
Retaining Cousins, as empty as some of his box scores are, may seem like it ensures the competitiveness that the Wilfs are looking for, but that’s not quite the truth. Going down a different path may yield a similarly mediocre win total, but it may expedite the Vikings’ path to the future, and as Wilf said during his press conference, “We’re about looking forward.”
So let’s look ahead to the $45 million decision: extending Cousins, trading Cousins or letting him play out his deal.
Ride it out
If money weren’t such a problem, there could be appeal to allowing Cousins a prove-it year with his new coach. While no play-caller has unlocked the magic formula to get a 12-win season out of Cousins, there’s probably merit in pairing Cousins with a head coach who values the offense, looks to empower the passing game and meets with Cousins more than a hour a week. Additionally, the removal of first-time play-caller Klint Kubiak could improve the offense’s decision-making and challenge Cousins to make bolder decisions on a more regular basis.
(Side note: Watch the fourth quarter/overtime of the Raiders-Chargers game to see what fearless quarterback play looks like. Justin Herbert executed seven convert-or-go-home passing plays — with an average to-go distance of 11 yards! — and he didn’t do so by throwing short of the sticks.)
Digressing, it’s not outlandish to think that an offense with Cousins, Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, K.J. Osborn, Dalvin Cook and Irv Smith Jr. could find its way into the top 10 or even top five with a different philosophy and some decent luck.
Meanwhile, with Cousins in a contract year, the Vikings could take another stab at a rookie quarterback who could be groomed under a more supportive coaching staff and battle alongside Kellen Mond. If the offense explodes in that new circumstance, you deal with Cousins in free agency and decide whether you can stomach a bidding war for his services at almost 35 years old. If the status quo holds and the Vikings tread water, then letting Cousins walk is an easy decision and you’ve presumably got two young quarterbacks to choose from (or find another).
This part of the equation might sound dandy (and probably a bit idealistic), but as I mentioned in the first sentence of this section, the money is a major caveat. Plus, while the quarterback has said he wants to remain a Minnesota Viking, his track record of negotiation doesn’t suggest he’d be happy about entering a contract year like he was forced to do in Washington.
“It’s hard to have these conversations when I haven’t given it any thought and don’t know any of those numbers,” Cousins said Sunday. “But I know that I want to be a Viking, and that’s kind of the foundation of it all. From there, it’s pretty easy to make those conversations happen when you want to be a Minnesota Viking.”
Historically, teams have never allowed quarterbacks to take up 20 percent of their cap — it never, ever happens — and if Cousins remains at a $45 million cap hit, the Vikings have to get ultra-lean elsewhere. That not only means even less depth, but it could mean cutting ties with veterans that would be useful to have in future years when/if Cousins is gone.
The Vikings would have to examine six other contracts to either reduce or eliminate dollars:
- Michael Pierce could be cut for a savings of over $6 million.
- Dalvin Cook has too high a cap number to be worth cutting, but he could convert salary to signing bonus and save the team around $5 million, but that would increase his dead cap in future years.
- Cutting Eric Kendricks would save almost $8 million, or an extension could spread out the cap hit.
- Cutting Harrison Smith would save almost $6 million.
- Adam Thielen could be cut to save $5 million, or a salary restructure could save in the ballpark of $8 million and kick dead cap down the road.
- Danielle Hunter could be cut to save a whopping $18 million, or more likely, an extension could ease the cap hit.
None of these are obvious cuts like the Vikings had last year with Kyle Rudolph or Riley Reiff. Finding money in this manner either eliminates a useful player or pushes salary obligations down the road, and if Cousins is sticking around, you don’t really want to be cutting useful players since you’d be under greater obligation to win.
To make matters harder, the Vikings would likely need to find one starter at safety, at least two at cornerback, two at linebacker and one at defensive end — and that doesn’t account for any starters who might have been cap casualties. There are some internal options to help solve those issues like Camryn Bynum at safety or Blake Lynch as the new Nick Vigil, but fielding a competitive defense will be tough without a little money to spend in free agency.
Yep, it gets pretty complex to simply play out the string with Cousins, and there’s no world where Cousins takes less money next season without an extension, which is what we’ll consider next.
Offer an extension
One upside of letting Cousins play on an exorbitant deal is that it keeps your options open down the road. You stomach the cap hit and then hit 2023 free agency flush with cash and hopefully a young quarterback primed and ready.
