What Are the Vikings’ Quarterback Options Post–Kirk Cousins?

In Kirk Cousins’s six seasons in Minnesota, the Vikings went 53-45-1 with one playoff win. Over the six seasons that preceded his arrival in Minnesota, the team went 54-41-1 with one playoff win. The goal in signing Cousins to a fully guaranteed, $84 million contract in 2018 was to push the Vikings from fringe contenders to perennial Super Bowl threats. That obviously didn’t happen. Instead, Minnesota ended up paying Cousins nearly $200 million to win one fewer game.

That’s a harsh way to describe Cousins’s stint with the Vikings. Football is a team sport, and Cousins isn’t solely responsible for the team’s record over the past six years. He also developed into a damn good quarterback during that time and kept the Vikings competitive as general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah cleaned up the salary cap mess left behind by the team’s previous regime. Cousins didn’t bring any trophies to Minnesota, but he kept the franchise out of quarterback purgatory for half a decade.

Now, though, after Cousins signed a four-year, $180 million contract with Atlanta on Monday, the Vikings finally find themselves in that dreaded state. Sam Darnold’s name is being thrown around as a potential replacement. If that’s not enough, wait until the “Drew Lock to visit with Minnesota” notifications come through. They’ll hit hard. But even if it feels like the Vikings don’t have any decent options left, it’s easy to talk yourself into the idea that this is the fresh start the franchise has needed. For starters, Vikings fans can take solace in the fact that their team did not just commit $100 million in guarantees to Cousins, a 35-year-old quarterback who is coming off of an Achilles tear. It’s not actually a bad deal for Atlanta—after accounting for cap inflation, it is essentially the same cut he got in his last extension with Minnesota—but it will delay the Falcons’ search for a long-term answer at the position. The Vikings, however, can get started now.

We now know that the search won’t include Russell Wilson or Baker Mayfield, as the two top free agents behind Cousins agreed to terms with Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, respectively, before the legal tampering period kicked off on Monday. Jacoby Brissett would have been a decent option and fit well within the offense, but he agreed to a deal with New England on Monday. Trading for Justin Fields would provide the most upside, but it’s unlikely Chicago will send him to a division rival. That leaves the draft.

The Vikings currently have the no. 11 pick in 2024, which would likely only be good enough to earn them the fourth QB off the board. The teams with the top three picks—Chicago, Washington, and New England—are likely to snatch up Caleb Williams, Drake Maye, and Jayden Daniels in some order, so barring a trade up, that would leave Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy and Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. as the most likely possibilities for Minnesota, and neither is viewed as a franchise-changing prospect. The Vikings were late to the QB party this offseason, so finding a true replacement for Cousins could be a multiyear process.

Either way, Cousins’s departure isn’t the first step in a rebuild, and Minnesota isn’t in need of a teardown. If Adofo-Mensah had been looking to blow up the roster, he wouldn’t have spent a total of $96 million for edge rushers Jonathan Greenard and Andrew Van Ginkel on Monday. Plus, the vibes surrounding the franchise should improve considerably once Justin Jefferson’s contract situation is sorted out—and it seems Minnesota has every intention of doing just that. Jefferson has been eligible for an extension for only a few weeks, and Adofo-Mensah says he has not considered trading him. The general manager also said he plans on making Jefferson the highest-paid receiver in the league, so it’s not like he’s playing hardball in negotiations. There’s no reason to believe a deal won’t get done … eventually.

“I think people forget: Deals rarely happen after three years,” Adofo-Mensah said at the NFL combine in February. “And there’s a reason: With two years left [on his contract], there’s uncertainty that somebody has got to hold. Either the club has got to hold it or the player has got to hold it. There’s new money, [there’s] old money. How do you look at contracts? Those are very hard conversations to have. So a lot of them don’t get done.”

In other words, the Vikings like the amount they’re currently paying Jefferson and would like to ride that out as long as possible before eventually handing him a blank check and asking, “How much?” Jefferson isn’t going anywhere unless he forces his way out.

The third-year general manager has said he doesn’t believe tanking is a viable strategy in football, as it is in basketball. Adofo-Mensah inherited an aging roster with a bloated payroll when he took over in 2022. It would have been easy to start a rebuild then, but instead, he spent his first years in charge just cleaning up the team’s cap situation while also keeping the roster in good enough shape to compete for the playoffs. “A competitive rebuild” is the phrasing Adofo-Mensah used when he started with the Vikings, and this offseason should kick off Phase 2 of the project.

“The point of [the competitive rebuild] was to still provide ourselves a chance in the tournament every year while regaining financial flexibility, finding the next generation of great Vikings players, incorporating our systems that we value so much,” Adofo-Mensah said after the 2023 season ended. “And I think when you look back at it, I think we’ve done a lot of positives. I think we’ve regained some of our financial flexibility.”

Minnesota enters free agency ranked 12th in available cap space, per Spotrac. It owns the 11th and 42nd picks in the draft, so it has enough capital to make some moves. Adofo-Mensah has already made a splash with the Greenard signing—the type of deal he was unable to make while balancing the books around an expensive quarterback—and he still has room to bring in another quality free agent or two. This is really the first time we’ll get to see the Vikings general manager build a team without any constraints.

Even with a big offseason, it’s hard to see Minnesota improving immediately after moving on from a fringe top-10 quarterback. Cousins isn’t a transcendent talent, but he’ll be hard to replace in the short term. At least in theory. We have seen a number of teams move on from stalwart quarterbacks in recent seasons only to find better results. It happened in Seattle after Russell Wilson left. Green Bay made the playoffs after trading Aaron Rodgers. Minnesota doesn’t have a Geno Smith or Jordan Love on its roster, but Kevin O’Connell was able to get decent production out of Nick Mullens, Josh Dobbs, and Jaren Hall after Cousins went down last year. Things didn’t go so well when Jefferson was injured, but when the star wideout was on the field, the backups weren’t far off the pace set by Cousins.

Minnesota Vikings Passing Game in 2023

Split Yards per Play EPA/Pass Pass Success Rate
Split Yards per Play EPA/Pass Pass Success Rate
Cousins on Field 5.7 0.06 44.4%
No Cousins, With Jefferson 6.1 0.04 46.5%
No Cousins or Jefferson 4.8 -0.09 40.2%

Stats via TruMedia

The offensive infrastructure in Minnesota is probably better than we give it credit for. Jefferson is the best receiver in the NFL. Jordan Addison is coming off a strong rookie campaign. T.J. Hockenson is one of the few difference-making tight ends in the sport. Christian Darrisaw is one of the best left tackles in the league and leads a good offensive line. The Vikings don’t necessarily need a savior at quarterback. They just need someone who fits the offense. A cheap veteran or a solid rookie prospect could fill that role.

Adofo-Mensah has set the Vikings up for success after Cousins—assuming they can eventually find a long-term answer at quarterback. The cap situation is better. There’s young talent worth building around up and down the roster. And the team has a full array of draft picks to work with over the next few years. The plan at quarterback for 2024 may be unclear, but after spending the past six years running in place with Cousins, the franchise is taking steps in the right direction.

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