How Not To Panic During the Vikings' Contract Negotiations

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Most years, the beginning of the offseason is an exciting one for an NFL fanbase. You get to plot out all of the free agents you want your team to sign and draft picks you want them to add. But for Minnesota Vikings fans, anxiety is the main emotion surrounding the team right now.

That makes sense. The Vikings are at a crossroads with long-term quarterback Kirk Cousins coming off injury and scheduled to be a free agent. Without a clear path forward at QB and lacking a top-three draft pick, the team has tough choices to make regarding the future of football’s most important position. The team also has Justin Jefferson, the best non-QB in the NFL, entering the final year of his deal without an extension. Add in the cap implications of extending (or not extending) Cousins and star pass rusher Danielle Hunter before their contracts void, and you have an anxiety storm brewing.

Add in the NFL’s media machine, and you get an update on negotiations seemingly every other day. Run that through the content machine (including Zone Coverage, thanks for reading!) that surrounds that media machine and the anxiety storm swells to a hurricane, fueled by suggested demands, trade speculation, and hypothetical free-agency landing spots.

With all the reports, speculation, and opinions swirling around, how do you separate the signal from the noise? It’s easy to get overwhelmed. But with a good understanding of how NFL contracts and negotiations work, you can start to dig out the truth of what’s going on.

Let’s look at some examples from the players I named above to help us determine what has legs and what doesn’t.

Kirk Cousins and the nature of guarantees

Recent reporting has focused on the nature of guarantees in Cousins and Jefferson’s contracts. Let’s look at Kirk first.

SI’s Albert Breer recently reported that the Vikings didn’t want to guarantee Cousins’ deal past 2024. ESPN’s Kevin Seifert seemed to corroborate that, suggesting that Cousins wants multiple years “locked in” on his deal:

Unlike the NBA and MLB, NFL players do not get fully guaranteed contracts. Non-guaranteed contracts are heavily skewed in the favor of the team because they can cut an underperforming player with no consequences. Guarantee structure has mattered a lot to Cousins. The Vikings famously gave him a fully guaranteed deal in 2018, and he basically had every dollar guaranteed since that point in a pair of extensions. Contrast that with Derek Carr. He signed a three-year, $121.5 million extension with the Las Vegas Raiders in 2022, but Carr only earned $25 million for one year of that deal before Vegas cut him in 2023.

As an aging player coming off of a major injury, it makes sense that Cousins would want multiple years guaranteed on a new deal. That not only provides him additional financial security, but it ensures he is in the same offense for two years. That should let him perform at his best in 2025 and set him up for his next deal at age 38.

On the Vikings side, it makes sense to try to avoid tying yourself to an aging, injured QB who has played well but hasn’t brought the team past the divisional round in his six seasons. If the team wants to get younger at the position, it would make sense to draft a rookie and have him sit behind Cousins for a year. However, it doesn’t make sense to commit to paying Cousins during that player’s second season; Minnesota’s theoretical QB of the future should be ready to start by then.

public negotiations lead to increased scrutiny

It’s natural for the Vikings and Cousins to differ on what they want. The whole point of negotiation is to iron out the differences between the two parties and come to an agreement. Just because Cousins wants multiple years guaranteed and the Vikings don’t want to do that doesn’t mean that one side won’t give up their stance to earn other concessions.

The NFL, and professional sports in general, is unlike other industries in that it has highly public contract negotiations. As an entertainment industry with a ceiling on wages via the salary cap, fans are invested in the moves their teams make. Negotiation is an essential component of building a winning franchise. We’re seeing the sausage being made. It isn’t always pretty, but that doesn’t mean the end product will be poor.

Hunter’s contract negotiation from last year is a great example. Hunter signed a long-term extension before blossoming into an elite edge rusher, and the Vikings were vastly underpaying him entering the final year of his deal. He used what leverage he had, including holding out, to try to improve his deal.

Speculation increased as Hunter held out of minicamp. The Vikings had teams calling to inquire about a potential trade. Speculation called Hunter “frustrated” and lumped him in with other veterans Minnesota had moved on from, like Dalvin Cook and Za’Darius Smith. On July 19, Darren Wolfson reported that negotiations were “a little more difficult than anticipated.” On July 30, Hunter and the Vikings agreed to a deal. Despite holding in for a couple of days at training camp, Hunter had arguably his best season as a pro, with a career-high 16.5 sacks.

