What Kirk Cousins' Contract Is (And Isn't) Preventing

Photo Credit: Ben Ludeman (USA TODAY Sports)

Whenever a player gets paid in the NFL, their reputations take a hit. Anthony Barr was a hero and a superstar until he signed a five-year, $67.5 million contract in 2019. Now, despite the clear cost of his absence, the narrative surrounding Barr has soured. After all, Barr’s contract could have been paid to one or more other players. Those could be guards, defensive tackles, or even game-altering linebackers.

Kirk Cousins is playing on a big contract. In 2021, his cap hit will be $31 million. In 2022, it will be $45 million. Those numbers seem incomprehensibly large — Aaron Rodgers signed an extension in 2018 worth $33 million per year. That made him the highest-paid player in NFL history at the time, and just two years later, Cousins eclipsed it. Cousins has been paying on a bloated contract for the last three years, leading to a middling 27-20-1 record. At a glance, the age-old adage remains true: Big contracts hamstring the team.

But how true is that? Cousins’ contract is as malleable as any NFL contract, and Rob Brzezinski is as good as any at planning this sort of thing out. If the Minnesota Vikings wanted to target a $15 million player they wouldn’t otherwise target, couldn’t they make the space? It’s difficult to find the line. Let’s dive into the Cousins contract and see exactly how much space could be made.

Kirk Cousins will cost $31 million in 2021, which ranks 9th league-wide. That is subject to some change: Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield, and Lamar Jackson could all see extensions. Ben Roethlisberger could slash his $41 million salary to enable another Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl run. Still, the Vikings are in the same spot as many other teams with their quarterback contract. Using the calculator, we can examine the Vikings’ most extreme options.

Maximizing 2021

Let’s say the Vikings want to go all-in for 2021. They could fully eschew the future and make as much immediate space as possible. This wouldn’t be a very smart strategy, but this sort of stress test can help us know the boundaries.

Guaranteed salary cannot be cut, but it can be restructured. Kirk Cousins will make $21 million in guaranteed salary, $19.925 million, which can be restructured into a signing bonus. That would save almost $10 million in 2021 salary, moving it into next year. But we can do better.

Restructured salary can be prorated over a maximum of five years. So theoretically, we could extend Cousins for the second time in as many years. If we add three years to his deal and restructure from there, we could cut his 2021 salary in half. That would reduce to about $5 million per year over five years. Of course, this is similarly unwise. Cousins’ 2022 hit would total over $48 million, and the Vikings would have Cousins under contract through 2025. If you think Cousins is overpaid, doubling down on that for three additional years probably isn’t your favorite strategy.

Obviously, this is unreasonable, but it’s useful to know where the limit is. In this case, Kirk Cousins could have his 2021 price reduced by almost $16 million via tricks of accounting.  You just have to mortgage the future with reckless abandon.

Borrowing From 2022

Restructuring a contract is, in essence, taking a loan out from the future. By taking some money from 2021 and spreading it across future years, you’re taking cap space from a future year to use it now. The Vikings have borrowed a bunch of money from 2022 with previous restructures. A $10 million chunk of that belongs to Cousins. On March 19, $35 million more in base salary will become fully guaranteed. As a result, the Vikings are projected by Over The Cap to have less than $38 million in 2022 cap space.

With a Brian O’Neill extension and possible Danielle Hunter pay raise looming large, that number looks woefully frail. How much of that 2022 cap hit is still in the way? The Vikings could technically release Cousins on March 17 or 18 of this year, freeing themselves from the $35 million obligations next year. The problem is the $41 million dead cap penalty that would incur.

More realistically, the Vikings could extend Cousins. They could do the same five-year trick detailed above, restructuring almost all of that $35 million. That would bring Kirk’s total cap hit under $20 million but would tie him to the organization through 2026. If you think Cousins can win a Super Bowl, that may not be a problem for you.

The Vikings could offer Cousins a more conservative extension, only adding two years as they did in 2020. Judging by their behavior last offseason and this offseason, they may plan to. Over $27 million of that $45 million is malleable. It just depends on how much they need to borrow.

Changing quarterbacks

As illustrated above, the Vikings could make over $15 million in space this year and over $27 million next year, provided they are comfortable with extending Cousins. If you’re not comfortable extending him, most of the ideas presented so far may leave an acrid taste in your mouth. But Cousins is a plenty tradeable asset.

If the Vikings traded Kirk Cousins this March, they’d save a net $11 million against the cap. If they trade him next March, they’ll send all of his $35 million to another team, leaving only $10 million in prorated bonus from his 2020 extension. The problem is the compensation. It’s easy enough to get rid of Cousins, but it’s not easy to replace him. The trading team would have to give a quarterback in return, or at least enough draft assets to acquire one. Currently, the 49ers seem to be failing to solve that puzzle.

So Kirk’s contract isn’t really preventing the Vikings from acquiring or extending other players. The contract’s design is to constantly encourage the Vikings to give Cousins more money and more years. They can build around him as much as anyone, but to move away from him is to swim upstream.

The only thing Kirk Cousins’s contract prevents is a divorce from Kirk Cousins.

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