What Does It Mean That the Vikings Chose Cousins Over Lamar Jackson Twice?

Photo Credit: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. At least, that’s how Mark Twain saw things. Minnesota Vikings fans likely agree. In 2018, the Vikings were coming off a 13-win season and felt they were a quarterback away from winning the Super Bowl. They also needed cornerback help. Five years later, Minnesota is coming off a 13-win season, seems interested in an upgrade at quarterback, and also needs some corners.

The Vikings chose Mike Hughes, a corner out of Central Florida, with the 30th pick in the 2018 draft. The Baltimore Ravens took Lamar Jackson two picks later. Mike Zimmer was a defensive coach who came up coaching corners. He pushed for Hughes and got him. Rick Spielman wasn’t going to take a quarterback anyway. He had just guaranteed Kirk Cousins $84 million. Cousins would have blocked Jackson for most of his rookie contract.

Things are slightly different now. Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell are in charge, and the Vikings also don’t think they’re a quarterback away. They know they’re unlikely to repeat their 11-1 record in one-score games from last year. But if the reports are accurate that Cousins was willing to take a team-friendly deal and Kwesi and Co. balked, we can deduce that they feel an upgrade is necessary. However, given that they don’t appear to be in the Jackson sweepstakes, they must not think he’s enough of a power-up. Or maybe they just have too much money invested in Cousins to burn two first-rounders on him.

History isn’t repeating itself. But it rhymes a little bit, doesn’t it?

Cousins was chewing up too much of the cap, so Adofo-Mensah deferred $28.5 million of Cousins’ salary into next year, which became dead cap. The Vikings are paying Cousins $28.5 million not to play in 2024. Because he has four void years on his contract, Cousins will continue to collect a purple paycheck until 2027. It pays to be consistent in the NFL.

It also makes it pretty tough to pay Jackson. Minnesota would have to give up two firsts and pay him $32.4 million to acquire Jackson, then extend him. Jackson reportedly wants something similar to the $230 million guaranteed that the Cleveland Browns offered Deshaun Watson. That’s a hefty price tag for a dynamic dual-threat player with an injury history. For some teams, that’s absolutely worth it. Jackson is like octane booster if your team is chugging along on 87. But it doesn’t make much sense if you’ve built a roster around a traditional quarterback.

Baltimore designed runs for Jackson. They created an entire offense for him. Jackson frustrates defenses with his ability to buy time in the pocket and scramble when he sees space in the open field. But he won’t sit back and pick apart a defense like Joe Burrow. He’s not as durable as Josh Allen, and nobody can create something out of nothing like Patrick Mahomes. Jackson is a unique weapon who requires the right coaching and cast to decode a defense. He’s the right fit for a team that doesn’t have much direction and needs a dynamic quarterback. But he’s a risk for an established roster that is one quarterback away.

There’s an alternate universe where the Vikings re-sign Case Keenum and draft Jackson in 2018. Jackson sits behind Keenum for a year, develops into the starter, and begins his career in a different shade of purple. Keenum is an inferior quarterback to Cousins, but he’s a better scrambler. He’s capable of making something out of nothing, which was perfect for a team with a porous offensive line. Unfortunately, his risk-taking was also a liability. Ultimately, an elite defense that stayed healthy all year carried the Vikings in 2017. Keenum wasn’t the answer so much as a bridge to someone better.

Zimmer may have become frustrated with Jackson, as he did with several young players. But Jackson offered many things that Zimmer would have loved. He ran the ball, and Zimmer was allergic to the forward pass. He also would have been on a rookie contract, allowing the Vikings to spend more money on defense. Perhaps it never would have worked out. Maybe Zimmer wouldn’t want to deal with a young quarterback while his defense was still in its prime. However, there aren’t many quality affordable options under center. Jackson was probably as good of a bet as any.

But the problem with Jackson then is the same as it is now. He’s a wild card. Jackson is liable to take off and run at any time, exposing himself to injury. He plays off-schedule. Any team that employs him has to build the offense around him.

Conversely, Cousins is most comfortable playing on schedule. He only occasionally uses his legs to make plays. He’s also as durable as Stretch Armstrong. Jackson demands a hefty salary because he uses his unpredictability as his strength. Cousins leverages his predictability to earn guaranteed money. He won’t always make a winning play, but he often makes the right play on paper.

Some teams need to manufacture interest because of their fanbase dynamics. The Los Angeles Rams aren’t an institution like the Lakers, and LA has many entertainment options. Therefore, they had to go all in and build a winner to get anyone to pay attention to them. The New York Jets are the second team in the Big Apple. The Houston Texans are the Houston Texans. Teams that need to drum up interest should gamble on Jackson.

But other teams are trying to satiate a rabid fanbase. Cleveland coughed up $230 million and looked the other way on Watson’s character issues because there are Browns Backer bars across the country, and their roster was finally good. Cousins didn’t come with character concerns, but he had a .500 record until last year. Still, the Vikings signed him in 2018 believing they were a quarterback away. Jackson, like any rookie quarterback, is more of a gamble. And it’s harder to take a risk on a player like that when there is so much attention and expectations for your team. It’s often easier to go with the safer bet. That’s as true now as it was then.

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