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Zulgad: Is Kirk Cousins the Vikings’ long-term solution at quarterback?

The Vikings will tell you their focus is on the 2019 season and, having now clinched a playoff berth, getting as far as possible in an NFC that is completely unpredictable. They also would point to Monday night’s game against rival Green Bay.

But this is only partially true — at least when it comes to the front office.

General manager Rick Spielman and his staff must always be considering the future and key decisions that are going to need to be made in the coming months. One involves perhaps the most important player in the organization, quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Cousins has 18 regular-season games remaining on the three-year, $84 million free agent contract he signed in March 2018. That means Spielman is soon going to have to make a decision about what he wants to do at the quarterback position.

The good news is Spielman and Co., are about to find out just how far Cousins can help take a team. Cousins’ stats looked fine in his first year in purple but the season was a massive flop. The Vikings went 8-7-1 and missed the playoffs on the final day of the regular season when they couldn’t beat a Bears team that already had clinched the NFC North. It was even more embarrassing that the game was played at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Cousins had been signed by a team that went 13-3 in 2017 and won a playoff game against the Saints before being routed in the NFC title game in Philadelphia. The feeling was Cousins would be able to do what Case Keenum couldn’t and, yet, that didn’t come close to happening in 2018.

The Vikings’ 2-2 start in the first four games this season did little to inspire confidence in Cousins, but he was undefeated in October and the Vikings have won eight of their past 10 games. The 31-year-old has 22 touchdown passes and three interceptions in those 10 games and his passer rating is 118.1.

What’s interesting is that when the Vikings signed Cousins they did it because they had confidence he would be an upgrade at quarterback, but he also joined a team whose identity was on the defensive side of the ball. The Vikings are still solid on defense — they are tied for fifth in the NFL in scoring defense (18.5 points per game) — but a decline at the cornerback spot no longer makes them dominant.

The Vikings’ offense, meanwhile, is tied for fifth in scoring (27 points per game) and Gary Kubiak’s scheme and Kevin Stefanski’s play-calling have gotten the most out of Cousins. The question now is will this success continue as the pressure grows heading into January?

The Vikings have a playoff spot locked up, but depending on how things go against the Packers and in the regular-season finale against Chicago, Minnesota could be in a place to either move into the fifth seed in the NFC or even win the NFC North, if Green Bay somehow losses in Week 17 in Detroit.

Expecting Cousins to singlehandedly win games in the postseason isn’t realistic, but expecting him to be outstanding with the pressure turned up too high isn’t. The pressure won’t exactly be dialed down on Monday night.

Cousins will be operating without the safety net of having standout running back Dalvin Cook (shoulder) and likely will be without Cook’s backup, Alexander Mattison, who has an ankle injury.

The Packers (11-3) also have a postseason spot clinched, but they are playing for the division title and playoff seeding and would like to get their first victory at U.S. Bank after losing the past three seasons. Then there is the matter of Cousins’ 0-8 record in Monday night games, which was extended when the Vikings lost in Seattle this month.

If Cousins can lead the Vikings to victory in these next two games, if he can lead them on a playoff run, there is little doubt he stands to receive a contract extension this offseason that will mean his time as Minnesota’s quarterback will exceed three years.

What will that contract look like?

When Cousins signed his initial deal he became the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL — Matt Ryan agreed to a five-year, $150 million contract with Atlanta less than two months later that moved him past Cousins — and thus his contract made it more difficult for the Vikings to make some other moves in a salary-cap league. So this time would Cousins take a more team-friendly deal, especially if it means strengthening the line that’s paid to protect him?

Those are the types of decisions the Vikings are going to have to make and something they almost certainly have discussed internally. Cousins is very much the Vikings quarterback of the present, whether he’s the quarterback of the future will be determined by how things play out in January.


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