It’s only three weeks into the 2023 NFL regular season, but the vultures are circling around the 0-3 Minnesota Vikings. Their focus is on quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has five turnovers thus far in his final season under contract.
His stats are gaudy as he leads the league with 1,075 passing yards, and he ranks third in passer rating at 108.2. He has made a lot of great throws, such as the 52-yard scoring strike to Justin Jefferson that gave the Vikings a short-lived three-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday.
But after a Pro Bowl season in 2022 when he led the Vikings to the NFC North title with a 13-4 record that included an NFL-record 11 one-score wins (with eight comebacks), Cousins has made critical mistakes with the turnovers and has not come through in the clutch as he did last season. This season has continued a trend that started with the wild-card playoff loss to the New York Giants. That game ended with a much-criticized fourth down checkdown short of the sticks to TE T.J. Hockenson.
Crunch Time Suddenly a Problem
That play refueled the narrative that Cousins does not win the big games. He's also struggled in prime-time games, where he has an 11-19 record after the Week 2 Thursday night loss in Philadelphia. The opening three games of this season have not helped Cousins’ cause.
The latest fiasco came in the closing seconds against the Chargers. Trailing by four points and facing a fourth-and-5, Cousins hit Hockenson for a first down at the Chargers’ 6-yard line with 41 seconds remaining. But Cousins couldn’t hear the play call from coach Kevin O’Connell, and he should’ve spiked the ball to have time for three plays.
Instead, Cousins wasted 30 seconds, and in panic mode, he forced a throw to Hockenson in traffic that was deflected and intercepted to end the game. He had overthrown an open K.J. Osborn on the first play of that final drive, who would’ve scored to take the lead. And earlier, with three minutes remaining, the Vikings turned it over on downs after Cousins threw an incomplete pass from the Chargers’ 2-yard line to Jefferson on both third and fourth down.
The Vikings lost winnable home games to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Chargers and trail the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers by two games in the NFC North race. Minnesota faces a must-win situation at Carolina on Sunday with the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs coming to town the following Sunday.
In the past 20 years, only one team (the 2018 Houston Texans) has made the playoffs after starting 0-3. With the 17-game schedule and seven NFC teams making the playoffs, the odds have improved slightly for a 0-3 team so there’s time to turn it around. But it almost certainly has to start this week. Cousins knows it and said after the Chargers game, “It’s a long football season, and we have a lot of opportunities up ahead. But we’ve dug ourselves a hole and have a long way to climb out.”
What Will Cousins' Next Contract Be? And Where?
Cousins’ contract has been the subject of much speculation after he was not extended last offseason. He’s in the last year of a $35 million per year deal and is likely seeking $45-50 million per year as a four-time Pro Bowler. However, he only has one playoff win on his resume. That's the same as Lamar Jackson, who got $52 million per year with $185 million guaranteed on his recent five-year extension from the Baltimore Ravens. But Jackson is younger and a former league MVP.
I think Cousins and his agent would be satisfied with $45 million per year. That would put him above Daniel Jones ($40 million per year) and at Kyler Murray’s level, but I doubt the Vikings want to pay Cousins that much without an extended playoff run.
Cousins will turn 36 in August. The conjecture in the Twin Cities is that if he doesn’t lead the Vikings back to the playoffs and win at least one postseason game or if the team winds up with a losing record and a top-15 pick, Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah will likely look to the 2024 draft for a first-round successor who is more mobile than Cousins and would be on a cheaper rookie deal for several years.
Adofo-Mensah may also calculate that moving on from Cousins (despite a significant 2024 dead money hit of $28.5 million) would help the team absorb Jefferson’s looming mammoth extension that will top $30 million per year. That might enable the Vikings to keep top edge rusher Danielle Hunter as a cornerstone on defense. Hunter also is in a contract year and ranks second in the league with five sacks.
Are Vikings' Minds Made Up?
Adofo-Mensah was candid in an interview with USA Today in July 2022 when he may have tipped his hand on the Vikings’ quarterback situation. Cousins had received a one-year extension, and Adofo-Mensah called him “a good quarterback.” But he went on to say, “We don’t have Tom Brady. We don’t have Patrick Mahomes. The Super Bowl is more likely to win if you have that quarterback. It’s very unlikely to have that quarterback.”
