For all the warts that critics lump on Kirk Cousins, the quarterback has held up his end of the bargain in at least one area during his three years with the Minnesota Vikings: Durability. Having missed only one game — a meaningless Week 17 contest vs. the Chicago Bears in 2019 — Minnesota has never had to worry much about their backup quarterback situation.
Only three teams last year had one quarterback attempting 100% of the team’s passes: the Green Bay Packers (Aaron Rodgers), Atlanta Falcons (Matt Ryan), and the Vikings (Cousins). This is a testament to his toughness, for one. He’s hardly shown a grimace after taking 115 sacks behind some of the flimsiest protection in the NFL over the past several seasons. But it also shows the rarity of quarterbacks with a perfect health record like Cousins. Minnesota has gotten by for three seasons with cheap but underwhelming backups in Trevor Siemian and Sean Mannion. Will they take a similar tact in 2021?
Many fans would appreciate it if the Vikings drafted Cousins’ replacement with a big draft-day splash. Others would appreciate a mid-round pick who would learn behind Cousins for a season or two and provide upside down the road — much like Cousins himself — without the pressure of starting him immediately. That could be what the Vikings envision, but it isn’t how they’ve operated under Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman.
While the organization has thrived by developing unheralded talent to fill in key positions on the roster, their strategy at quarterback has been different: Surround the starter with smart individuals who can help the No. 1 guy prepare while not threatening to unseat the incumbent. “I think it’s important (that) … the backup understands his role,” Zimmer said in 2019. “He’s not trying to overtake the other position’s spot or anything like that, but being ready in case something does happen.”
Shaun Hill (2015-16), Case Keenum (2017), Siemian (2018), and Mannion (2019-20) have been the recent choices as the team’s second-in-line. Even though the one who actually played, Keenum, led the team to an NFC Championship Game, it’s hard to imagine that being a sustainable expectation if starters had gotten hurt. Minnesota has also tried grooming some unique practice squad passers over the years like Taylor Heinicke, Kyle Sloter, and most recently, Jake Browning. Still, none have ever been deemed worthy enough to sniff the No. 2 job, perhaps because the Vikings have relied strictly on undrafted free agency to find them.
The team’s choice for the last two years, Mannion, is actually somewhat different from the previous three backups. Hill, Keenum, and Siemian had similar career arcs; quarterbacks who were given extended shots to lead teams in the past but didn’t play all that well. By contrast, Mannion only had one career start before coming to Minnesota, but he’s earned a lot of respect in the building for his ability to help Cousins prepare.
Assuming the Vikings stay the course and don’t select a quarterback high in the draft (which would dramatically change the equation), let’s evaluate whether Minnesota will run it back with Mannion in 2021 or find a new understudy for Cousins.
THE CASE FOR MANNION
Mannion will be 29 when next season starts and has yet to win a game as a starting quarterback in the NFL. He’s voiced a desire to be a full-time starter one day, but the clock is ticking for a quarterback who’s yet to catch his big break. Mannion hasn’t done anything spectacular in his two losses as a starter, albeit in a pair of games that felt like preseason contests at the end of the regular season. He also doesn’t have the type of flash in practice that will turn heads in organizations that want more from their backup spot than the Vikings.
What Mannion does off the field is more important to the Vikings, it seems, than his work on it. He’s a good companion for Cousins in the quarterback room, and hey, it probably feels good to be appreciated by the quarterback you’re working under.
“I could go on and on about the difference they make,” Cousins said of his backups in a story by The Athletic’s Chad Graff. “Having other people in the room who really know what they’re talking about and are a great support to you playing makes a huge difference to me.”
The Vikings brought Mannion back in 2020 at a small raise from $895K up to $1.047 million. That’s not much money, even by backup standards, but it’s better than nothing. Considering the admiration Cousins and the team has for Mannion, it’s reasonable to think Mannion would be interested in a reunion once again. A backup quarterback’s lifestyle can be nomadic, so getting three years in the same place might be preferable for him instead of taking a shot in a new location. If Mannion were to sign with a team without clear-cut quarterback stability in March, that franchise could easily draft a quarterback to usurp him a month later.
