The NFL salary cap isn’t a myth. Give Rob Brzezinski 15 cents, a nail, and the shell of a great-great-great-grandfather snail, and he’ll tell you that cap space doesn’t grow on trees. The salary cap is a myth in the same sense as your credit card is. It might not feel like you’re getting hit in the wallet when you make a purchase, but you’ve got to pay your Visa bill eventually.
Brzezinski knows how to use bonus money and void years to defer millions of dollars into the future. He fits the Minnesota Vikings’ brawny millionaires into the salary cap elevator with aplomb. But at some point, it won’t go up. Roger Goodell will hold his hand in front of the door until a few guys get off. That’s why the Vikings let Eric Kendricks, who became the soul of their defense, go. And it’s why some other fan-favorite veterans could be wearing different colors next year.
The reckoning may be coming. The Vikings might be out of truffula trees. All these years of restructuring contracts deferring money using void years killed the topsoil. Minnesota is carrying a lot of credit card debt, and the bank is calling. Or, more pertinently, they won’t be able to play in the Bank until they wipe away the debt. What will be the catalyst for this decision? Is there a way for the Vikings to run it back one last time before turning it over to the youth?
It all comes down to what walks and talks. So let’s follow the money.
Kirk Cousins occupies 16.35% of Minnesota’s cap space. For reference, Patrick Mahomes took up 17% of the Kansas City Chiefs’ cap last year. He also became the first quarterback to win the Super Bowl while making more than 12.5% of the cap. Mahomes is magic, and Cousins isn’t. But that isn’t the point. Cousins makes that kind of money because he has the leverage to negotiate for it. He’s better than half of the quarterbacks in the league.
However, that’s not Minnesota’s standard. Kevin O’Connell and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah have made it clear that they have a championship threshold they want to meet. They’ve also been vocal in support of Cousins. O’Connell coached him in Washington, and Cousins played well under him last year. Adofo-Mensah was only being honest when he told USA Today that Cousins isn’t Mahomes or Tom Brady. He isn’t. But Cousins creates a floor on a team with a dynamic wide receiver who needs someone to throw him the ball. Few people on earth can do that. Therefore, the Vikings owe him $36 million next year unless they extend him.
Cousins reportedly wants a multi-year deal. The Vikings probably shouldn’t give him more than three because he’s entering his age-35 season and will experience decline. However, a long-term deal may foster a successful succession plan. Still, it’s only feasible if Cousins doesn’t leverage maximum value for himself. Minnesota can’t win if he’s taking up too much cap space. They have to pay Justin Jefferson and T.J. Hockenson. They need offensive linemen and a defense. Therefore, the Vikings must limit what they’ll pay Cousins and let him walk if he wants more.
It’s hard to imagine a player who’s always maximized his leverage taking the Brady route and accepting less to free up cap space. But Cousins has always been in an unfavorable situation. The Washington Commanders have one of the worst owners in sports and play on crabgrass in a stadium that is falling apart. Cousins collected franchise tag money for two years and signed a fully guaranteed $84 million contract with the Vikings. The catch? Mike Zimmer wasn’t his biggest fan. But now he plays for a coach who advocates for him.
The Vikings treat their players well, ownership is committed to winning, and Cousins has an arsenal of weapons. They can approach Cousins in good faith and tell him they’re committed to winning, but he has to give them cap space to build a championship roster. He can balk and make more money elsewhere – there’s nothing wrong with that. But Minnesota can’t win it all if he’s occupying too much cap space, and they’ve been clear that they have championship standards.
If Cousins accepts a Brady-like deal, they can retain some of the veteran core. Maybe Adam Thielen takes WR3 money. Perhaps they extend Brian O’Neill and restructure Harrison Smith to free up a little space. And the Vikings decide to ride it out one more year with Dalvin Cook and his repaired shoulder. But if Cousins doesn’t, Minnesota should pay off the credit card. Let Cousins play out the final year of his deal, move on from any of the veterans who won’t take a cut, and turn it over to the young guys.
It may seem like an easy decision to some. Cousins isn’t a championship quarterback. Thielen is on the wrong side of 30. They’re overpaying Cook. But to others, it’s an unnecessary risk. Cousins is always healthy and can get Jefferson the ball. Who’s the WR3? Cook had big plays in the Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis Colts games. It’s a bit of a Sophie’s choice, but one that Minnesota’s Wolf of Chicago Ave. can handle.
Adofo-Mensah has been on Wall St. and might be capable of a little ruthlessness. Don’t be surprised if the Vikings get out the jerry can and drop a match; a controlled burn might be what this team needs for its competitive rebuild. Legend has it that Brzezinski will drop a truffula seed if you ask nicely. But it will only grow if there’s fertile soil to plant it in.