Just follow the Chiefs’ model, right?
It’s hard not to notice that the Minnesota Vikings enter are sitting in a similar spot to the Kansas City Chiefs following the 2016 season, when they decided to draft Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes.
Kansas City went 12-4 with a run-first mentality, strong defense and conservative quarterback play. They ranked 13th in points for, seventh in points against while throwing the seventh fewest passes and turning the ball over the eighth fewest times. Quarterback Alex Smith threw for just 3,502 yards but was the 12th ranked QB by Pro Football Focus, 10th by ESPN’s QBR and had the sixth best completion percentage.
The Chiefs won their division and earned a first-round bye but were beaten by Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers 18-16 in a game in which Smith nearly brought KC back but failed on a 2-point conversion and ultimately threw for an underwhelming 172 yards on 34 throws.
Kansas City decided that Smith, who went 41-20 up until that point with a 92.2 rating with 76 touchdowns to just 28 interceptions, was not their answer long term. At the time, Smith still had two years remaining on a four-year extension that he signed in 2014 but the Chiefs knew he would be seeking another — much more lucrative — extension in the near future. So they Mahomes, watched Smith lead the NFL in QB rating in a solid 10-6 season in 2017 that ended the same way it always ended and passed the torch to the former Texas Tech star.
The ’19 Vikings ranked eighth in points for, fifth in points against and threw the third fewest passes. They saw Cousins rank among the top QBs in the NFL by PFF and quarterback rating and finished the season the way it always ends — with a frustrating playoff loss in which the offense disappears and the quarterback totals 126 yards passing.
It’s impossible to ignore the comparisons. Both the ’16 Chiefs and ’19 Vikings were very strong teams who didn’t quite have the juice to reach the Super Bowl. It wasn’t just the quarterback’s fault but the combination of a large cap hit (Smith’s made up 11.5% of the cap in ’16, Cousins 15.4% in ’19) and a lack of risk taking and/or exceptional athletic play from the QB position made it too tough a challenge to overcome a difficult opponent come playoff time.
During Smith’s time in KC he played five years on excellent squads and won one playoff game. Cousins won his first postseason game against New Orleans in five years as a starter — mostly on very talented teams.
So the answer must be for the Vikings to spend their draft capital to move up to take a quarterback, right? The Chiefs dealt their ’17 first and third round picks and an ’18 pick to move up to No. 10 overall. The Vikings could pull a similar move for one of the top QB prospects in this year’s draft. Maybe that’s Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa or Oregon’s Justin Herbert. It’s hard to know until Tagovailoa’s medical reports on his surgically-repaired hip come back.
With one year left on Cousins’s contract, they could let him play it out the way Smith did in 2018 and give the rookie the much-needed time to acclimate to the NFL and then turn the franchise over to the young — and cheap — QB in 2021.
In theory, drafting a quarterback is always a good idea because there will never be another position as valuable in football as long as we all live. And we have seen the Seahawks, Eagles and Chiefs all win Super Bowls recently with QBs on rookie contracts with stacked rosters full of free agents like, say, Sammy Watkins and Tyrann Mathieu.
The formula checks out. The situation checks all the boxes. But the problem is: Quarterbacks go bust all the time and finding the next Mahomes takes hitting the lottery on a once-in-a-generation player who has the arm of Brett Favre, the coolness of Tom Brady and the leadership of Teddy Bridgewater.
If we look at the last four drafts before 2019 — because it isn’t fair to judge the ’19 class yet — none of the big four QBs in 2018 have become stars (it was the fifth Lamar Jackson who won MVP), the ’17 class has two superstars but the first QB taken was Mitch Trubisky and the ’16 class features two very good quarterbacks in Jared Goff and Carson Wentz but Paxton Lynch was the third QB off the board. Both of the ’15 class’s franchise-changing guys, who went No. 1 and No. 2 overall, are busts.
It isn’t as easy as following “the Chiefs’ model.”
It isn’t easy to find a quarterback in the draft who can rank sixth in quarterback rating (min. 1,000 passes) since 2015, just ahead of Matt Ryan and behind Tom Brady. Or a QB who only ranked behind Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson in regular season PFF grade.
And it isn’t always the easiest call when the organization is putting pressure on the head coach and front office to win while veteran stars are in their primes.
There are other ways to be considered.
The 49ers hit on draft picks like tackle Mike McGlinchey, receiver Deebo Samuel and defensive end Nick Bosa and scratched together enough cash to sign Richard Sherman. The Dallas Cowboys found their franchise QB in the fourth round and found a gem in Dak Prescott (who they surrounded with talent during his rookie contract). The Tennessee Titans took another team’s discarded QB Ryan Tannehill and made the AFC title game, in part by hitting on draft picks around him.
Whether the Vikings want to stick with the Devil they know rather than putting the franchise’s future in the Chiefs’ model might not be determined until draft night. But it should be clear that the decision isn’t as simple as just finding the next Mahomes.