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Buyer’s remorse? Vikings could have been in perfect position to pursue Deshaun Watson

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Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) throws a pass against the Cincinnati Bengals during an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)

As the Vikings furiously worked to get under the salary cap last March, one of their first moves was to negotiate a contract extension with quarterback Kirk Cousins. Cousins had been set to enter the final season of a three-year, $84 million deal he signed as a free agent in March 2018. His salary-cap hit in 2020 would have been $31 million, but the two-year, $66 million extension lessoned his cap hit to $21 million.

This meant Cousins’ contract would run through 2022 — although with no guaranteed money in the final season — and enabled the Vikings to free up immediate cap space to make a few moves. What followed was a disappointment. The Vikings won only one of their first six games and finished 7-9. Cousins had a statistically productive season, but the Vikings, in large part because of their defensive struggles, missed the playoffs for the second time in Cousins’ three seasons.

Ten months later, one has to wonder if the Vikings regret making Cousins part of their salary-cap solution for 2020. It’s not because he’s a bad quarterback, but rather because there is a better quarterback who now might be available.

There have been numerous reports this week about Deshaun Watson’s unhappiness with the Houston Texans, including a Pro Football Talk item that said Watson had talked to teammates about potentially asking for a trade. Seems the Texans told Watson they would value his input in their coaching search, but then didn’t bother to talk to Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy after Watson put in a good word for him. Instead, the Texans hired Patriots executive Nick Caserio as their general manager and never mentioned it to Watson.

Caserio said at his introductory press conference on Friday that Watson is “our quarterback,” but what else is he going to say? Vikings general manager Rick Spielman once said he wasn’t trading Percy Harvin and last year said he wasn’t trading Stefon Diggs. He traded them both. A team can say it’s not going to trade a player all it wants, but if the player really wants out he’s often going to find a way to get relocated.

Watson, the 12th pick in the 2017 draft, is considered one of the NFL’s most talented quarterbacks. He has been selected to two Pro Bowls and was signed to a four-year, $177.5 million contract last September. The deal, which runs through 2025, will average $39 million a year and included a $27 million signing bonus.

Imagine if Cousins was in a situation to walk away and the Vikings were in a place to pursue Watson? The 25-year-old, started all 16 games this season for a Texans team that went 4-12. Bill O’Brien, who was fired as the Texans’ general manager and coach in October, set the Texans’ failure in motion last spring by dealing Watson’s favorite target, All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, to Arizona for little return.

Under the ownership of Zygi and Mark Wilf, the Vikings have proven they will be aggressive in pursuing top-level talent. There was the 2008 deal to acquire Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen from Kansas City, the signing of Brett Favre in 2009, Cousins’ signing and even the trade this summer for pass-rushing defensive end Yannick Ngakoue.

Watson threw for an NFL-leading 4,823 yards this season and 33 touchdowns, or two fewer than Cousins. Watson also threw six fewer interceptions (13 to 7) than Cousins. If the Vikings had accepted that the 2020 season was going to be largely a rebuild — and the fact they went with so much inexperience at cornerback indicates they were never all in — they could have found other ways to trim payroll and sent Cousins on his way.

That also would have meant they likely don’t make the Ngakoue trade and still have their second-round pick in 2021. It also means their post-bye week success probably never happens and they win about four games, a preferable place to be than the just-not-good enough 7-9. That means their first-round pick is higher than 14th and they still have a second-round selection and now you have the makings of being in a position to bid on an expensive but top five NFL quarterback who would stand to be your guy for the foreseeable future.

Yes, this season would have been painful but wasn’t it already and what’s the payoff? If Mike Zimmer would have come off his run-first philosophy a bit (hey, we’re dreaming here) Watson to Justin Jefferson, or Watson to Adam Thielen, or Watson to Irv Smith Jr., sounds pretty good. And a perhaps better-rested Dalvin Cook could be an even better running back.

There are some who still would like the Vikings to get involved in the Watson bidding, if and when it takes place, but that’s highly unlikely. Cousins is almost certainly the Vikings quarterback for 2021. That’s not a bad thing, he can be very good. The issue is that Watson can be great.