Vikings' draft success hinges on finding potential successor to Kirk Cousins

Mills keeps it for Stanford TD (0:26)

Davis Mills fakes the handoff and runs in a six-yard touchdown. (0:26)

MINNEAPOLIS -- Speculation about whether the Minnesota Vikings would entertain trade talks for quarterback Kirk Cousins this offseason were squashed by general manager Rick Spielman.

“I know there’s a lot of rumors floating around out there, but Kirk Cousins is our quarterback,” Spielman said on March 3. “We felt that he played very well, probably the best that he’s ever played down that stretch last year. Kirk is our quarterback going forward, and I look forward to him [having] another year in this system.”

Beyond Spielman’s vote of confidence, there’s sound rationale to support Cousins as the Vikings’ quarterback for 2021. A team looking to rebound after a 7-9 season likely doesn’t get better if it takes a step back at QB. And it’s hard to believe the Vikings would name first-time offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak to the job and switch up quarterbacks when he’s worked with Cousins in this system for two years.

The uncertainty begins in earnest after 2021, which makes the NFL draft (April 29-May 1 on ESPN/ESPN app) the ideal time for Spielman and the Vikings to address the succession plan at quarterback.

Cousins, 32, is under contract through the 2022 season after signing a two-year extension in March 2020. He’ll earn a fully guaranteed $21 million base salary this year and his base salary for 2022 -- a whopping $35 million -- became fully guaranteed on March 19. That comes with a $45 million cap hit, which accounts for nearly 25% of the Vikings’ total cap in 2022.

The Vikings can lower his cap charge if Cousins plays well in 2021. But they would be wise to draft a quarterback to serve as Cousins’ backup and understudy for 2021 -- and possibly his successor down the road.

Minnesota went all in on defense in free agency, shelling out $41.6 million in guaranteed money to the likes of Anthony Barr, Dalvin Tomlinson, Patrick Peterson, Xavier Woods, Nick Vigil and Mackensie Alexander. The logical counter is addressing the offense in the first three rounds of the draft. Building the offensive line is one of the main objectives. Finding a quarterback should be the other.

Cousins’ durability has long been one of his best assets. It allowed Washington, his former team, and Minnesota not to have to shell out for an expensive veteran backup. That’s why Sean Mannion has been Minnesota’s No. 2 quarterback since 2018.

Mannion remains a free agent so the Vikings’ backups are Nate Stanley and Jake Browning. The Vikings could bring Mannion back or find a No. 2 in the draft.

“We’re evaluating that as well,” Spielman said before free agency. “I know just listening to the coaches and listening to Klint and [quarterbacks coach] Andrew [Janocko], you know, it was hard. You guys haven’t seen it because Nate Stanley and Browning, they didn’t get a chance to play in the preseason last year, but we were able to see what they did in practice.

“We’ll look at all avenues, whether we bring Mannion back or if we don’t bring Mannion back. I think there’s a wide variety of quarterbacks in this year’s draft class. Do we add another quarterback in the draft this year? We’ll look at all the different avenues, whether it’s within with Mannion or another veteran or whether we draft another quarterback.”

This April is about building for the future and starting to make plans for whether Cousins is a Viking in 2022. Cousins’ base salary being guaranteed in 2022, but that does not mean he is immune to a split from the Vikings.

Assuming the top quarterbacks in the draft (Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Mac Jones, Trey Lance and Justin Fields) are gone by the time the Vikings pick at No. 14, they likely will have to wait until Day 2 to find their quarterback. The Vikings don’t have a second-round pick, but they do have two third-round selections.

According to ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., there are several Day 2 options: Stanford’s Davis Mills, Georgia’s Jamie Newman and Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond.

Though their skillsets vary, each is expected to need a redshirt year in the NFL (Mills’ started 11 games in college). The Vikings are a team in prime position to do that.

“After those five first-rounders, Davis Mills may be the next quarterback taken and it’ll probably be in the second round,” Kiper said. “After that, maybe Kellen Mond as a Kirk Cousins-type in the third, fourth round would be a guy to possibly look at there.

“But Davis Mills would be the guy … He would be the one to maybe take a chance on. It could be down the road in the not too distant future and affect the starter.”

The 6-foot-4, 217-pound Mills, who was the country’s top-ranked quarterback recruit in 2017, has been praised for his arm, accuracy and ability despite his inexperience. His NFL.com draft profile says Mills “is still in the developmental stage as it pertains to his ability to command the offense and play chess against coverages and blitz looks. He's made for a play-action attack that can promote his timing as a passer and help keep him protected. The injury background and lack of experience are potential stumbling blocks, but the talent is better than the production and worthy of a middle-round pick for development as a good backup to low-end starter.”

ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has Mond off the board at No. 51 to Washington in the second round in his latest mock draft. That’s 27 spots ahead of when the Vikings are slated to pick at No. 78 in the third. Florida QB Kyle Trask is gone one spot later at 52 in McShay’s Mock 4.0.

Spielman’s shrewd ability to know where he can get the most value in the draft could lead the Vikings to utilize some of their 10 draft picks to move up to land Mills or another quarterback in the second round.

Stanley, a seventh-round pick in 2020, is the third quarterback drafted by the Vikings since 2011 (first-rounders Christian Ponder and Teddy Bridgewater).

While Minnesota may believe Stanley is capable of competing to back up Cousins this season, his prospect as a long-term starting option appears murky. That only heightens the pressure on the Vikings to land a quarterback to start in a post-Cousins era.