Cousins then proceeded to have his winningest season in 2022, but it didn’t result in an extension. Perhaps Adofo-Mensah thinks he and O’Connell (a former NFL quarterback) can find a Brady- or Mahomes-type in the strong 2024 quarterback draft class if Cousins doesn’t win big this season and the Vikings draft in the top 10 or top 15. Remember, Mahomes was the 10th overall pick in 2017.
Cousins Wants to Stay in Minnesota
Cousins has earned more than $230 million in his 12-year career in Minnesota and Washington. He played in the final year of his contract four times, so he’s probably not sweating the financial implications of a possible move to a new team if this season doesn’t pan out for him. But he has often said he wants to finish his career in Minnesota, where he has been the past six years. With Jefferson as his main target and a coach in O’Connell with whom he has a good connection, plus having young children in school, it’s clear Cousins wouldn’t relish a move.
But he’s realistic and knows he has to produce.
“I want to be in Minnesota,” Cousins said before the season. “Hopefully, we can earn the right to do that. I’ve always said that. But you’ve got to go earn it. Most players in our locker room have no idea what’s coming in three or four months. So I feel like I’m one of the guys like we’re all working together. Everybody’s working, everybody’s got something to prove. Nobody can operate with entitlement or comfort or put in less than their best, and I think that’s the best thing about our league.”
Cousins is not a top-five quarterback, but he’s definitely top 15 and probably in the 10-12 range. One of his best assets is his durability with no missed starts due to injury in his career. The recent Netflix “Quarterback” series brought to light how Cousins played through pain last season and managed his health regimen. He also followed Brady’s path and had his personal trainer move to Minnesota this season to keep his training at a consistent level.
The Netflix series also showcased Cousins’ likable personality as a family man who is popular with his teammates and was a lot more outgoing through his Kirko Chainz alter ego after big Vikings road wins last season.
Vikings Line Must Protect Better
Cousins’ chances for team success would improve if his offensive line did a better job of protecting him. He was sacked four times and hit 13 times by the Chargers and has been one of the most pressured quarterbacks over the past several years.
The interior offensive line has been an issue throughout Cousins’ Vikings tenure because it’s been the main source of pressures and sacks. Minnesota signed ex–Denver Broncos guard Dalton Risner last week. He’s expected to replace shaky second-year right guard Ed Ingram as soon as this week. Center Garrett Bradbury has missed the past two games (plus the last three quarters of the opener) due to a back injury, but he may return against Carolina.
These moves on the O-line could help Cousins’ cause, along with aiding the team’s inconsistent rushing attack. First-round receiver Jordan Addison had six catches against the Chargers and caught deep touchdown passes in the first two games, so he is progressing well. The Vikings also have a Pro Bowl tight end in Hockenson. And Cousins has the good fortune to play with Jefferson, who is the league’s best receiver. Jefferson has a league-leading 458 yards through three games after a First-Team All-Pro season in 2022.
The Minnesota defense is struggling (ranked 26th), but the hope is new defensive coordinator Brian Flores can get it on track. Until then, Cousins and the offense must score more points than the 23 per game that ranks 18th. Improving on the league-worst minus-7 turnover ratio is a must for a team that has lost three games by a total of 13 points. That starts with Cousins better protecting the ball because he’s the main culprit thus far.
Contract Pressures Are Nothing New
This season marks the first time in Cousins’ Vikings career that he has the same play caller and person in charge of the offense two years in a row in O’Connell. That was expected to be a major factor for Cousins in his quest for a deep playoff run this season. Now, that appears in serious jeopardy.
Cousins is a highly motivated survivor. He entered the league as a fourth-round pick by Washington and was Robert Griffin III’s backup until Griffin's injuries pushed Cousins into the starting role. He parlayed a couple of franchise tags into a then-record (for a couple of months) three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million contract in Minnesota in 2018. The Vikings extended that deal a couple of times — but not this year.
So it’s crunch time for Cousins in another prove-it year. He’s been on this path many times and always comes out smelling like a rose. The next 14 games and the possible playoffs will tell if he passes this latest test with a lucrative new deal in Minnesota or if he moves on to a new team in 2024.
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans president and was named 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. Follow him on Twitter at @jeffdiamondnfl.