Kirk Cousins has been a polarizing figure in the NFL for much of his career.
And that has not changed since he signed with the Minnesota Vikings in March 2018.
The enigma that is Cousins is tied directly to the value of the quarterback position. It’s certainly the most valuable in football, and perhaps the most valuable in all of sports.
NFL franchises are constantly trying to find a “franchise quarterback,” or the elite game-changer who can single-handedly carry the team deep into the playoffs. Is Cousins that guy now? And if he isn’t now, can he ever become that?
The answers to these questions seem to vary. His success, or lack thereof, as a member of the Washington Redskins is excused because of the dysfunctional franchise he was tasked to lead. Whether you buy that argument or not, it appears as if that was the popular belief around the NFL.
Expectations were sky-high when Cousins joined Minnesota. The Vikings had just played in the NFC Championship game and finished 13-3 in the prior regular season. The key missing ingredient to the Super Bowl recipe was a franchise quarterback.
Statistically, Cousins fit the bill. He was asked to throw a lot as a Redskin and usually found success. However, he was notorious for underperforming in big moments, whether it be key divisional games or his lone playoff appearance.
The Vikings organization, and soon most of the fanbase, figured that a much better roster and coaching staff could get even more out of Cousins and launch Minnesota into continued Super Bowl contention.
Cousins signed a three-year, $84 million contract to join the Vikings prior to the 2018 season, and all $84 million was guaranteed. It was a risky, but necessary, decision by the Vikings front office.
It’s been an up-and-down tenure in Minnesota for Cousins through two seasons. The rest of the roster has declined, and his offensive line has delivered subpar protection most of the time. Overall, the Vikings have a 19-13-1 record with Cousins as the starter, including one mighty impressive playoff win at New Orleans.
The 2020 season represents the final one of Cousins’ groundbreaking contract. Minnesota finds itself in a tight salary cap situation, and many believe it would behoove the Vikings to sign Cousins to an extension to free up some cap space for the 2020 season. Both general manager Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer spoke glowingly of the quarterback during their combine press conferences, possibly signaling their plans.
The decision to sign an extension relies on a few factors.
What is the franchise’s current state?
What does the quarterback want out of an extension?
Minnesota is in a unique spot entering 2020 in that it appears to be the perfect win-the-Super-Bowl-or-rebuild year. Spielman and Zimmer are nearing the end of their contracts and both of them have been with the team for enough time to build a winner — and some may say they have. The core of the Vikings roster, especially on the defensive side of the ball, is on the back nine of its career. Harrison Smith, Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes, Linval Joseph, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph were all key to Minnesota’s success in 2017, but are now in their 30s and likely have passed their peaks.
Speculation about the job status of Zimmer and Spielman has already begun to swirl. Many believe if the Vikings miss the playoffs in 2020, or don’t make a deep playoff run, the Vikings will start over. And it’s a fair perspective — both men have been on the job for some time now and they built a contender. That contender, however, appears to be on the decline more than it appears to be on the rise.
If the Vikings sign Cousins to an extension this offseason, it will likely prolong the tenures of both Spielman and Zimmer. It will represent an extension of this regime — another couple of years to win that elusive Super Bowl. Spielman tied himself to Cousins when Minnesota signed him in March 2018. He might not get another chance to find that “franchise quarterback,” at least not in Minnesota.
From that viewpoint alone, Vikings fans should expect a Cousins extension to happen. What’s more is that the ownership preached over and over that the Vikings need stability at the quarterback position, and Cousins has delivered that.
However, should Cousins be extended? That yields a different answer. First of all, Cousins himself probably wants to wait until next offseason when a new CBA is agreed upon and in effect between the NFL and the players. We also know Cousins likes to get his money — and why shouldn’t he? An extension would possibly give him a lower guaranteed salary in 2020, and he wouldn’t have any problems getting a deal in the open market.
But, for the sake of playing devil’s advocate, let’s say Cousins and his camp are interested in an extension. Based on his current contract, this extension would also be fully guaranteed. A back-loaded deal through 2022 seems to make the most sense for both parties — Cousins gets his guaranteed dollars (probably close to $40 million in 2022) while the Vikings lower his cap hit for 2020 and make another run at a ring. This deal would give Cousins upwards of $90 million over three seasons (2020-22).
Extending Cousins would probably cause some serious problems for the Vikings in 2021 and 2022, especially if the 2020 season is a disappointment. The franchise would be stuck with an expensive quarterback who is certainly above-average compared to the rest of the league. However, above-average usually doesn’t win rings.
Minnesota’s best plan is to let his contract play out in 2020 and make one more run at a title with the current roster. Who knows, maybe Cousins take another step and performs like an MVP, carrying the Vikings to a deep playoff run and perhaps a Super Bowl. Then the team can still extend Cousins and, while he may be more expensive, they would also know they have a franchise quarterback.
On the flip side, maybe the season plays out similarly to 2018, the Vikings miss the playoffs, and the front office and coaching staff are cleaned out. The Vikings can move on from Cousins and look for a franchise quarterback in the draft.
Both of those examples represent the extreme ends of the spectrum of the possible outcomes in 2020. However, the Vikings are prepared to deal with both if they just let Cousins play out his deal in 2020.
It’s not a secret Minnesota is in a tough position with the salary cap. But saving a few million dollars in 2020 to put the future in jeopardy just isn’t worth it.