Right now, we’re in the July 19 stage with Cousins. The sides are working on a deal, but they aren’t there yet. There is an additional wrench in Cousins’ negotiation. He’s an impending free agent, so he can see what he wants from other teams, unlike Hunter last year. However, Cousins can’t legally negotiate with other teams until his contract voids, so we don’t know at this point what other teams are willing to offer in terms of structure.

The Vikings won’t need to wait until Kirk’s contract voids on March 13 to find out whether he is going to get a better guaranteed offer from another team. It’s an open secret that tampering occurs at the ongoing NFL Combine, which should give Cousins an idea of his market.

He and the Vikings each have their demands, but neither side has all the information they need to determine whether or not they can agree on a deal that makes sense for both sides. As fans, we just have to wait it out.

Justin Jefferson and the language of speculation

Compared to WR, QB is the more important position. But there are many fans who are hoping that the Vikings let Cousins walk to start fresh at QB. With Jefferson, it’s almost unfathomable to imagine a fan not wanting him to be in Minnesota for the long haul. That leads to what might seem like a higher-stakes negotiation from the outside because the team must extend Jefferson, and any other option is a loss.

It’s important to remember that while Jefferson is officially in the final year of his deal, the Vikings have a mechanism to keep him on the roster without giving him a say in the matter. They could use the franchise tag, which is expected to come in at $25.4 million in 2025 and then would cost $30.6 million in 2026, to keep him for at least two years before the cost gets prohibitively expensive. At that point, Jefferson’s only option would be to hold out to try to force a trade.

Obviously, no one wants the situation to drag out that long. If you think the anxiety is bad now, imagine how much worse it would get if Jefferson was an impending free agent. The Vikings probably should have extended Jefferson last offseason, but we can’t change the past. Instead, let’s try to get to the bottom of current speculation, and see what truth can be gleaned from it.

The first piece of reporting comes from Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, who says the Vikings don’t want to guarantee Jefferson’s deal beyond the year he signs the contract. As discussed with Cousins above, Jefferson wants as much guaranteed money as possible, and Minnesota wants to guarantee as little as possible to increase flexibility. Taken at face value, Florio’s article paints a scary picture. The Vikings seem like they’re screwing up negotiations because they are stubborn about guarantees.

Dig deeper into the details, and concerns lessen. Understanding both sides’ motivations with respect to guarantees helps. But the Vikings gave out guarantees past the first year in their most recent big contract with T.J. Hockenson. Furthermore, the “first year” in Jefferson’s case could be referring to 2025 instead of 2024 because that would be the first year of his extension.

The Vikings are not necessarily asking for anything unusual in this negotiation, but Jefferson is also right to press for more guarantees. Even then there’s the nature of the word “guarantee” here, which isn’t an absolute. It’s likely that Florio is talking about “full” guarantees in the article above, not “rolling” or “injury” guarantees. This distinction is important because when a team makes a contract guarantee, it must put that money into escrow due to the CBA.

If Jefferson gets a $35 million per year deal and three years escrow guaranteed, the Vikings would have to put $105 million in escrow immediately. To avoid having to put all of the guaranteed money in escrow right away, teams have implemented “rolling” guarantees to contracts. The money in the deal isn’t guaranteed initially, but it becomes guaranteed after a certain date in the future.

Tyreek Hill‘s deal is a good example. The Miami Dolphins gave him $52.5 million fully guaranteed, including his 2022 and 2023 salaries. However, they also implemented a rolling guarantee, which fully guaranteed his 2024 salary on the fifth day of the league year. That meant that the Dolphins didn’t have to put $72.2 million in escrow immediately. Still, Hill was functionally guaranteed the money in 2024 when he signed his deal. It would have been prohibitively expensive (over $40 million in dead cap for 2023) for Miami to cut him before the 2024 guarantee vests.

Nick Bosa is the highest-paid non-QB in the NFL, and he also has a similar structure. He signed an extension while on his fifth-year option, the situation Jefferson is currently in, and had his salary guaranteed for year one of that extension (2024). However, only $20.1 million of $30.6 million of his 2025 salary was guaranteed, with the remaining $10.5 million scheduled to be guaranteed on April 1 of this year. Based on the report above, and further reporting from Seifert, it seems that the reality is the Vikings are offering a structure similar to these two deals, but Jefferson is trying to use leverage of his status as an elite player to gain even more guarantees.

