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Why This Might Not Be The End of Kirk Cousins In Minnesota

Kirk Cousins motions

Even before Kirk Cousins tore his Achilles tendon in Green Bay on Sunday — and even more so afterward — a common narrative has been that Cousins’ career with the Minnesota Vikings is over and that he and the team will be going in a different direction when his contract is up in March.

I say: Not so fast.

When all factors are considered, I think there’s an excellent chance Cousins remains with the Vikings despite his age, the injury and the challenges of his contract situation.

Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell indicated he’d like Cousins back in 2024 when he said this week, “Kirk Cousins is going to be healthy again. I know he’s going to be a free agent after this season, but Kirk knows how I feel about him, and that’ll be something that will hopefully work itself out. I think he was playing as well as anybody in the National Football League.”

Cousins Was Having A Strong 2023 Season

Cousins’ performance this season — especially during the Vikings’ current three-game winning streak — reinforces O’Connell’s further point that, before the injury, Cousins “was experiencing his best season.” This is after a 2022 season in which he led Minnesota to a 13-4 record and the NFC North title while directing eight fourth-quarter comebacks and a league-record 11-0 mark in one-score games (before a first-round playoff loss).

Through eight games this season, the 12-year vet is the co-leader in touchdown passes with 18, ranks second in passing yards (2,331) and third in passer rating (103.8). His outstanding play in the Week 7 Monday night win over the San Francisco 49ers was an eye-opener given Cousins’ career struggles in prime time, the quality of the opponent and the fact he was missing the league’s best receiver in Justin Jefferson, who has been on injured reserve with a hamstring injury during the current winning streak.

Cousins completed 35 of 45 passes for 378 yards and two touchdowns and wasn’t sacked against the 49ers. He is stepping up in the pocket and making the off-schedule throws that have been a knock against him in the past, and he has completed 74 percent of his passes over the past three games.

Cousins and O’Connell have a close connection that goes back to Washington, when O’Connell was Cousins’ quarterback coach in 2017. O’Connell often has talked of Cousins’ ability to be on the same page with him in on-field decision-making because of how well they work together.

This is the first time in Cousins’ six years in Minnesota that he has worked with the same play-caller (O’Connell) and in the same offensive scheme for two straight years. That brought great results even after a rough start to the season when turnovers and adjusting to a new defensive scheme cost the Vikings an 0-3 start. Since then, the team has won four of five and currently holds the final wild card spot, and is two games back of the Detroit Lions in the NFC North.

Important Questions Ahead for Vikings, Cousins

After his reportedly successful surgery this week to repair the torn Achilles, Cousins will rehab as he targets a return at OTAs next May. As he approaches free agency, several questions loom:

How in demand will Cousins be among other teams when he turns 36 in August and coming off a major injury as free agency opens in four-and-a-half months while he’s in the middle of his rehab?

Suppose the Vikings are willing to bump up his current $35 million per year salary and pay him the going rate for a four-time Pro Bowl quarterback (which is certainly more than Daniel Jones’ $40 million per year but likely shy of the top-tier quarterbacks at $50 million-plus per year). Would Cousins want to join a new team, play in a new system and leave his connection with O’Connell?

How willing would Cousins be to leave the excellent supporting cast he’s been working with in Minnesota on the league’s second-ranked passing attack? Jefferson was leading the NFL in catches and yards before his injury, Pro Bowl TE T.J. Hockenson has 53 catches, 478 yards and three touchdowns and star rookie WR Jordan Addison ranks second in the league with seven touchdown catches. And Cousins has a solid third receiver in K.J. Osborn. Cousins has a quality offensive line that is improving and includes two Pro Bowl–caliber tackles (Brian O’Neill and Christian Darrisaw). There are several good running backs on the roster and, on the other side of the ball, the Vikings’ defense has made a big leap from 31st last season to 11th this season under new DC Brian Flores.

Another important factor is that Cousins has a young family, so how much could that influence him not to uproot with a move to a new city? He has said many times he hopes to retire as a Viking.

Kirk Cousins

What Trading For Joshua Dobbs Might Indicate

From the Vikings’ standpoint, there are no guarantees they will find a better quarterback in the 2024 draft. GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell can see in their division how first-round picks Justin Fields in Chicago and Jordan Love in Green Bay are struggling amid losing seasons, while veterans Jared Goff in Detroit (6-2 record; fourth in passing yards) and Cousins have thrived.

It was telling after Cousins was lost for the season with the trade deadline looming that the Vikings didn’t trade away any high draft picks and other players for an established starter or a young quarterback with big upside.

