Over the next couple weeks, Sam Ekstrom will dig into some of the biggest Vikings offseason talkers at each position.
The Vikings quarterback situation in 2019 looked a lot like it did in 2018. Kirk Cousins was the established starter with a helpful veteran backup and raw developmental passer behind him on the depth chart. If the Vikings enter 2020 with a similar hierarchy, it likely indicates they’ve furthered their investment in Cousins, who is entering the final season of his three-year, $84 million contract. If the Vikings bring in any sort of representative competition at the quarterback spot, however, it could signal that a changing of the guard is around the corner.
WHAT LEVEL OF COMMITMENT WILL THE VIKINGS MAKE IN KIRK COUSINS?
Door No. 1: A short-term extension of about two years.
When the Vikings signed Cousins to a three-year deal, they accepted that a decision-making point would arrive after just two seasons. Now that the time frame has past, it sure feels like a small sample size. Though the stats were fine in 2018, most would agree Cousins underwhelmed, as did the team around him. And while 2019 was better on many different levels, was it good enough to necessitate re-upping a contract that will likely demand at least $30 million per year? A short extension keeps the Vikings relatively in control of their future, and if the Vikings are determined to continue throwing their hat in the ring each season while they undergo a moderate defensive rebuild, Cousins has a high enough floor to do that.
Door No. 2: A long-term extension of four or five years.
This seems unlikely for a number of reasons. For one, the Vikings didn’t sign Cousins to more than a three-year deal back in 2018 when he was the most highly sought after free-agent quarterback. Now that Cousins, 31, is two years older and likely still prefers a fully-guaranteed contract, any commitment longer than Cousins’ original three-year term would seem risky despite Cousins’ durability. In addition, many of the recent long-term extensions in the NFL haven’t paid off with Matt Ryan (four years, $150M), Jared Goff (four years, $134M), Derek Carr (five years, $125M) and Carson Wentz (four years, $128M) showing regression and Matthew Stafford (five years, $135M) getting injured.
Door No. 3: No further commitment.
There has to be some yearning from the Vikings front office when they see dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks like Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes competing in the playoffs while not occupying a large chunk of their team’s cap. Cousins has the arm strength, accuracy, deep passing and play-action boxes all checked, but he lacks the mobility to improvise like the league’s young crop of passers. If the Vikings believe it’s time to find their next quarterback — one with better ability to make plays off schedule — it makes more sense to find him this draft and use 2020 as a bridge year while Cousins plays out his contract. And if Cousins wows, there’s no shame in changing plans on the fly.
WHAT WILL THE BACKUP SITUATION LOOK LIKE?
Did the Vikings take Door No. 3 in the scenarios above? Then you’ve presumably got a rookie backup on the roster.
When Rick Spielman has wanted a quarterback for eventual starting purposes, he’s been aggressive to get them, selecting Christian Ponder and Teddy Bridgewater in the first round. But if there’s still belief that Cousins can be the guy, the team could also hedge its bets with a mid-round quarterback like the Cowboys did with Dak Prescott in the twilight of Tony Romo’s career, thereby keeping Cousins as the clear No. 1 but providing a fallback option.
If Cousins gets extended, then the Vikings will likely go back on the hunt for a cheap, veteran backup as they’ve done over the years with Shaun Hill, Case Keenum, Trevor Siemian and Sean Mannion. Siemian and Mannion are free agents, as are Matt Moore and Chase Daniel, who both beat the Vikings during the regular season.
Mannion was popular in the Vikings locker room and held his own in a Week 17 spot start. A reunion could be in order unless Mannion recognizes a better situation in free agency that provides a chance for him to start games.
WHAT IS JAKE BROWNING’S FUTURE?
Of all the projects the Vikings have retained at quarterback over the years, Browning is far from the most exciting, but the Vikings prefer his football IQ to, say, the freewheeling Kyle Sloter. In reality, though, opportunities rarely arise for these practice squad passers since teams are more likely to sign veterans off the street before resorting to a player with Browning’s inexperience.
After being signed to a UDFA contract last spring after his Washington career, Browning didn’t show off much talent in training camp, but he was also competing with third- and fourth-string players. In all likelihood, he’ll be the No. 3 quarterback at TCO Performance Center this summer, quite possibly destined for another practice squad role.