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NFL Draft

Does A Kirk Cousins Trade Make Sense For 49ers?

  • The Draft Network
  • February 3, 2021
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The quarterback trade market this year is filled with high-level talent. Matthew Stafford’s already been traded, Deshaun Watson’s future is yet undecided, and Kirk Cousins is… Kirk Cousins?

The Minnesota Vikings haven’t put Cousins on the market at all, but a report broke on Monday that the Vikings’ veteran quarterback is a target for the San Francisco 49ers’ front office in trade talks, if they want to improve upon incumbent Jimmy Garoppolo. Cousins is in his third season in Minnesota, on his third offensive coordinator, and has yet to push the Vikings over the edge offensively.

But put Cousins’ play aside for a moment. The Vikings’ willingness—or unwillingness—to trade him will have a lot to do with his contract.

Cousins signed an extension in 2020 that pays $31M in 2021 and a whopping $45M in 2022. Everything in his 2021 season is guaranteed, including a $10M signing bonus and $21M in base salary. In 2022, Cousins’ $35M in base salary is currently all non-guaranteed money. That money guarantees on March 19, 2021—the third day of the new league year. 

Because it’s guaranteed salary, that money won’t stay with the Vikings in the event of a trade. But because it is guaranteed, whichever team has Cousins—Vikings or otherwise—won’t be able to cut him over the next two years of his deal. Essentially, a team trading for Cousins would be on the hook for $21M this season and $35M next season—no two ways about that.

The trade will remain available for the Vikings in both seasons, however. By trading Cousins this year, they would save $11M on this year’s cap and open up $45M in space on next year’s cap—next year, they would save $35M in 2022 space. Cap space is at a premium in Minnesota, as they’re currently sitting $15M over the cap line for the 2021 season. Cousins could provide needed relief. 

This is where Cousins’ play starts to matter. If the Vikings view their roster as potentially competitive—after a 1-5 start to the year, they went 6-4, and nearly pushed for a playoff berth—then trading Cousins doesn’t make sense in their timeframe. They’re more likely to restructure a big contract or two—Anthony Barr, Adam Thielen, Harrison Smith, Danielle Hunter, and Eric Kendricks all make sense—to keep Cousins in place and run it back in 2021. 

But there was a reason they went 1-5 to start—and when they did, there were conversations among football media regarding Cousins’ future in Minnesota. Selling trade acquisition Yannick Ngakoue after just eight games certainly didn’t help assuage concerns. It seemed like, after a push to build a competitive team even after trading Stefon Diggs to Buffalo, the Vikings were going to look at a longer timeline that perhaps included a quarterback change.

If those rumors had any legs—and I’m not sure they did—the best window to trade Cousins remains open only over the next month and a half.

If the best dance partner available is San Francisco, that window may stay open a little longer. The 49ers are clearly a team in a competing window, and their biggest impediment may be Garoppolo. Outwardly, they’ve vocalized their support in him as their starting quarterback—but after their divisional rival Rams just made an aggressive move for quarterback improvement in Matt Stafford, the heat is on the back of their necks.

For as much uncertainty as there may be in San Francisco with Garoppolo—and in Minnesota with Cousins—there should be uncertainty that Cousins represents a significant improvement over Garoppolo. Cousins has been better in a similar system, but it’s tough to argue that he’d get them over any speed bumps that Garoppolo wouldn’t be able to get them over otherwise. It feels like plugging one system quarterback in for another. But if the 49ers want to make that aggressive move, they won’t balk at guaranteed money—it’s a win-now approach, and those cost money.

If a Vikings-49ers deal is going to happen, it may take a few more games from both teams to realize where they are: The 49ers, held back by Garoppolo; the Vikings, not ready to compete even with Cousins in hand. Neither team is that desperate… yet. But the 49ers’ desperation just may be the Vikings’ lifeboat, when it comes to getting out of a massive Cousins deal and reframing their team-building window. With an extra draft pick or two in hand, they’d have the ammunition necessary to move up from 14th overall to draft a young quarterback this year—or move up next season, if that ends up the timeline for the trade.

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