Presumably, there would be mutual interest in Mannion’s return if the Vikings don’t draft a quarterback in the first several rounds. He is cheap, helpful, hard-working, and familiar with the team’s system. On the other hand, if Cousins succumbs to an injury, the Vikings could be scrambling to find another quarterback like they were in 2016 when Hill was the only option behind Teddy Bridgewater.
THE CASE FOR AN OUTSIDER
It stands to reason that the Vikings should only make a change if they want to upgrade their quarterback position’s potential. Bringing in a backup with limited credentials like Nate Sudfeld, Matt Barkley, or Tim Boyle would make little sense, but there are several that match the profiles of Minnesota’s past backups like Hill, Keenum, or Siemian.
Nick Mullens is 25 and has gotten a ton of run with the San Francisco 49ers over the last three years, but it hasn’t gone well for him — he owns a 5-11 record. His touchdown to interception ratio is 25:22, and he was one of the worst quarterbacks under pressure during his eight starts in 2020. But he’s well-versed in a system similar to the Vikings’ and was solid in the play-action game.
Kyle Allen, 25, has gone 7-10 in the last three seasons with both the Carolina Panthers and Washington Football Team. His longest stint came in 2019 when he started 12 games and went 5-7 with Carolina, but he didn’t produce a lot of quality tape. Allen finished towards the bottom of the league in deep throw passer rating (36th of 36 qualified), play-action passing (27th of 37), under pressure passing (33rd of 39), and sacks taken (35th of 39). Overall, he was PFF’s second-lowest-ranked passer.
Blake Bortles has over 100 touchdown passes to his name and an AFC Championship appearance. He also has a 24-49 record. In four of his five seasons as the Jacksonville Jaguars starter, Bortles won five or fewer games. Like Mannion, he’d be coming from Los Angeles, where he’s worked behind Jared Goff for the better part of the last two seasons. He’s played plenty of football, just not at a high level.
Mike Glennon faced the Vikings in Week 13 last year and nearly knocked them off with a hapless supporting cast in Jacksonville. The former third-round pick is now 31 years old and has played on five teams in five years. He is 6-21 in his career with only a 61% completion percentage. But hey, he’s been around the block.
There isn’t much that’s inspirational about these four names. Then again, there’s no guarantee Mannion would perform any better given the same opportunities.
If the Vikings want a clear upgrade, they’ll need to spend more, which may be untenable with the team up against the salary cap. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tyrod Taylor, and Andy Dalton are the main prizes on the backup market after their respective seasons with the Miami Dolphins, the Los Angeles Chargers, and Dallas Cowboys. Still, they’d be more likely to pursue a team with cap space and a younger starting quarterback.
Minnesota likely can’t afford luxury at the backup position, and if that’s the case, they’d be smarter to stick with the reliable Mannion over a newcomer with their own idiosyncrasies. After all, Cousins’ indestructibility, while rare, has held for nearly a decade in the league. The next injury that befalls him would be the first.
DOOR NO. 3: JAKE BROWNING OR NATE STANLEY
Finally, let’s not forget about the other two in-house options: third-year undrafted passer Jake Browning and 2020 seventh-round pick Nate Stanley. The Vikings recently signed both to futures deals after they spent the season on Minnesota’s practice squad.
It’s harder to envision either of these faces as the Vikings’ primary backup based on the extent to which the Vikings desire a veteran’s presence working alongside Cousins. Mannion is valued for his book-smarts, which Browning and Stanley can’t match based on their lack of experience.
Not getting a 2020 preseason hurt both Browning and Stanley — especially Browning, who hardly had a shot at making a run at Mannion because of the truncated preseason. And there’s been nothing noteworthy in their training camp performances to suggest they were close to usurping Mannion last summer.
Considering the Vikings’ hesitance to escalate their third-stringers up the depth chart — even erratic but exciting playmakers like Heinicke or Sloter — it’s difficult to picture Browning or Stanley breaking that trend.