Quarterback Kirk Cousins turned in one of the best performances of his Minnesota Vikings tenure on Nov. 21, when he went toe to toe with Aaron Rodgers and led the Vikings on a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter against the Green Bay Packers.
In that moment, the future seemed a little clearer. The Vikings were in the thick of the NFC wild-card race and looked like a playoff team. Cousins was consistent with who he’d been most of the season, an accurate passer and dependable leader. He accepted his head coach’s challenge to be more aggressive, and the results were impressive. Anywhere you looked, Cousins was considered a top-10 quarterback, with Pro Football Focus rating him No. 2 overall behind Tom Brady since that win over Green Bay.
But three weeks later, with a Thursday night showdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox/NFL Network) looming, Cousins and the Vikings are at a crossroads. Minnesota is 5-7 after losing to a Detroit Lions team that ended a 15-game winless streak. Speculation continues to build around Vikings coach Mike Zimmer being on borrowed time. That speculation extends to Cousins’ future in Minnesota given he has one year left on his contract.
Several things will factor into whether Cousins stays or finds himself on the trading block, starting with the direction ownership wants to go beyond the 2021 season. If the team moves on from Zimmer and/or general manager Rick Spielman, two parties who will forever be linked to the decision to bring Cousins to Minnesota, the Vikings may take a clean-slate approach. Many times, a new coach/front office will want to make its own decision at quarterback. It could be difficult for the Vikings to make the hire they want if the team commits to Cousins now.
These final five games of the regular season will serve as an audition for Cousins to earn a lucrative extension with the Vikings or maximize his trade appeal with another team. And the backdrop for that audition is the fact that three of the five games are scheduled for prime time – when Cousins is 8-17.
Cousins came to the Vikings as a free agent in 2018, signing the NFL’s first fully guaranteed contract – a deal worth $84 million over three years. He received a two-year extension with $66 million guaranteed in March 2020, which would keep him with the Vikings through the 2022 season.
At the start of the 2021 league year, Cousins’ $35 million base salary for 2022 became fully guaranteed. Next season, the quarterback carries a $45 million cap charge that accounts for 21.24% of Minnesota’s salary cap.
His contract makes him the eighth-highest paid quarterback, based on an average annual value of $33 million per year. Since the beginning of his career in Washington, Cousins has been in favor of signing shorter-term deals that allow him to bet on himself. He became the first NFL quarterback to play under the franchise tag in consecutive seasons in 2016 ($19.95 million) and 2017 ($23.9 million) before he hit free agency and signed with Minnesota.
Cousins’ 2022 cap hit would challenge the Vikings’ ability to be active elsewhere in free agency. An extension could get that figure down to a more manageable number and allow Minnesota the flexibility to improve other areas of its roster – like the offensive and defensive lines, both of which carry major question marks in 2022 – while keeping a quarterback with a career 67.1% completion percentage and 56-58-2 record.
While it feels unrealistic given the financial strain, it’s also not out of the realm of possibility for Minnesota to let Cousins play out the final year of his deal, which would keep his cap number at $45 million. That would likely result in the Vikings restructuring contracts elsewhere or releasing expensive veterans. But if he puts together another top-10 QB season, it could make keeping Cousins that much more expensive beyond 2022.
From the Denver Broncos to New Orleans Saints to Pittsburgh Steelers, there are plenty of teams that are likely to be in the quarterback market this offseason. Cousins would draw plenty of interest, based on the way he’s played this season, highlighted by his NFL-best 25-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
But the way his contract is structured makes it difficult to move him without the Vikings taking a considerable hit.
If Minnesota were to trade Cousins, the Vikings would incur a $10 million dead-cap charge, and the team acquiring the quarterback would be on the hook for his $35 million fully guaranteed base salary. Unless Cousins would agree to renegotiate his deal prior to the trade to lessen the cap hit, or the Vikings could work out an agreement with the acquiring team to absorb some of the base salary guarantee, it would make a trade extremely unlikely.
That type of negotiation happens more often in the NBA than it does the NFL, but the Broncos and Rams recently orchestrated something similar when linebacker Von Miller was traded to Los Angeles. In taking on the majority of Miller’s contract in spite of him playing elsewhere past the trade deadline, Denver received the Rams’ second and third-round picks in 2022.
A team that believes its title window is now could justify a trade and paying north of the $35 million base salary. Whether in Minnesota or elsewhere, it’s going to come at a significant cost to keep the 33-year-old passer, who ranks fifth in completion percentage, fifth in touchdowns and third in passer rating this season.
“He’s a good NFL quarterback,” ESPN front office insider Mike Tannenbaum said. “We can sit here and debate: is he 6 or 16? But he is a good representative winning NFL quarterback, and because of that, it comes with a price tag.
“On an average (salary) per year, he’s someone who’s going to be where he’s been, if not slightly higher based on how he’s played. And I think the calculus for him is that ‘if they’re (Minnesota) not going to pay me that, somebody will.’”
And what would another team get for that price tag?
“He doesn’t have scheme-transcendent traits,” former NFL defensive back and current ESPN analyst Matt Bowen said. “He’s probably a mid-tier No. 1, and you can win with a mid-tier No. 1 in the proper system where you can read it out from the pocket, hit the scheme throws, be aggressive when he has to or when he wants to, take the one-on ones and sometimes play out of structure when its necessary. And Kirk can do all that for you.”
An extension with Minnesota
If Cousins carries the Vikings into the postseason, an extension in Minnesota could be on the table. It ultimately comes down to Minnesota weighing whether it can find a quarterback as efficient and less expensive than Cousins. It doesn’t appear the Vikings have that player on the roster, given rookie Kellen Mond, who was drafted to be Cousins’ backup, has been inactive all season.
Of the notable starting quarterbacks whose contracts are set to expire after the 2022 season, Cousins has the second-highest QBR (57), behind the Los Angeles Rams’ Matthew Stafford, and the third-highest yards per attempt (7.5), ahead of the Oakland Raiders’ Derek Carr, Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson and Browns’ Baker Mayfield. His 8.3 TD-INT ratio bests all the aforementioned QBs, as well as the San Francisco 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo.
Cousins has made marked improvement in several areas this season. His 0.7% interception rate is a career best and the best in the NFL. He’s also throwing his best deep ball since 2016, with a 45% completion percentage on throws 20-plus yards down field, which ranks seventh in the NFL.
Part of that is his receiver group. With Justin Jefferson entering the third year of his potential five-year rookie contract, Minnesota may want to work on his extension this offseason as well.
According to Over The Cap, which tracks contracts and salary caps, the Vikings are projected to be $11.4 million over the salary cap in 2022. An extension for Cousins would help ease Minnesota’s financial burden, but finding a common ground with a quarterback who has never taken a team-friendly deal could be challenging.
Cousins may be worth more elsewhere, and the Vikings need to decide where he fits into their plans based on how he performs over the final five games. In turn, Cousins needs to determine what’s next, whether it’s being traded to a team that can put him in a better position to win a title or staying in Minnesota with a new deal with the belief his best years are yet to come.
“He’s not the perfect quarterback, but you (Minnesota) have to consider your options,” Tannenbaum said. “That’s why he’s going to get paid well regardless of whether it’s Denver, Cleveland, New Orleans or Minnesota. There’s going to be a bunch of teams that need a quarterback, and he’s not a perfect player, but they’ve won a lot of games with him, and it’s the most important position.”