Vikings

Justin Jefferson Has Made the Kirk Cousins Decision More Complicated

Photo credit: Kareem Elgazzar (The Enquirer via USA TODAY Sports)

At first blush, it seems like Justin Jefferson’s continued ascendance means that the Minnesota Vikings will have to move on from Kirk Cousins. The maligned quarterback is on the wrong side of 30. He has only one playoff win to his name since signing the first fully guaranteed deal in NFL history four years ago. And it feels wrong to pair the league’s most staid quarterback with Minnesota’s most exciting receiver this side of Randy Moss.

But while echoes of “C’mon, throw the ball” may ring in fans’ ears every time they hear Cousins’ and Jefferson’s names mentioned in the same sentence, Kirk offers stability the Vikings rarely have had at the quarterback position. He’s comfort food. Cousins has been available for every game since the Vikings signed him in 2018. He goes through his reads, has the arm strength to make most throws, and isn’t afraid to check down. Cousins is a micromanaging coach’s dream, a football robot they can program to make the right throw – most of the time.

Conversely, Jefferson is effortlessly cool, endlessly entertaining. The Griddy, an homage to a Louisana rapper, has spread across the league since Jefferson started dancing in the end zone during his rookie season. He’s as spicy as a Creole delicacy. Sweet as tea. Smooth as New Orleans jazz. His hips lie to opposing receivers, and he’s fast enough to break 35E’s speed limit in St. Paul. Jefferson’s eyes light up when he sees one high safety, and the ball seems magnetically attracted to his fingertips. He’s unpredictable, unstoppable, and the Vikings have not fully unleashed his full potential yet.

So why would the Vikings consider extending Cousins? To quote the great Dennis Green, he is who we thought he was. No, he won’t throw the ball behind his back like Patrick Mahomes, and he doesn’t toss it on a frozen rope like Justin Herbert. He doesn’t have Joe Burrow’s swagger or Lamar Jackson’s wheels. But he gives the Vikings a floor. Hardwood, stained. Occasionally creaky, sure. But who’s to say that a guy you get in the draft is going to be any better? He could be the next Mahomes. Or he could be Mitchell Trubisky. Or Sam Darnold.

At the risk of giving Mike Florio heart palpitations, I’m going to list some quarterbacks that Randy Moss played with:

  • Brad Johnson. Good quarterback. Thirty years old when the Vikings drafted Moss in 1998. Former ninth-round pick. There are only seven rounds now.
  • Randall Cunningham. Exciting player. A great athlete with a big arm. Retired in 1996.
  • Daunte Culpepper. Longest-tenured quarterback during his time (2000-04). Made a cameo in an Adam Sandler movie. Was great when healthy; had knee issues before he turned 30.

Here are some other quarterbacks who made starts during Moss’ time in Minnesota:

  • Jeff George. Former first-overall pick. But his hometown team gave up on him as he was entering his prime.
  • Todd Bouman. St. Cloud State legend. St. Cloud State, though.
  • Spergon Wynn. Played for the Gophers, but transferred to *checks notes* Southwest Texas State. Other stops included the Amsterdam Admirals, BC Lions, Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and the Toronto Argonauts. Those aren’t NFL teams.
  • Gus Frerotte. Let’s get off the bus, Gus.

There are many reasons Moss left Minnesota. Twice. Red McCombs was cheap. He went Rodney Dangerfield on a caterer. Brad Childress (Chilly Willy!) fired him. But quarterback instability is one reason. And, if nothing else, Cousins provides stability. Yes, he’ll occasionally fumble when he should take a sack. Sure, he loves dumping the ball off to C.J. Ham and Tyler Conklin. And fine, it’s a little flummoxing why he throws the ball away at the end of halves. But he’s a by-the-book, strong-armed quarterback who you can count on to be available to start every Sunday.

As I see it, the Vikings have three options:

  • Trade him and see what you can get on the open market. But the Vikings need a competent quarterback right now, and who’s giving one up?
  • Extend him for cap relief. It makes sense for a team that always needs to bolster the offensive line and has many defensive players on expiring deals. But you’re married to Cousins throughout his mid-30s.
  • Let the contract expire. Cousins comes clean off the books, but can you get a reliable quarterback in the draft by the time he’s done?

My guess is you go with option 1 or 2 here. I’m not sure how the Vikings can trade Cousins and have a quarterback ready next year. Kellen Mond isn’t that guy, and this year is a bad quarterback draft class. Plus, the Vikings likely won’t pick until the middle of the first round.

To take a step back, this is why I’m an advocate of dismantling the Mike Zimmer-Rick Spielman-Cousins triumvirate piecemeal, assuming the Vikings fail to go on a playoff run this year. Get Cousins and Jefferson an offensive-minded coach who puts Cousins in a pass-first offense and designs plays to get Jefferson open.

Then see how Spielman does in the draft with a different coach advocating for offensive players in the war room. Are his first-round struggles a product of his evaluation or Zimmer standing on the table for Mike Hughes and Jeff Gladney?

Finally, take a look at Cousins. How long can he be a reliable starter in the NFL? Is there enough time to develop his heir apparent under him? Will he check the ball down as often if the O-line is sturdier and an offensive guru routinely gets Jefferson open?

Blowing it up is cathartic. You’re sick of this team. Sick of kneeling at the end of halves. Tired of watching Alexander Mattison get targeted when Jefferson has separation downfield. Exhausted by the constant one-score losses. But it may be prudent to disassemble this team in pieces to find the root of the issue. Maybe it’s Cousins. But when you have a star receiver on the roster, you’ve gotta be sure.

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