The extension route deepens your commitment, improves your cap situation temporarily but limits your ability to build in future years. Conversely, it could also be the view of the new brain trust that Cousins’ high baseline of performance offers a good foundation for the team; and maybe it could be improved with tweaks from the new coach.
As we’ve pointed out before at Purple Insider, if Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak can’t squeeze more out of Cousins, there might not be anything left to squeeze, but Cousins also hasn’t had play-calling consistency at any point of his NFL career, and an offensive-minded head coach could offer that.
That’s one potential view, at least.
Tacking two more years onto Cousins’ deal would lock him down through 2024, his age 36 season, but even though Cousins is a depreciating asset, doesn’t mean he’d be inexpensive. While he may not have grounds to ask for Mahomes money north of $40 million a year, he could possibly land in the $35 million annual range. Again, that deal would be back-loaded, which means more cap pickles coming in the near future for the Vikings.
Keeping Cousins around essentially means you’re hoping for a Matt Ryan 2016 season. Ryan had one playoff win in eight seasons as a starter before the Falcons defense became excellent and helped Atlanta’s 2016 run to the Super Bowl. Cousins has one playoff win in seven seasons as a starter, but there’s no sign the Vikings are close to a defensive renaissance. Bringing Cousins back to a loaded offense may not be enough unless he has a representative defense as a supplement, and Cousins’ salary would make that hard to assemble.
Of course, there’s still a third door available…
Find a trade partner
The Indianapolis Colts might have done the Vikings a favor when they dealt a first-round pick in exchange for Carson Wentz, setting quite the precedent for a quarterback who was not effective at the end of his Eagles career.
That would be the top prize in a potential Cousins deal, and there are no shortage of QB-needy teams: maybe the Dolphins depending on how the new coach feels about Tua,
Washington Football Team (but we crossed that out for obvious reasons), the Pittsburgh Steelers, Carolina Panthers and Cleveland Browns. The Philadelphia Eagles also have three first-round picks, but they might lack the cap space to absorb Cousins. Either way, all it takes is one suitor who would consider taking Cousins’ $35 million base salary and probably offering an extension.
While Wentz was coming off a bafflingly bad season with the Eagles in 2020, Cousins is coming off another big statistical campaign. And while there wasn’t necessarily any sign of huge improvement, there wasn’t any indication of dropoff. Cousins’ trade value remains as high today as it would have been the past several years, and his seven-season average of 29 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and 4,200 yards would be a nice return for any buyer who hasn’t dealt with the intangibles that made Cousins frustrating in Minnesota.
The timing of a trade would also matter to the Vikings because a pre-free agency trade allows them to be players in free agency, while a post-FA trade would not. Beyond that, a pre-draft trade could net draft capital immediately for the new regime. A post-draft trade would mean waiting until 2023 and not knowing where the pick will land. (The Wentz trade took place in February, and Philadelphia got a third-rounder up front and a first-rounder the following season that was triggered based on Wentz’s snap count.)
The new GM may want to act fast because a Cousins trade early in the offseason sets up a busy and invigorating spring with a high draft pick or two in their back pocket. The Vikings would be financially stable, and the new decision-makers wouldn’t have to cut ties with talented players right away (besides Cousins) and alienate the fans. Minnesota could still restructure some deals and have a league-average amount of cap space entering free agency.
This is an exciting possibility, but it puts the onus on the Vikings to find the correct bridge quarterback that could be a steward of Minnesota’s talented offense. Taking advantage of Justin Jefferson while he’s cheap is paramount.
While it’s not fair to bury Kellen Mond for all time, the Vikings can’t count on him to be vastly improved enough to start in 2022, and the draft isn’t considered to be rich with immediate starters.
Cheap bridge options would include: Ryan Fitzpatrick (age 39), Jameis Winston (28, off ACL injury), Jacoby Brissett (29), Teddy Bridgewater (29) and Tyrod Taylor (32). The latter two have career winning percentages over .500. More importantly, none of them made more than $10 million last year.
Of course, the bridge quarterback could still be paired with a rookie draft pick, and if the Vikings have extra arsenal from a Cousins deal, they’ll be in position to draft a first-round passer and still add another key piece with their other pick. Minnesota will be picking 12th with their own selection, and by the looks of early mock drafts, the top quarterbacks may still be available.
In the months ahead, there will be time to parse through the candidates to determine who the best bridge quarterback or rookie draft pick might be, but it seems likelier than not that the Vikings’ new people in charge will have their eye towards the future.