It’s mock draft season, a silly exercise that usually winds up way off the mark from what actually occurs in the draft. I’ve seen several mock drafts with the Minnesota Vikings selecting a quarterback in the first round.
Some of them predict the team will trade up from No. 23 overall to take a quarterback from this year’s seemingly strong group. These prognosticators believe the Vikings will go this route because 2023 is Kirk Cousins‘ last year under contract.
Why would the Vikings set themselves up to move on from Cousins in 2024 after he just had his best season in 2022? His passing stats have been better in other years, but he made significant strides toward top-10 QB status by altering the previous narrative he was not a clutch quarterback.
Cousins led a career-best eight come-from-behind victories during the Vikings’ 13-4 regular season. They also won their first NFC North title since 2017, and Cousins was selected for his fourth Pro Bowl.
He appeared in great sync with new coach Kevin O’Connell, who was Cousins’ quarterback coach in Washington in 2017. O’Connell consistently praised Cousins’ performance and leadership throughout the season.
Replacing Cousins Isn’t Crazy
Perhaps the Vikings taking a first-round quarterback isn’t far-fetched. Cousins’ terrific regular season was followed by a 31-24 home playoff upset loss to the New York Giants. Cousins was missing his best offensive lineman — tackle Brian O’Neill — and his center Garrett Bradbury was coming off a back injury, so Cousins was pressured all game by the Giants’ defense.
Everyone was likely exasperated when Cousins threw short of the first down marker to tight end T.J. Hockenson on the team’s final offensive play rather than trying to hit superstar receiver Justin Jefferson, as he had on fourth-and-18 in their Week 10 upset win in Buffalo.
Even after that disappointing defeat, it was assumed the Vikings would extend Cousins this offseason because the team needed to free up cap space. They exercised the option in his $35 million per year deal to convert part of his 2023 base salary and roster bonus into a $20 million signing bonus and $10 million base, which lowered his salary cap number from $36.25 million to $20.25 million.
The team added two void years, so if Cousins is not extended beyond 2023 and leaves after this coming season, there would be a $28.5 million dead money hit to the Vikings’ 2024 cap.
Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell seem to believe Cousins is a top 10-12 QB. But do the GM, coach, and team owners, Zygi and Mark Wilf, believe Cousins is a Super Bowl-winning quarterback?
That’s the key question for franchise leaders in evaluating a player like Cousins with a 1-3 career playoff record. Of course, the owners will sign off on any decisions involving the team’s most important position — quarterback.
Perhaps Minnesota’s decision-makers think Cousins can lead the team to its first Super Bowl since 1976 as he continues to work with O’Connell, Jefferson, Hockenson, and top back Dalvin Cook (who might be traded or released for cap savings). Also, the offensive line is expected to improve with further development of a talented enough group. All five starters were drafted in the first two rounds.
If the Vikings brass is sold on Cousins for the future, they would extend him for two or more years beyond 2023. However, they might consider how teams like the Seattle Seahawks in Russell Wilson‘s early years, the Kansas City Chiefs with Patrick Mahomes in 2019 and 2020, the Cincinnati Bengals with Joe Burrow two years ago and the Philadelphia Eagles last year with Jalen Hurts benefited from their quarterbacks being on rookie deals.
Those franchises built Super Bowl teams by adding high-salaried players at other positions on offense and defense. In fact, if we include Lamar Jackson, who was out injured, eight of last season’s 14 playoff starters at quarterback were on rookie deals.
Or maybe the Vikings want a quarterback more mobile than Cousins, who had just 97 rushing yards last season. In today’s NFL, quarterbacks who can run and scramble to evade pressure such as Mahomes, Josh Allen, Hurts, Jackson, Kyler Murray, Justin Fields and Daniel Jones are difficult for defenses to contain.
