Vikings' final stretch might put Kirk Cousins in line for early extension

EAGAN, Minn. -- Kirk Cousins's three-year, $84 million fully guaranteed contract with the Minnesota Vikings expires in 15 months. That's when the 31-year-old quarterback could have his next shot at free agency.

But if he continues to play the way he has of late, having led Minnesota to an 8-3 record at the bye week, the Vikings might want to expedite those down-the-line conversations about Cousins' future.

The Vikings are 6-1 with Cousins after an up-and-down start to the season, and he leads the NFL with 18 touchdown passes since Week 5. He has the second-highest passer rating, trailing that of NFL leader Russell Wilson by one-tenth of a point (114.8). He leads the NFL with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions on play-action, and he has a completion percentage (70.6) higher than the likes of Wilson, Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes.

The final five games of the season -- against the Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Chargers on the road and against the Vikings' three NFC North opponents at U.S. Bank Stadium -- will play a role in deciding Cousins' future in Minnesota. A trip to the postseason along with success in January would almost certainly put Cousins in line for an extension from a team that has been to the playoffs three times since 2012.

The Vikings can extend Cousins at any time. They could do it right now and would probably get somewhat of a discount, given that other QBs in line for extensions, from Dak Prescott to Mahomes and Watson ahead of their fifth-year options in 2022, haven't yet been paid. Plus, a playoff win -- something Cousins has yet to achieve in his career -- would inevitably raise his price tag.

Extending Cousins early, as in anytime now through the offseason, would alleviate pressure from Minnesota's already stressed salary cap in 2020, when he will account for 15.34% of the total cap with his $31 million hit. The Vikings knew finances would be tight in the third year of Cousins' contract, and locking him up with an extension could help more than just the way they structure the cap.

Cousins' current play validates much of his price tag. He has checked several boxes in recent weeks, beating a team on the road with a record above .500 (Cowboys), earning his first win after the Vikings trailed in the fourth quarter (Broncos) and leading a top-10 offense capable of going toe-to-toe with other contenders and coming out on top. This is what the Vikings expected from him when he inked his then-record contract.

"He's just playing fast," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "He's getting away from the center fast. He's getting set fast. He's getting the ball out quick. I like everything he's doing."

This is historically good play for the Vikings, who haven't had a quarterback perform this consistently since Brett Favre (2009-10) and Daunte Culpepper (1999-2005).

Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman have repeatedly said that gaudy statistics don't justify anything if wins don't come with them. Cousins passed for 4,298 yards and a career-best 30 touchdowns last season, but the 8-7-1 Vikings missed the playoffs.

Under the guise of that logic, one could infer that a playoff berth is necessary for Cousins to cement his future in Minnesota and earn an extension. But it's what the Vikings are saying -- and not saying -- about Cousins that could lead one to believe they aren't ready to go all-in on him until he gets this team over the hump in the postseason.

"I don't know if anyone has ever achieved anything yet," Spielman said. "But I know what the coaches are doing with him. And you have to give him credit, too, with some of the plays he's making. It's giving him the best chance to have success. And that goes hand-in-hand with his abilities and the system we're running on offense now. I think just like any team, we were able to have some pieces around him. Hopefully when we come down these next five games here, we get all of our pieces in place to be able to get [injured receiver Adam] Thielen back and pair him with [receiver Stefon] Diggs. Since Thielen has been out since the Detroit game, we've had other players step up.

"Kirk has done an outstanding job, but I also give credit to the coaching staff for putting the game plan together week in and week out to give our team the best chance to have success."

Minnesota coaches have shown an ability to scheme around what Cousins does well. It's a major reason the subject of a Cousins extension continues to trend in an upward direction. Cousins can set himself up for his next big payday by continuing this stretch of dynamic play and notching another career first: a playoff victory.