Minnesota Vikings offseason preview: What will the Vikings do with Kirk Cousins?

Will the Vikings extend Cousins or put an eye to the future?
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Kirk Cousins

Throughout their history, the Minnesota Vikings have struggled to find a long-term answer at quarterback. The situation is so bad, that no quarterback has started all 16 games for the Vikings in consecutive seasons and even then, you have to go all the way back to 1972 and 1973 when Fran Tarkenton started all 14 regular season games for Minnesota.

Kirk Cousins came close to duplicating that feat in 2019, but also came up short when the Vikings needed him the most, producing a dud against the Green Bay Packers in Week 16 and throwing for just 172 yards in a playoff loss to the 49ers.

Despite his shortcomings, Cousins did help the Vikings take down the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome and is coming off the most consistent season of his career, but was it enough to earn a long-term extension, and if it wasn't, who could the Vikings turn to in order to find their version of Patrick Mahomes?

2019 in review

This past season was a big one for Cousins as he looked to erase the disappointment of the 2018 season. While Cousins' stats (4,298 yards, 30 TD, 10 INT) didn't look terrible, he crumbled in the face of pressure and enjoyed a healthy dose of garbage time to inflate his numbers to franchise quarterback status.

Cousins' numbers did take a hit in 2019, but that was due to the offense committing to the run and Dalvin Cook. The Vikings got off to a slow start in general offensively, but after a frustrating Week 4 loss at Chicago, Cousins turned it on by throwing for 274.6 yards per game with 22 TD and 3 INT over his next two games.

Although he laid an egg against the Packers in Week 16, he made a pair of clutch throws against the Saints and helped the Vikings score their first road playoff victory since 2005 and finished with 3,603 yards, 26 TD and 6 INT in 15 games.

"I think Kirk played a lot better this year than he did the year before. I think obviously that the scheme helped him quite a bit. It may have been his best year that he’s played in the NFL," said head coach Mike Zimmer Monday morning. 

The salary cap situation

After the most efficient season of his career, the question now is whether Cousins deserves an extension this offseason. Although Zimmer may not be aware, Cousins' three-year, $84 million contract expires at the end of the 2020 season and carries a $31 million cap hit.

That number is a problem for the Vikings as they currently project to be $9.6 million over the salary cap, according to Over The Cap. With the Vikings needing to fill holes elsewhere, locking in Cousins for another couple years would allow Minnesota to at least dip their toes into the free-agent market and find money to keep some of their existing pieces.

The need to create salary cap space makes it possible that Cousins will sign an extension this offseason but it depends on what the offensive staff, which will have a new coordinator in the wake of Kevin Stefanski's departure to Cleveland, has in mind for the 31-year-old.

Potential free agents

With backup Sean Mannion's contract expiring, the Vikings could look to free agency to fill that hole. The problem is that the Vikings don't seem intent on finding someone that would push Cousins to take his job. Hence, a clipboard manager such as Mannion might be their top target around the $895,000 he signed for last spring.

If they want to go a different route, there aren't many that would sign for that cheap, but free agents include A.J. McCarron, Chad Henne, Matt Moore and Josh McCown. Either that or the Vikings turn to the draft to add depth at the position. 

The Vikings did announce Sunday night that undrafted free agent Jake Browning has signed a reserve/future deal.

Potential draft targets

If the Vikings opt to draft a quarterback, they wouldn't be looking for someone to start Day 1. Instead, the team will look for a developmental prospect who could possible take the reigns from Cousins in 2021 or later. 

A couple of names to keep an eye on are Washington's Jacob Eason and Georgia's Jake Fromm. Both quarterbacks dueled for the starting job in Georgia back in 2017, but both could be intriguing targets for the Vikings if they slide out of the first round. Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts is also intriguing because of his mobility, but with the success of Lamar Jackson in Baltimore, he could rise up draft boards as the process unfolds.

If the Vikings decide to wait a little longer, Washington State's Anthony Gordon, Iowa's Nate Stanley, and Colorado's Steven Montez could wind up on their radar.

Of course, there will be new names rising up draft boards once the scouting combine measurements are realized. 

Outlook

The Vikings are entrenched at the starting quarterback position for better or worse and despite Zimmer's bad poker face on Saturday evening, it won't be shocking if the Vikings try to ink Cousins to an extension to create cap room. An ideal scenario would be to sign Cousins to a 1- to- 2-year deal and let 2020 play out.

This would allow the Vikings to be flexible in their approach in case they fall in love with one of the quarterbacks in a strong draft class. The Kansas City Chiefs found themselves in this scenario a couple of years ago and wound up trading up to get Patrick Mahomes despite having Alex Smith on the roster. They'd cash in a year later by trading Smith to the Washington Redskins and finding their franchise quarterback.

That type of forward thinking should allow the Vikings to not leave themselves without a security net at the position, but also protect themselves in case Cousins regresses in 2020.

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