Some teams are clearly rebuilding. Some teams are clearly competing. Some teams are the Minnesota Vikings. And because of their commitment to the middle, they’re a tough team to define reasonable success for. I elected to take the longer view in the room and center success on their internal estimation of an enigma of a quarterback: Kirk Cousins.
It sounds odd to say of a quarterback who has won eight, 10, and seven games in his three seasons with the team—though of course, as we know, wins are not a quarterback stat. And despite Cousins’ general success and strong efficiency stats, most defenses aren’t scared of him as a dynamic passer. Teams line up to stop the Vikings’ Kubiak-inspired offense by stopping Dalvin Cook and the run, and while the addition of Justin Jefferson certainly kept the passing game afloat last year, it remained outside of the top 10 in DVOA.
Now, Cousins doesn’t really factor into a “QB of the future” discussion. He’s 33, so he could very well have another five years of quality play in him—but that doesn’t really make him a “QB of the future.” It makes him a QB of the “you gotta win a championship now, if you’re ever gonna win one” family.
Cousins has only two years left on his deal: this season, and a whopping $45M season in 2022. All of that money is guaranteed, so the only way the Vikings can get out of any of it is by trading his contract away to another team. That would leave them hanging with a $10M price tag, while another team would pay him $35M—basically the franchise tag.
That decision is the biggest upcoming decision for the Vikings: trade or extend. Because Cousins almost undoubtedly won’t play with a $45M hit on the 2022 cap—it’s an astronomical figure for his talent level—so if the Vikings can’t trade him away, they’ll likely have to at least add some void years on his deal to push that money onto the 2023 cap. If Cousins plays well enough, they could also sign him to an actual extension—as they just recently did in 2020—to move that money around.
So a successful season for the Vikings certainly has some playoff pushes involved, but in reality, the most important thing to come out of the 2021 season in Minnesota is a firm understanding of what to do with Cousins. If he remains one of the better, but not spectacular quarterbacks of the NFL, it will behoove them to send him away in a trade to a team that thinks he has enough juice to compete with their roster. If he looks good enough to win with, maybe offer him another two- or three-year extension. But above all else, avoid treading water for another year with a noncommittal Cousins approach—one that will cost $45M flat out.
The drafting of Kellen Mond is a head-nod in this direction: that the Vikings’ QB job could very well be open by this time next year. It won’t be ideal for the team if it is, but it will give them clarity for their future team-building. That, in and of itself, is success for a team stuck in middling limbo during the last few seasons.