If you were to ask the Minnesota Vikings about their current quarterback situation, they’d probably tell you they’re happy with what Kirk Cousins brings to the table. After he put up stats and not much else in first season in Minnesota, the Vikings catered their scheme to their quarterback — or perhaps their running game — and Cousins delivered with the most efficient season of his career which resulted in a $66 million extension.
Simply put, Cousins has been good enough to lead the Vikings into the foreseeable future. That’s a situation that many teams would be envious to have at this moment (Hello, Chicago!), but there’s a contingent of Vikings fans that want more, leaving plenty of “What ifs” from their 2018 quarterback debacle.
One of those is selecting Lamar Jackson in the 2018 NFL Draft. The Vikings wound up selecting Mike Hughes with the 30th overall pick that year, but Jackson would be drafted by the Baltimore Ravens two picks later, and they reaped the benefits with an MVP campaign last season.
With the Vikings deciding to sign Cousins to a three-year, $84 million deal roughly a month before the draft, what would have happened if the Vikings had rolled the dice with Jackson, and would he be the superstar and Madden cover athlete that he is today?
Could Keenum have been a stopgap?
Following the 2017 season, the Vikings were in a tricky spot at quarterback. Case Keenum had just led the Vikings to the NFC Championship game, Sam Bradford saw his knee disintegrate into dust, and Teddy Bridgewater’s future was in doubt after suffering from a gruesome knee injury.
With the Vikings in win-or-bust mode, they went for the safest option they could think of, signing Cousins to a massive free-agent deal and leaving the other question marks to be answered by other teams. But if the Vikings didn’t sign Cousins, would they have signed a veteran stopgap to help groom a future signal-caller?
Out of the internal options, the best choice might have been Keenum. He had the support of the locker room and the two-year, $36 million deal that he wound up signing with Denver was feasible enough that it could have been worked out by salary cap god Rob Brzezinski and saved the Vikings millions of dollars in the process.
That money could have been used to upgrade an offensive line that would eventually be their downfall several months later. While Andrew Norwell hasn’t lived up to his contract in Jacksonville, other interesting names included Josh Kline, Josh Sitton and Mike Pouncey as unrestricted free agents and the possibility of taking a swing at RFA Matt Paradis. All of those names would have represented an upgrade over Tom Compton, Pat Elflein and Mike Remmers.
What would the Vikings Have done with Jackson?
As with any rookie, the situation that a player walks into makes a big difference. While Jackson has thrived in Baltimore, his rookie season didn’t go swimmingly as he played behind Joe Flacco and even took three snaps at wide receiver as the Ravens tried to use trick plays to get him on the field. While Bill Polian probably applauded this effort, it robbed Jackson of valuable reps at quarterback and may have hindered his development when he did hit the field.
In Minnesota, things might have been different if Zimmer went with his gut back in February 2018. The decision to hire John DeFilippo as his offensive coordinator was a poor marriage from the start as Zimmer wanted to promote Kevin Stefanski to the position. Instead, he chose DeFilippo, who was fired with three games remaining.
While Jackson was a more advanced passer at Louisville than people gave him credit for, chucking the ball all over the field may not have meshed with Jackson’s overall abilities and thus resulted in Stefanski taking over anyway.
Under Stefanski, Jackson would have used a similar run-oriented scheme that was implemented in Baltimore with the arrival of Greg Roman. Who knows what he would have done in a zone scheme, but the combination of Jackson and Dalvin Cook in the backfield could churn out some serious yardage in the same way that Jackson and Mark Ingram led the NFL’s best rushing attack in 2019.
Could He have thrived in Minnesota?
Jackson’s cast of weapons in Baltimore looks great heading into next season, but that’s been a work in progress that has included several draft classes. Even if Jackson would have had to relieve a struggling Keenum in his rookie season, Jackson had better pieces in place that could have produced a more immediate impact.
If the Vikings had made one of the aforementioned signings and still drafted Brian O’Neill in the second round, the offensive line would have been good enough and made to look better thanks to Jackson’s scrambling ability. Operating in the same way that Keenum helped extend plays back in 2017, Jackson would have a variety of targets to throw to including top receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
By comparison, Jackson’s top targets in 2018 were Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead, and his cast wasn’t much better last season despite the addition of Marquise “Hollywood” Brown. By turning in Alex Collins for Dalvin Cook, Jackson would have had the tools to succeed and a defense that ranked fourth in yardage allowed and ninth in points allowed to have his back.
The final verdict
If you’re keeping score at home, the Vikings would have saved millions of dollars in cap space, upgraded the offensive line and given Jackson more weapons had they waited and pulled the trigger on Jackson in the draft.
Instead, the Vikings were left with Cousins, who is a solid quarterback but also left the team in salary cap hell thanks to his massive deals. By operating on a rookie quarterback contract, the addition of Jackson could have also avoided this and allowed the Vikings to be even more aggressive in a wider Super Bowl window.
With the Vikings having to adjust on the fly for a 32-year-old quarterback to find some mythical level of performance, Rick Spielman probably should have used the aggressiveness used to grab Christian Ponder in 2012 instead of going for the safer option.