Don’t Panic: Extending Cousins Can Still Allow the Vikings To Build For the Future

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, regardless of team, fans discuss the tension between competing to win in the short term and rebuilding for the future. For the Minnesota Vikings, it seems like these discussions are particularly frequent.

To some extent, it’s moot – the Vikings effectively have a mandate from ownership to always compete. The coaching staff and front office are judged by playoff appearances and playoff wins, so there’s no debate between prioritizing short-term wins and long-term stability. Ideally, the team will find ways to spend resources in both categories of investment but will focus on winning now when the two needs come into conflict.

But even as the reality is fairly cut and dry, there’s been significant discourse about how the Vikings should approach this offseason, regardless of ownership mandate. That has led to debate over the philosophical approach to roster-building.

As The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski points out, the Vikings will likely attempt to re-sign Cousins. Their team philosophy doesn’t allow them to really treat his contract expiration in March as a meaningful crossroads like it would for most organizations. Instead of looking at Cousins’ potential departure as an opportunity to change course, Minnesota will almost certainly attempt to fulfill both needs with an eye toward the playoffs.

The piece is well-written and isolates several options with that in mind. It adds that Cousins has dramatically increased his value to the organization via his absence, given how the Vikings have struggled without him at the helm.

But the Twitter conversation following the piece was a bit muddled, with Krawczynski introducing the idea of a “complete rebuild” that would exist without Cousins. In that world, the Vikings would move on from veteran contracts and trade their most valuable assets. When one commenter responded by pointing out that this would include Justin Jefferson, Krawczynski agreed.

We have seen teams take those kinds of extremes to supercharge their rebuild – the Carolina Panthers did just that to acquire Bryce Young, losing receiver D.J. Moore in the process. The Detroit Lions did something similar, trading away franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford in exchange for draft picks and someone who is evidently a franchise quarterback himself.

But those moves tend to be rare. Instead, teams often will retain core players while building for the future. Not only that, the Vikings essentially cleared house the previous offseason anyway. The franchise rid itself of veterans like Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, Eric Kendricks, Patrick Peterson, Za’Darius Smith, and Dalvin Tomlinson. Some left in free agency, some were traded, and others were cut. Regardless, they created a much younger team.

In light of that and the lack of veteran leadership, Minnesota would do best to hold on to players like Jefferson and Danielle Hunter as they build around a potential new quarterback – essentially as Krawczynski suggested. That sounds nice, but it initially doesn’t seem doable.

Minnesota’s free-agency situation has caused some consternation among fans. The big problem, as many people see it, is extending Jefferson. The Vikings are headed into 2024 with a $37 million projected cap number, which will look a bit worse after the draft and a hypothetical Cousins extension. If they want to throw a Hunter extension on top of that, things get tight, especially given that there will be important extensions for players like Dalton Risner, D.J. Wonnum, Jonathan Bullard, Khyiris Tonga, Greg Joseph, and Blake Brandel.

At first, these might seem like major issues when considered in concert with Cousins, who has traditionally preferred fully guaranteed contracts that are often difficult to perform accounting tricks with. But he and Hunter have void years left on their contract that artificially deflate Minnesota’s cap number. That means extensions for both of them would cut into their currently accounted-for cap numbers of $28.5 million and $14.9 million. Also, the cap calculation assumes the Vikings would eat all of Jefferson’s fifth-year option at $19 million.

These are all hidden areas where the Vikings can materialize new cap space seemingly out of thin air.

If the Vikings and Hunter agree to a contract that meets the expectations of contract expert Brad Spielberger at Pro Football Focus, then they would offer him $21.67 million per year over three years with $40 million guaranteed. If most of that guaranteed money comes in the form of a signing bonus, they could create new void years for 2027 and 2028.

With this in mind, they could reduce their cap hit with a contract that still provides $25 million up front and $1 million in base salary in the first year. That frees up around $1 million in space while offering competitive $20.5 million salaries for the next two years.

A Cousins extension without any additional years – just a simple, two-year, $60 million deal, like Spielberger’s contract projection — would dip into the voided hit before taking up any cap space. If offered a $30 million signing bonus and $15 million per year, Cousins would carry a cap hit of $32.8 million instead of $28.5 million, resulting in a net change of just $4.3 million.

Restructuring Harrison Smith’s contract could also free up an additional $6.7 million in space. Assuming Jefferson gets a deal that resembles Miami Dolphins receiver Tyreek Hill‘s, the Vikings can afford the extensions for their stars and critical depth players.

Hill’s contract structure only takes up $6.5 million in the first year, with $12.8 million following it. The end of the four-year extension features an uncomfortable $56.3 million, but the Dolphins and Hill will likely renegotiate the contract by then. Assuming a deal worth $35 million a year in new money and structured like Hill’s, the Vikings could save against the cap in the first two years.

If they agree on that kind of extension, Jefferson’s new deal could free up space in 2024 and 2025, with his guaranteed money in 2024 converting to signing bonus. That would give the Vikings $48.8 million to play with.

That would mean that extending Risner, Wonnum, Bullard, and Joseph while offering restricted free-agent tenders to Blake Brandel and Khyiris Tonga wouldn’t stress the cap. With perfunctory re-signings like Johnny Mundt, David Quessenberry, and Brandon Powell, they could even extend players like K.J. Osborn without worrying too much about his potential market.

Assuming the Vikings avoid a quarterback in round one for a second- or third-round prospect, they could end up with a class like the following:

This class, perhaps conspicuously heavy on CFP Championship Game participants, would allow the Vikings to develop a quarterback of the future and get some instant impact along the defensive line and in the secondary. The specifics of the players aren’t important — they could just as easily draft J.J. McCarthy or Bo Nix in the second round or draft an edge rusher like Jared Verse in the first.

The point remains the same: They can bolster the team’s short-term prospects while maintaining the cap space to pursue help in free agency, especially at a position they may not be able to fill in the first two rounds. In this case, it would be an edge rusher. In another case, it could be a cornerback.

The Vikings have often had to walk the tightrope between competing now and building for the future. This year is no different, and the stressors are not any more impactful. They can do it again.

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