The truth is that the Minnesota Vikings never were going to take Lamar Jackson. Not after signing Kirk Cousins for $84 million guaranteed. Not after passing on three quarterbacks — Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford, and Case Keenum — who had had various levels of success during their time in Minnesota. Not when they were in a window of contention, and Jackson was a wild card.
There’s a world where they take him anyway, thinking that he’s the future and Cousins is a stopgap — but that’s a lot of money to pay a placeholder. In that world, Jackson takes a year to learn on the bench behind Cousins and ideally takes over in Year 3 as Cousins’ contract is expiring, or he’s dealt away if Cousins takes the Vikings to the next level. It’s kind of like the Aaron Rodgers-Jordan Love situation, except Cousins is a younger quarterback with a lesser resume.
But he’s also one of the most durable quarterbacks in the NFL, and teams want to maximize a quarterback’s rookie contract, so it’s hard justifying a quarterback in the first round the year he signs a guaranteed deal. Furthermore, Minnesota wanted to give Cousins the best opportunity to succeed. He was already on a team with one of the best defenses in the NFL and two star receivers, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Plus, his backup was Sean Mannion, who was no threat to start over him and willing to assist him on the sidelines.
The most realistic situation where Jackson would have succeeded here is if they had chosen to keep Keenum on a discount contract. Both parties would know that Keenum was not likely to cash in on a 13-3 season where the defense carried most of the weight, and a miracle touchdown got them into the NFC title game, where the Philadelphia Eagles soundly beat them. Most teams probably knew he wouldn’t be a surefire starter, even after the season he had, but he would be the perfect transition quarterback.
It’s just a risky proposition for a team that was a game away from the Super Bowl the year before. Bridgewater was supposed to be the guy, and we don’t need to rehash all that or relitigate whether they should have waited him out. Although I’m bullish on Teddy, I acknowledge that he’s still a third-tier quarterback, like Cousins. It’s whether you prefer a QB who can scramble and make something out of nothing or one who can air the ball out but isn’t very mobile in the pocket.
Cousins is more of a sure thing, for better or worse, and they went with the sure thing.
If the Vikings were coming off a 10-6 season entering the 2018 draft, they’d have to consider taking Jackson. You’re drafting 30th overall, which is a perfect spot to take a big swing. But that’s not what a team coming off a 13-3 season does. Complain about the Cousins extension all you want, that’s fair game, and everyone’s already taken their sides on that, but getting a guy who’s a low-floor, low-ceiling, reliable player who should elevate a team is a logical decision.
It’s justified, just like it was justified to trade significant draft capital for Bradford after Bridgewater’s freak injury.
Look at where the Baltimore Ravens were before they took Jackson: They were in a rut the three years before taking him, going 5-11, 8-8, and 9-7 — missing the playoffs each year. Therefore, they were in a better position to take a gamble on him. They weathered a devastating playoff loss in Jackson’s first year, built the offense around him, went 14-2, and now are playing in the divisional round this Saturday.
To make a cross-sport reference, the 2018 NFL draft isn’t the Vikings’ version of the 2009 NBA Draft where the Minnesota Timberwolves took Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn ahead of Stephen Curry. It’s the 2016 draft where they took Kris Dunn, and the Denver Nuggets took Jamal Murray two picks later.
Think about it: Tom Thibodeau was a win-now coach who wanted a defensive-oriented player, and Dunn was a 22-year-old rookie who could lockdown players immediately upon entering the league. But he had limited offensive upside, and Murray has driven winning for a Denver team that reached the Western Conference Finals last year. He was a boom-or-bust, offense-first 19-year-old who had only spent a year at Kentucky, and he panned out.
You take Murray 10-out-of-10 times. But the New Orleans Pelicans took Buddy Hield the pick before him, just like the New England Patriots also passed on Jackson and took Sony Michel with pick 31. And in some ways, Mike Hughes was Dunn: He plays on the defensive side of the ball and added to the depth at cornerback — Zimmer’s favorite position.
The irony here is that Hughes would be a vital part of the team right now if he could stay healthy. He would have allowed the Vikings to start him instead of two rookies, Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney, all season. And in a pass-happy league, provided much-needed depth after the departure of Xavier Rhodes, Trey Waynes, and Mackenzie Alexander.
Hughes wasn’t a bad pick. He’s just had bad luck.
But it’s going to be hard not to talk about the 2018 draft for years to come. Jackson is a polarizing player, so is Cousins, and people have now chosen sides over Zimmer as well. Arguing over the 2018 draft is less of an academic argument and more of an emotional one. It’s staking your claim on all the parties involved and telling everyone who disagrees why they don’t know what they’re talking about.
The Vikings should have taken Jackson, even though they never were going to. I still think they should have.