Well that didn’t take long.
On the first day of the open negotiating window in the NFL, the Minnesota Vikings and Kirk Cousins agreed to a two-year contract extension, ending all speculation about whether they would let him enter the final year of his three-year, $84 million deal that was signed prior to the 2018 season.
So what does it mean?
Heading into Monday the Vikings only had $18.9 million in cap space, according to OverTheCap.com. That does not count what it costs to sign the rookie class or the elevated minimum salaries in the new CBA. Signing Cousins to an extension now allows the Vikings to lower his cap hit for 2020, allowing for more wiggle room to fill open spots left by exiting free agents like cornerback, defensive tackle and safety.
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reports that the deal is for $66 million total and $61 million guaranteed. Cousins could have rolled the dice and waited for Patrick Mahomes and Dak Prescott’s new contracts or played out the 2020 season and attempted to become the highest paid QB in the NFL again. At present rates $33 million per year has him on par with Aaron Rodgers and Carson Wentz in terms of average annual value.
Summing up the #Vikings deal for Kirk Cousins: 2 new years worth $66M. So 3 years in all for $96M. He has $61M guaranteed at signing. An additional $35M is guaranteed for injury but converts to a fully at the beginning of the 2021 season. They won’t cut him after 1 year and $61M.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 16, 2020
At the NFL Combine Mike Zimmer said that he believes Cousins can continue to play at his Pro Bowl level from 2019 as long as the team improves its pass protection.
There’s two ways to look at this:
— Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has a long history of improving quarterbacks’ play, so there’s reason to think that the Cousins-Kubiak relationship should continue to thrive. One thing Kubiak/Stefanski did in ’19 to help Cousins thrive was vastly increase the amount of play-action that he ran from ’18. He had the sixth highest percentage of play-action passes in the NFL last season and produced an outstanding 129.2 rating on 142 play-action pass attempts. Assuming Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Dalvin Cook, Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith are all back, his supporting cast will also continue to be one of the best in the NFL. So there’s plenty of reason to believe Cousins will thrive during his next deal.
— The skeptical view is that the Vikings played the ninth easiest schedule in team history in ’19, according to Pro-Football Reference. Cousins’s month of October in which the Vikings demolished the likes of New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and Washington skewed the quarterback’s statistics. Over the remainder of the season he averaged just 7.0 yards per attempt after gaining 10.9 yards per attempt in that incredible month. If the schedule ends up being tougher, we might see a regression even if Cousins continues to play well overall.
One thing we know from his five-year history as a starter is that Cousins has a high floor. Even his worst season was still decent. In ’17, Washington let his two top receivers leave and Cousins dropped to a 93.9 rating with a solid 7.6 yards per attempt.
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The cap space created could allow the Vikings to sign a veteran guard. Last year left guard Pat Elflein was one of the worst pass blockers at his position, allowing the ninth most QB pressures among guards despite the Vikings throwing the third fewest passes in the NFL.
Whether Riley Reiff is on the 2020 Vikings or not, they will be aiming to improve at tackle too. Ranking 27th by PFF metrics in pass protection and allowing the 10th highest pressure rate in the NFL is not going to work if they want Cousins to put together another strong season and have any chance in the postseason.
This year’s draft has number of impressive tackle prospects who could be available at No. 25 like Georgia’s Andrew Thomas, Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, Houston’s Josh Jones and USC’s Austin Jackson.
Putting a first-round pick across from emerging tackle Brian O’Neill would give the Vikings a solid base for protecting Cousins throughout his deal, even if Year 1 still has its shaky moments.
There will only be re-loading mode, not rebuilding mode. With Cousins under contract through 2022, we can expect to see more aggressive moves by the Vikings to chase their goal of repeating the 2017 season in which they reached the NFC Championship game. That means signing their own talent — like Dalvin Cook, Brian O’Neill etc. — to contracts, signing veteran free agents to semi-risky deals in order to fill desperate needs rather than hoping developing players work out. Sometimes these things have worked, like signing Sheldon Richardson to a one-year deal. Other times they haven’t — a la trading a fifth-round pick to the Ravens for an inexperienced kicker who never played for the Vikings.
Through last year there seemed to be a never-ending debate about whether Cousins could prove himself as a winner. Can he win in primetime? Can he beat good teams? Is he clutch?
The nature of the beast is that those conversations will carry on until he raises a trophy but after ’19 the Vikings should feel like they know exactly what Cousins’s strengths and weaknesses are and what’s required around him to reach their ultimate goal. If that goal isn’t reached, that means they didn’t do those things. He’s going to be exactly who he has been.
Signing Cousins may mean trying to put dollars into his supporting cast, which puts pressure on Zimmer to scheme his way to a solid defense. As if there already wasn’t enough pressure on the Vikings’ head coach, an extension for Cousins ramps up the urgency to win. But another way to look at it might be: The Vikings are aware that 2020 might offer some challenges because of the cap situation and some patience could be required.