Will Vikings commit to Kirk Cousins beyond 2023?

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EAGAN, Minn. -- Less than an hour had passed since the end of the Minnesota Vikings' 2022 season when Kirk Cousins was asked his first question about 2023. With one year remaining on his contract, did he want to return to Minnesota next season?

Even amid the anguish of what he called "probably the toughest loss I've had in my career," a 31-24 loss to the New York Giants in the wild-card playoff round, Cousins was quick with an unequivocal reply.

"It's an easy question to answer in the sense that I love being a Minnesota Viking," he said. "It's a privilege to play here, and it's a privilege to play with that group, these coaches, and so that's the way it'll always be for me."

General manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said two days later that it was his "expectation" for Cousins to return in 2023 for a sixth season as the Vikings' starter. The flurry of confirmations left only one -- albeit significant -- issue unaddressed.

As Cousins approaches 35, will he simply play out the final season of his existing deal? Or will the Vikings try to avoid a "lame duck" scenario by extending his contract for a third time since he originally signed with them in 2018? If so, would Cousins push for fully guaranteed money in future years before agreeing to a new deal, as he has in the previous instances, an outcome that would in effect push his starting horizon into 2024?

In other words, the Vikings have reached an important inflection point at the game's most important position. Their decision in the coming weeks will indicate not only how long they want Cousins to be their starting quarterback, but also how much time they have to replace him. Adofo-Mensah provided no clues when he last spoke publicly, saying only that "we'll have everything at our disposal" as the Vikings potentially attach an end date to one of the longest runs for a starting quarterback in franchise history.

Let's consider the pros and cons of each option within the context of the Vikings' capacity to look beyond Cousins at the position.

From the top, it's wild even to discuss the possibility of Cousins putting pen to paper for a fourth time in six years as the Vikings' established starter. But the short-term nature of his original contract -- a three-year, fully guaranteed deal signed in March 2018 -- made the conversation inevitable.

The Vikings extended Cousins for the first time in March 2020 and then again in March 2022. The moves lowered his cap number in the ensuing season but also fully guaranteed future salaries in a way that pushed out the Vikings' commitment to him as a starter. To this point, Cousins has earned a total of $155 million over the past five seasons and has another $30 million guaranteed for 2023.

Doing another extension could lower his $36.6 million cap hit for 2023. If it followed previous form, however, it would give Cousins fully guaranteed money in 2024 and all but lock him into the starting job for the next two seasons.

There are some defensible reasons to think the Vikings would pursue that option, beginning with Cousins' remarkable durability. He has missed only two starts in his career, one when the Vikings rested starters before the 2019 playoffs and the other when he tested positive for COVID-19 in 2020. Last season, he made all 17 starts despite absorbing 129 hits in the pocket. That was by far the most for any NFL quarterback in 2022, an in fact it was the highest total since at least 2008, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

The second reason to push Cousins' departure date beyond 2023 is the process of finding his replacement. With the No. 23 overall position in the 2023 draft, and a total of four picks at this point, the Vikings are not in a great spot to draft a quarterback they could pencil in as a 2024 starter. If they do use one of those picks on a quarterback, he is more likely to be a developmental player; ESPN draft analyst Jordan Reid recently paired them with Stanford's Tanner McKee.

The Vikings could trade for a starter if they want to move on from Cousins after the 2023 season, but it is difficult to project whether any available quarterback would represent a substantial upgrade over Cousins. Indeed, the crux of Adofo-Mensah's much-interpreted comments last summer during an interview with USA Today was the difficulty that all teams face in finding an elite-level upgrade at quarterback.

It's fair to point out that Cousins had arguably the worst statistical performance of his career as a starter in 2022, including a career-low 49.9 Total Quarterback Rating. But he also helped the Vikings tie an NFL record with eight fourth-quarter comebacks, established a strong rapport with O'Connell and noted how comfortable he was with the coach's scheme by the end of the season.

Speaking last month, O'Connell expressed optimism about the likelihood of future growth.

"We're going to want to have a clear-cut plan of where we want to take our offense," O'Connell said, "and continue to grow roles and responsibilities within it. And I think Kirk will be leading the charge with that, with his ability now, one year in, to know there is not so much learning that needs to take place of the base way of doing things. Now we can tweak, now we can adapt, now we can evolve and continue to allow him to feel as comfortable as possible with what we're asking for him to do, and I think that's where real growth can come."

There are certainly reasons to be cautious about projecting the rest of Cousins' career. In the big picture, the Vikings are deciding whether to extend a quarterback with declining performance numbers past his 35th birthday.

How much improvement can be expected from any quarterback at that age? At what point, if any, will his durability falter? If nothing else, the Vikings will have to consider the potential cumulative effects of the hits he has taken in his career. Since becoming a full-time starter in Washington for the 2015 season, Cousins has absorbed more contact in the pocket than all but one NFL quarterback (Matt Ryan).

It's a decision complicated by context. To this point, Cousins has always been in position to seek elite-level guarantees that have forced future extensions. And at the moment, at least, the Vikings don't have the leverage that a potential long-term replacement could provide. They released 2021 draft pick Kellen Mond last summer and replaced him with veteran backup Nick Mullens, who is a pending free agent.

The safest decision would be to extend Cousins, even if it means committing to him for 2024, while jump-starting the process of finding the next starter. The Vikings may or may not agree. Regardless, they have some time to figure it out. NFL teams do not need to be in 2023 salary cap compliance until March 15, but all of the information is in front of the Vikings now.