Can $84M Man Kirk Cousins Solve All the Problems His Contract Created for the Vikings?
Entering the third year of the 32-year-old's contract, the Vikings have had to make cuts all over the field
Over the next six weeks, we’ll be preparing for the kickoff of the 2020 NFL season on September 10 by attempting to answer the most important question facing all 32 of the league’s franchises in order of their 2019 finish, from worst to first. Today’s team: the Vikings.
No. 9: Minnesota Vikings
2019 Record: 10-6
Points For: 407 – Points Against: 303
Projected 2020 Over/Under Win Total: 9
In 2017, when the Vikings made it to the NFC Championship Game after going 13-3 to win the NFC North in the team’s first year since 2006 without star running back Adrian Peterson on the roster, it was journeyman quarterback Case Keenum who started 14 regular-season games (11-3) and both of Minnesota’s playoff games (1-1). That’s the same Case Keenum who is 16-32 as an NFL starter aside from the one year in Minnesota when he was able to play the most inspired ball of his career.
After getting waxed by the Eagles in the conference title game 38-7 in a contest where Keenum threw a touchdown on the opening possession before going on to finish 28-of-48 for 271 yards with two interceptions and the one TD, the Vikings clearly felt like they were an upper-tier quarterback away from getting to, and possibly winning, the Super Bowl. So prior to the 2018 season, Minnesota signed former Washington QB Kirk Cousins to a three-year, $84 million contract, the largest fully guaranteed deal in NFL history at the time. (The 32-year-old agreed to terms in March on a two-year extension that secures him through the 2022 season worth $66 million.)
Guaranteeing that type of money to Cousins was an all-in type of move, as it gave Minnesota just a couple of years of cap flexibility before the bill finally came due. Unfortunately for the team, the Vikings missed the playoffs during Cousins’s first season in Minnesota and only won a single playoff game last year (an upset over the Saints) before getting beaten handily in the divisional round by the 49ers.
Now, entering 2020, the Vikings still have Cousins, who is coming off a stellar season in which he threw for 3,603 yards, 26 touchdowns and six interceptions, but they no longer have wide receiver Stefon Diggs, defensive end Everson Griffen, cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander, defensive tackle Linval Joseph, guard Josh Kline, safety Andrew Sendejo and defensive end Stephen Weatherly, all of whom were traded, cut or simply not re-signed. To fill their cleats, the Vikings will be forced to largely rely on reinforcements from their 15-player draft class, a fresh wave of talent headlined by wide receiver Justin Jefferson out of LSU, the 22nd overall pick of April’s draft.
Along with a new weapon in Jefferson, Cousins will still have trusty targets in wide receiver Adam Thielen and tight end Kyle Rudolph to catch his passes in 2020, along with one of the best running backs in the NFL, Dalvin Cook. Also at receiver, the Vikings added free-agent signee Tajaé Sharpe, a talented player who has shown flashes of big talent but never put it together for a full season at the NFL level.
“We have a lot of depth. When you look at some further-down-the-line players, I have a lot of confidence in what they can do,” Cousins said earlier this month. “[There’s] really two things you want. You want that athleticism where you know your receivers can create separation and win versus man coverage, which I think we have, and then you also want someone you know you can count on, who’s going to get lined up and know where to go in the pass game, in the run game and handle all the terminology and all the different rules.”
It’s a strong offensive core, but unless Jefferson can immediately step in and fill the No. 1 wideout role the departure of Diggs leaves vacant, it is a weaker one than the Vikings had last season.
It will also have a new man at the controls, since last year’s offensive coordinator, Kevin Stefanski, bolted for Cleveland’s head coaching position. That leaves longtime coach Gary Kubiak — who joined the Vikings last season as an assistant head coach/offensive advisor — as the new play-caller. Though it will be Kubiak’s first year as the Vikings offensive coordinator, 2020 will mark the former head coach and four-time Super Bowl champion’s 24th season as an NFL coach. Hopefully that experience will help make the transition between coordinators and loss of Diggs as smooth as possible.
Even if it doesn’t, the blame will likely fall on Cousins, not Kubiak, because when you sign a contract the size of his, you also sign up to take the criticism that comes along with it — justified or not. The reality for Cousins, who has passed his way to 19 victories, 7,901 passing yards, 56 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a 103.0 passer rating in his two seasons in Minnesota, is that he’s probably going to be ripped no matter how well he plays until he takes the Vikings to a Super Bowl. The rub of that, of course, is that thanks to his astronomical contract and the overhaul it led to this offseason, his two best shots at doing that may have already passed. In other words, it’s a no-win situation, unless the Vikings somehow do.
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