Instead, Minnesota executed a low-risk trade with the Arizona Cardinals for Joshua Dobbs, a career backup now on his seventh team who started the first eight games this season (a 1-7 record) only because Kyler Murray is coming off an ACL injury. Dobbs was going to be replaced by either Murray or rookie Clayton Tune this week after Dobbs threw two interceptions in the loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday.

Minnesota rookie fifth-round QB Jaren Hall finished the win over the Green Bay Packers and lost a fumble before converting a key third down on a pass to Hockenson. Hall gets the start Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. It’s possible he could play like Brock Purdy last season and go on a roll. Or Dobbs could replace Hall next week against the New Orleans Saints and have a Geno Smith–type renaissance over the rest of the season. Then there’s Nick Mullens, who has 17 career starts and began the season as the QB2. He’s on IR for at least one more week because of a back injury.

If one of these quarterbacks lights it up and leads the Vikings back to the playoffs and on an extended playoff run, it certainly could change the team’s thinking about the expensive Cousins moving forward.

Odds are Minnesota makes the playoffs as a wild card team with its favorable remaining schedule and the talent on its roster but gets knocked out in the first or second round by the top NFC teams, which will make Cousins top-of-mind for Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell.

Vikings Could Look to Draft a QB in 2024 — For the Future

That would set up the opportunity to re-sign Cousins — if the Vikings are confident he will return to full health. While he can run if necessary, mobility has never been his greatest asset compared to his accuracy and arm strength.

Perhaps Cousins will get a short-term extension in Minnesota with voidable years to lower the salary cap hit (he already has $28.5 million in dead money that will hit the 2024 cap). He may have to accept a lower guarantee as he comes off the injury. Still, he’s certainly made enough money in his career, so he’ll likely be flexible if the total possible compensation is reasonable and if he feels the Vikings present a solid opportunity for him to have postseason success and get to a Super Bowl.

With a loaded draft class at quarterback, I expect the Vikings to still draft a quarterback early — likely in the first round — and groom him as Cousins’ ultimate successor in a year or two as he learns O’Connell’s system (not a simple task), observes Cousins’ meticulous preparation and adjusts to a new city. The Vikings likely will pick from No. 15-25 in the first round, and there may not be a quarterback ready to start immediately at his spot. (And would Minnesota want to trade extra 2024 or 2025 picks to move into the top 10?)

The Vikings could consider the approach the Kansas City Chiefs took when they drafted Patrick Mahomes No. 10 overall in 2017 and sat him for a year behind Alex Smith — and then Mahomes took off in 2018 with an MVP season followed by a Super Bowl title in 2019.

Kirk Cousins celebrates with Justin Jefferson

What Would a Cousins Departure Mean for Other Vikings?

Another key factor the Vikings must consider is the potential effect of a Cousins departure on their chances to complete a lucrative, long-term extension with their best player — Jefferson — who has flourished in his first four seasons with Cousins with an NFL record 4,825 receiving yards over his first three seasons. Jefferson was on pace for 2,308 yards through four games this season before he got hurt in Week 5, which would’ve broken the NFL record of 1,964 yards by Calvin Johnson.

The Vikings definitely want to get Jefferson’s $19.74 million cap number next season (on his fifth-year option) reduced via an extension with a big signing bonus and a low 2024 base salary, which will help create room to re-sign their league-leading sacker Danielle Hunter, who is in the final year of his contract.

In discussing the Dobbs trade, O’Connell said, “We wanted to make sure we gave ourselves the opportunity to really go a lot of different directions with the position. I think this immediate solution provides us with a really quality player without potentially leaving the world of the future and the now — we were kind of able to accomplish both and help our football team.”

Adofo-Mensah called Cousins’ injury “a curveball” and added, “he was playing some of the best football in the league; every option is still available with Kirk.”

Signs Say: Good Chance Cousins is a Viking in 2024

Sunday’s game in Atlanta is the first start Cousins has missed due to injury in his career, an amazing stat for an NFL quarterback, especially one who has been among the most pressured in recent years. It was a cruel twist of fate for Cousins and the Vikings that it was a noncontact injury — his cleat got caught in the grass of Lambeau Field (after he had endured two roughing-the-passer penalties on the Packers).

Cousins’ toughness playing through injury was highlighted in the Netflix “Quarterback” series, which also showed his likability as a teammate, leader and family man.

He has an impressive 17-8 regular season record during the past two seasons. In an unexpected way, the fact that his last few games were exciting wins over a presumed power in the 49ers and the division-rival Packers might play to his advantage.

He exits 2023 on a high note with three wins in a row and great stats, as opposed to last season, which ended with a disappointing playoff loss where Cousins threw a much-criticized check-down to Hockenson on fourth down late in the game.

Everything translates into a strong chance Cousins will be the Vikings’ starting quarterback in the 2024 regular-season opener.

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. Follow him on Twitter @jeffdiamondnfl.