The next set of concerns that have been raised over Jefferson’s contract status are even more insidious. At least Florio’s report includes new information, possibly leaked from Jefferson’s camp. (That’s also just a natural part of this process.) But there are many aggregator accounts that don’t do any original reporting of their own. Instead, they take reports and turn them into speculation with eye-catching headlines, like the tweet below:

When reading reports like the one above, you need to dig a little to find the truth behind the sensationalism. Jefferson saying he wants to know Minnesota’s plan at QB appears to come from Tom Pelissero on an NFL Network spot, and that makes sense. Jefferson wants to know who the QB of the team will be, just like we all do. He also has an additional incentive because the quality of that player may impact his stats, legacy, and future earnings.

The second half of the statement, that Jefferson wants Cousins to stay, is also backed up by things Jefferson has said. For example, this quote from December. However, the tweet is misleading because it combines the two pieces of information. The implication that the aggregator account wants you to take away is that Jefferson is demanding that the Vikings bring Cousins back and that his signing a deal is contingent on Kirk being the QB.

That doesn’t seem to be the case, though, based on Jefferson’s quotes. It appears like Jefferson would like Cousins back, but he mostly just wants to know the vision the Vikings have for the future. He said the following at Super Bowl week:

I’ll really have to see if we really bring back Kirk or not, if we decide to want to draft, or want to pick up a quarterback. All of that plays a part, but also, I still managed to get 1,000 yards by playing through four different quarterbacks as well, so it really doesn’t matter too much who’s throwing me that ball as long as someone’s throwing it to me. I feel like I’m confident and I have the ability to make plays, no matter if the ball is 100% accurate or if it’s a little behind or a little in front or a little off. So I’m always confident in my game, confident that I’m going to play the same no matter who’s going to throw me the ball, but of course, having Kirk out there to be that leader and that captain, to throw that ball with accuracy and precise as he does, it definitely is very valuable and useful being a receiver.

The reality of the situation appears to be more that Jefferson wants to understand the direction of the franchise before signing, rather than demanding a specific QB.

tips to avoid overreacting

Looking at the situations above, there are a few helpful tips to avoid contract anxiety moving forward:

Never trust the aggregators. Aggregator accounts try to make money from the views their posts get. It behooves them to sensationalize reports to draw eyeballs and incite discussion. Try to find the actual report the aggregator is referencing, which isn’t always easy because they often just credit an individual rather than linking to the article or video where it was provided.

Understand that contracts require negotiation. Both parties are not going to agree on a proposed deal immediately. If they did, it would already be signed. Information that we see is posturing for the negotiation, released through reporters with connections to agents and teams. That doesn’t mean contracts are inevitable but reported disagreements don’t necessarily signal doom for a potential deal.

Approaching the deadline isn’t necessarily a bad sign. With every passing day, it may feel less likely that the Vikings reach a deal with Cousins, or that Jefferson might slip away if the Vikings don’t lock him up this year. The reality is that Cousins’ deal was never going to get done before the Combine because his representation needs the tampering that definitely doesn’t happen at that event to gauge his market. Last year’s Hunter situation is a parallel, where that situation dragged into training camp.

For Jefferson, we can look at the Lamar Jackson deal the Baltimore Ravens were able to get done last offseason. Jackson played out his rookie deal and Baltimore franchise-tagged him. But both sides were able to eventually come to a long term extension, and Jackson won his second MVP this past season. Nick Bosa had to sit out until September 6 to get his extension this year, but he did and had another great year that ended in a Super Bowl appearance.

Finally, relax. It’s out of your hands. Let’s get zen for a minute. You (probably) are not Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, or Kevin O’Connell. Nothing you say, think, or do can impact these contract negotiations. The Vikings will sign these guys, or they won’t. You’re going to be watching them every Sunday next season regardless. We can certainly react to the news as it unfolds, but avoid getting worked up about situations that are still unfolding. Read the tweet, take a deep breath, and move on with your day. There’s nothing you can do about it anyway.

Drake Maye’s Arm Talent Is Worth Paying A King’s Ransom For
By Kaleb Medhanie - Apr 19, 2024
T.J. Hockenson Has Found That the Waiting Is the Hardest Part
By Tom Schreier - Apr 18, 2024

Auburn's Nehemiah Pritchett Could Be the Answer For Minnesota's CB Room

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

A lack of high-quality cornerback play has been a consistent issue during Kevin O’Connell’s tenure with the Minnesota Vikings. Byron Murphy signed a two-year, $17.5 million contract […]

Continue Reading