It was a quiet Thursday night. Perhaps too quiet.
Millions of viewers were dozing off to another Thursday Night Football matchup when they got an alert on their phones. One Adam Schefter bomb later, the NFL was king on a night when so many sports were happening. It was dubbed “The Sports Equinox.”
The San Francisco 49ers had just traded for Christian McCaffrey. The deal sent four draft picks to the Carolina Panthers and gave the 49ers the kind of running back they had coveted since they hired Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch.
But this isn’t 1987, and we’re not talking about Herschel Walker. We’re talking about an era dominated by the passing game, one where no team ever said, “We’re a running back away from the Super Bowl.”
The trade had many people doing their best Brian Windhorst impersonation, creating a rabbit hole of possibilities. One possibility that could affect the Vikings? What if the 49ers decide to trade for Kirk Cousins next offseason?
Look at what the 49ers have constructed with the McCaffrey trade. They have one of the best running backs in football. Deebo Samuel is a Percy Harvin clone who has broken the league. George Kittle is a weapon when he’s not playing left tackle, and the 49ers’ offensive line is one of the best in the NFL.
San Francisco’s defense also ranks second in points allowed, and they’ve filled it with players on affordable contracts. It’s a roster that screams Super Bowl contender – except for at quarterback.
At first glance, the McCaffrey trade creates a foolproof situation for Jimmy Garoppolo. But while the Niners like Garoppolo, they’re not exactly married to him. Last-minute shoulder surgery prevented him from being traded last offseason. With his contract expiring, it opens the door for someone else to take over at quarterback.
That could mean a wide-open path for Trey Lance to take the starting job, but it’s uncertain whether that will happen. The 49ers spent three first-round picks and a compensatory third-round pick to trade up to the No. 3-overall selection in the draft to take Lance. However, reports from before the draft suggested that Shanahan was more interested in taking Mac Jones.
It’s not like Lance has earned the starting spot, either. His preseason performances have been filled with big plays and timely miscues. Even before he suffered a season-ending ankle injury, his starting spot was in jeopardy.
With Shanahan acting like the kid that got a big Christmas present only to play with the box, the Niners could be looking for a new quarterback this offseason. The problem is that they’re down to three draft picks in 2023, which could lead them to the trade market.
Over the past couple of years, at least one disgruntled quarterback has shaken up the offseason. Tom Brady left the New England Patriots to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020. Aaron Rodgers loomed over any potential move in 2021. Russell Wilson forced his way out of Seattle last offseason.
There’s always a way to find a new quarterback, and the 49ers have a world of possibilities.
The most likely quarterback to be available this offseason resides in Green Bay. Rodgers has been sipping psychedelic tea and only throws to his friends on the team. He might get sick of playing with late-round rookies and decide to take his talents to San Francisco.
The problem is that the Packers would take on over $40 million in dead cap money if they decided to trade Rodgers. With the possibility of being catastrophically pushed against the salary cap, they likely stick with him until he retires or overdoses on ayahuasca.
That could lead the 49ers to Brady. The championship window in Tampa Bay is closing. After outsing his former head coach and his wife, it appears that Brady has all the leverage in the world – even at age 46.
A pending free agent, Brady could walk away at the end of this season and make his way back to his home state. But the 49ers may not want to be stuck with the second coming of 2010 Brett Favre. With $375 million waiting for him in the broadcast booth, Brady may decide it’s finally time to hang up the cleats.
That could leave the 49ers scrambling for a quarterback – and that’s where the Vikings come into play.
The Vikings are 5-1, but Cousins isn’t the main reason for their success. His 6.6 yards per attempt is the lowest of his career, and he’s already thrown five interceptions after giving up just seven all of last season.
These things were expected while transitioning to Kevin O’Connell’s scheme, but O’Connell has catered to Cousins by installing more two tight-end sets and increasing C.J. Ham’s usage. Cousins still has missed big plays by settling for high-percentage shorter routes, which has plagued him for most of his career.
The Vikings are happy with Cousins, but what happens if these things don’t improve? What if they get bounced in the wild card round or miss the playoffs altogether? Even if the Vikings make a run to the NFC Championship game, Cousins could still be available for the right price.
That’s where we check on the 49ers.
Shanahan aggressively tried to acquire Cousins when he first took over in San Francisco. Then-Washington head coach Jay Gruden hinted that San Francisco offered “more than just one No. 1 pick.” Shanahan also explored signing Cousins when he was a free agent in 2018. He even explored the possibility of trading for Cousins again before moving up for Lance in the spring of 2021.
After presumably souring on Lance, Shanahan could convince Lynch to make one more push for Cousins, giving the Vikings a godfather deal for his archetypal quarterback. Such a deal wouldn’t be cheap, but perhaps the 49ers wouldn’t care.
With plenty of leverage, the Vikings could demand the best offer for Cousins. This would also give Kwesi Adofo-Mensah ammunition to get his own quarterback in the draft. With Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Will Levis, and Anthony Richardson trending toward first-round status, this is a better buyer’s year than last season’s class, one that could entice the Vikings to make a deal.
There are also reasons that would tempt Cousins to waive his no-trade clause. The Niners’ supporting cast is better than the one he has in Minnesota. With a coach dying to tailor a system to his strengths, this could be his chance to win a title. Mix in a lucrative, fully guaranteed, short-term extension, and Cousins could be willing to board the next plane to San Francisco.
The 49ers had a front-row seat as the Los Angeles Rams went all in for Matthew Stafford last season. They had an elite infrastructure, and Stafford cashed it in by winning the Super Bowl. After watching their division rival “go full Rams,” the Niners are taking the same path. Why else would they trade three picks for a 27-year-old running back? And why would they settle for a mid-range quarterback after making that moves?
It sets up an interesting offseason — and we could see it further shape up in the waning weeks of this year.