Cousins is 34 years old, which does not preclude him from playing multiple years into the future because his skillset relies on accuracy, arm strength, smarts and leadership and far less on mobility. Cousins says he wants to retire a Viking, but he won’t come cheap, and therein lies the problem for Adofo-Mensah in the negotiating process.
The Vikings already have seen the wide receiver market explode in the past two years, as they prepare to extend Jefferson at a cost of at least— and probably a bit more — than $30 million per year. Now, the always-expensive quarterback market is escalating with the NFL salary cap — now at $225 million — growing by $20 million or more per year.
Obstacles for an Extension
If the team wants to extend Cousins and likely gain additional cap room, a major obstacle is the four-year, $40 million per year contract (with $94 million in total guarantees) Jones signed to avoid being franchise tagged by the New York Giants.
Jones had a 12-25 record in his first three seasons with a questionable supporting cast before his first winning season in 2022, which included the playoff win in Minnesota. Jones took a big step forward as a passer under NFL Coach of the Year Brian Daboll. Jones finished with 3,205 passing yards, and a 92.5 passer rating, while adding 708 yards, and seven touchdowns on the ground.
Undoubtedly, the Giants wanted to sign Jones for about $35 million per year. They had to give him an additional $5 million per year to get a first-year cap number of $19 million compared to $32.4 million under the tag. After re-signing Jones, New York franchise tagged Saquon Barkley at $10.1 million, keeping both of its star offensive players. Under Daboll, Jones has a good chance to become a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback.
Cousins’ contract was extended by one year last offseason. If there are discussions regarding another extension, Cousins and his agent likely will push the Vikings for something higher than $40 million per year because Cousins has outperformed Jones over the years. They could also claim he’s more accomplished than Arizona’s Kyler Murray, who is signed for $46 million per year. Because Murray is a former No. 1 overall pick and nine years younger than Cousins, his upside appears greater.
The price tag for established, playoff-caliber quarterbacks will continue to rise as Burrow, Justin Herbert and Hurts likely will be extended this year. Those extensions could land anywhere from Murray and Deshaun Watson’s $46 million per year to exceeding Aaron Rodgers‘ league-leading $50 million per year.
Jackson could join that upper tier, too. He is set to make $32.4 million for 2023 under the non-exclusive franchise tag and could sign a lucrative extension in Baltimore or receive an offer from another team if he comes off his demand for a fully-guaranteed contract in the range of $230 million over five years.
Perhaps Cousins and his agent are content to wait until these other quarterbacks reset the market while continuing to emphasize Jones’ contract in discussions about Cousins’ market value.
If Cousins is not extended before the upcoming draft, we’ll have a better idea of the Vikings’ plans for the future at quarterback with their draft decision in the first round. I’m not convinced this is going to happen, especially with the top four college quarterbacks expected to go in the top 10 picks. One could slide, or Minnesota could trade up or go for the highly rated but injured Hendon Hooker (scouting report), who sustained a late-season torn ACL.
Back in my early Vikings front-office years, we had 37-year-old Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton, who had just led the team to Super Bowl XI and had been the league MVP in 1975. We drafted QB Tommy Kramer in the first round, and he was the starter by his third season when Tarkenton retired.
Anything is possible when it comes to quarterbacks and team decisions. Bill Belichick drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the 2014 second round with Tom Brady still at the top of his game, and the Patriots traded Garoppolo to the 49ers three years later as Brady remained elite. And let’s not forget what’s currently playing out in Green Bay.
If the Vikings draft a defensive player in the first round as originally expected, then Cousins — who has been incredibly durable, never missing a game due to injury — most likely will be Minnesota’s starting quarterback for the next few years at least.
If there is a quarterback the Vikings like, and they either trade up or take at their current spot in the first round, then some of those mock drafters will say they told us so. It could even be a third-rounder the team had with a higher grade that they pick — a la Wilson in the 2012 third round by the Seahawks.
In that event, Cousins’ time with the Vikings could end after the 2023 season with a young QB stepping up the following year.
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter – @jeffdiamondnfl