The Minnesota Vikings have seen the gamut of Kirk Cousins’ abilities through the first seven games of the season. At his best, he can get the most out of the weapons around him and can produce game-winning drives. At his worst, Cousins is a checkdown machine relentlessly peppering C.J. Ham with targets.
But after Sunday’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys, the Vikings know what they have in Cousins. While he’s able to look like an elite quarterback, he cannot overcome deficiencies to help his team win. That’s created a $45 million question for the Vikings’ front office, who must decide if they want to extend Cousins or payout his full salary next year.
Cousins carries a $45 million cap hit heading into the final year of his contract. That number is the third-highest in the NFL behind Aaron Rodgers ($46.1 million) and Matt Ryan ($48.6 million). While paying a veteran quarterback is the cost of doing business, Rodgers and Ryan have reached the Super Bowl. Cousins has yet to advance past the divisional round.
If the Vikings decide they want to keep Cousins, extending him is the best way to do so. Minnesota did this after the 2019 season when they avoided a $35 million cap hit by agreeing on a two-year deal that dropped his cap hit for the 2020 season.
While it provided immediate relief, it tacked two more years onto a rocky relationship that seems to have run its course. It’s also uncertain that the Vikings would want to sign Cousins for one or two more years, renewing their commitment into his late 30s.
What about a restructure? Tom Brady has used this to his advantage, reducing his cap hit so that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can add more pieces to win a championship. For the Vikings, this would mean the ability to hit free agency to find a guard or more immediate solutions to solve some of their deficiencies.
But Cousins hasn’t been open to a restructure since arriving in Minnesota. Because he may be unwilling to do the same this time around, the Vikings may have to either sweeten the pot with an extension or find a creative way to get him off the roster.
It may seem like Cousins’ cap number may be impossible to move, but we’ve seen several big contracts traded over the past offseason.
One example was the Carson Wentz trade, where the Indianapolis Colts took on a $21.3 million cap hit. While Wentz struggled in his final year with the Philadelphia Eagles, the Colts were desperate enough at the position to give up assets to find a solution on a quarterback.
The Eagles incurred a $33.8 million cap hit to trade Wentz. To seal the deal, the Colts gave up a conditional first-round pick that becomes a second-rounder if Wentz doesn’t play 75% of the snaps. With Indianapolis falling out of contention, they could hold Wentz out to keep their first-rounder, which would prevent the Vikings from putting any advantageous loopholes on a trade.
Instead, their deal could be more like the one that sent Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams. With Sean McVay desperate to get rid of Jared Goff, the Rams attached two first-round picks and a third-round pick to Goff’s $25.5 million cap hit so the Detroit Lions would take him on. Even then, Goff had to agree to a restructured deal to make it happen, which might not be a possibility for the Vikings.
Even if Cousins were to accept a restructure with his new team, the Vikings have too many holes on the roster to cough up first-round picks. With a defense that’s getting older and an offensive line desperate for a guard, there may be a more effective use of first-round picks than attaching it to an NBA-style salary dump.
That leaves the Vikings with the option to ride it out with Cousins. At $45 million, they would have to swallow hard to accept their salary cap purgatory. But it could be the best option on the table.
Most of the options that could be an upgrade are likely to cost the Vikings draft picks or another contract restructure or extension. If the Vikings were able to pry Ryan or another expensive quarterback from their team, it could create more cap problems down the road.
The Vikings have found out that quality starting quarterbacks are rarely on the market. So that leaves the draft as their only other option unless they believe in Kellen Mond.
Minnesota would need to avoid a mid-season resurgence to get a shot at the top signal-callers. Even then, the top quarterbacks in the draft — Malik Willis, Carson Strong, and Matt Corral — aren’t sure things. That could leave Cousins to battle with Mond for the starting spot next year and open things up in 2023.
There are several ways the Vikings can go with Cousins. It all depends on how they see him moving forward. If he impresses down the stretch, Minnesota can see what he does with an offensive-minded coach. If he doesn’t, they can try to move on. It just won’t be easy.