Over the past several seasons, the Minnesota Vikings have had stability at quarterback.
Kirk Cousins is the first QB in franchise history to start at least 16 games in four consecutive seasons. He has the arm strength to get the ball downfield and has the accuracy to make those shots count. And he has stats that could be engraved into a bronze block in Canton. Cousins is already one of the best quarterbacks to put on a Vikings uniform.
Because of this, it would be hard to replace him. However, if the Vikings are thinking about it, their best chance would be in the draft. If they’re looking for someone who can potentially move the needle more than Cousins has, that quarterback is Malik Willis.
Draftniks are down on this class for its lack of big names. That’s understandable after the superstars that the past two classes have produced. Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert came out of the 2020 draft, and Trevor Lawrence and Mac Jones came out of the 2021 class. If everything goes right, we could be adding Justin Fields and Trey Lance to this list by this time next year.
But what Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell must decide is if any of these prospects have a trait that makes them a potential franchise quarterback.
Here’s where the Vikings should focus on with Willis: He threw for 2,857 yards with 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last season. With 878 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground, those numbers would make scouts drool if they happened at Alabama or Georgia. Instead, they were tucked away in the obscure landscape of Liberty University.
But Willis’ small-school roots shouldn’t be an issue. A year ago, the San Francisco 49ers traded up nine spots to take Lance after a dominant 2019 season at North Dakota State.
Lance had higher overall numbers but also played in the FCS. With the added benefit of three extra games and an offense tailored toward the run, there’s an argument that Willis had a better season than Lance. Plus, he didn’t have to sit out a full year before declaring for the draft.
But this article isn’t about drafting a small-school quarterback. If that were the case, the Indianapolis Colts would like to have a word about another NDSU product. Instead, this is about what Willis can do for a team that has had no flavor at the quarterback position.
If we were cooking in the kitchen, Cousins would be like tofu for the Vikings. It’s probably good for them, but it absorbs the flavor of the ingredients around it. Mike Zimmer has thrown the football equivalent of rotten vegetables around Cousins for the past couple of seasons. It resulted in two consecutive seasons of watching the playoffs at home.
Adofo-Mensah accurately described Cousins during his press conference at the NFL Scouting Combine.
“He’s an incredibly consistent passer,” Adofo-Mensah said. “I don’t think people realize that essentially every play has a result built into it based on factors that he can’t control. And I think what you know about Kirk is that when the odds are shifted in his favor, he gets the most out of it.”
That sounds like a comment that would score a point for Cousins. But Cousins’ most significant issue has been adapting when things go wrong, which isn’t an issue with Willis. We know he has a big arm and can make plays downfield. Staffers also know that Willis is adept at processing plays. The wild card is what he can do as a runner.
Willis had 90 missed tackles on rushing attempts last season, which led all players in the FBS. That’s more than Kenneth Walker III and Bijan Robinson. It’s the most out of every player in college football.
With the highest PFF rushing grade of any player in college football last season, Willis can provide the Vikings a security blanket the offensive line hasn’t had. Think back to 2017 when Minnesota went to the NFC Championship game. The offensive line wasn’t a dominant unit, but Case Keenum used his mobility to extend plays and give his teammates a chance to win.
Willis could be the most dynamic threat at quarterback the Vikings have had since Daunte Culpepper. Compared to the rest of the draft, he seems like a no-brainer.
Kenny Pickett’s hand size has been one of the biggest storylines during the combine. While Vikings fans could be scared over Culpepper’s fumbling issues in the 2000s, there’s a chance it may not matter. Remember when Joe Burrow joked about retiring over his small hands? There’s a chance it could work out.
But Pickett doesn’t have the machismo that Burrow has shown throughout his career. His flashiest moment in college came when he faked a slide – a move that would invite a linebacker to rip his head off had he tried it to the NFL. The rest of his game feels average, which would put the Vikings in the same situation they’re in now (albeit nearly $40 million cheaper).
Sam Howell is also an intriguing prospect after he dominated during his freshman season at North Carolina. But after losing some of his top weapons and part of the coaching staff, he started to look pedestrian. There’s a chance that Howell could show out at the combine, but his performance when things were taken away sounds a lot like what the Vikings have with Cousins.
All of these things have to be running through the minds of the Vikings’ front office staff. With so many flaws, they have to wonder if any of these quarterbacks are worth giving up the stability that Cousins provides.
By selecting one of these quarterbacks, the Vikings might be better off swallowing hard and punting on 2022 while eating Cousins’ $45 million cap hit. Instead, they should think about what Willis could turn into five years down the road.
“You’re just guessing, you’re predicting,” Adofo-Mensah said via Purple Insider’s Matthew Coller. “We have information today and you watch a player and then you see in five years what they are like. Those things don’t always line up. People come through, they improve their mechanics, they get different coaching, they get in different schemes that fit their skillsets.”
These are projections, but the Vikings have to ask themselves what moves the needle. If they want a quarterback with the tools to be a franchise quarterback, they should draft Malik Willis.