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How Kirk Cousins to the 49ers went from reckless speculation to potential reality

NFL: NFC Divisional Round-Minnesota Vikings at San Francisco 49ers
Jan 11, 2020; Santa Clara, California, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) walks off the field after throwing an incomplete pass against the San Francisco 49ers in the first quarter in a NFC Divisional Round playoff football game at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The Mackey and Judd podcast started discussing the possibility of the Vikings trading Kirk Cousins to San Francisco a few months back based on the well-established fact that 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan has been a fan of Cousins’ since the two were together for two seasons in Washington. We dubbed this type of conversation as Reckless Speculation, knowing that even though something might not be likely, anything can happen in professional sports. (Exhibit A: Brett Favre finished his career with the Vikings.)

Still, Cousins to the 49ers didn’t exactly seem like a hot topic. That changed last Saturday evening when ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the Detroit Lions had agreed to trade quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams for quarterback Jared Goff, a third-round pick in 2021 and first-round picks in 2022 and 2023.

The first move in what is expected to be an offseason of quarterback musical chairs brought back a significant haul to the Lions — they probably had one draft pick added for taking Goff’s contract —  and had to make the Vikings brass notice that this might be an opportunity to sell high on Cousins. Especially, since it was reported the 49ers were interested in Stafford and everyone knows they want to and can move on from Jimmy Garoppolo.

Since the Stafford trade, there has been more speculation, maybe not so reckless, about the fact the 49ers should at least be tied to Cousins. Pro Football Talk did a deep dive on the subject and others who are plugged in are either connecting the dots or being told that there is smoke here.

Does this mean the Vikings are actively looking to dump Cousins? No. But general manager Rick Spielman would have to at least listen if the 49ers called and, given what the Lions got back for Stafford, one would think he has placed a call to San Francisco general manager John Lynch.

The issue is that trading Cousins before June 1 would result in a dead cap hit of $20 million for the Vikings. That figure would drop to $10 million after June 1. That’s the downside to a deal. The potential return is the upside. The Vikings currently have the 14th pick in the first round of this year’s draft and the 49ers are selecting 12th. Spielman would have to ask for that pick and more for Cousins.

This could put the Vikings in a situation to do one or two things at quarterback. The first would be to package their own first-round selection, along with San Francisco’s, and attempt to move up to take either BYU’s Zach Wilson, Ohio State’s Justin Fields or North Dakota State’s Trey Lance.

The second option would be to take the two first-rounders, along with a future first, and call Houston with a competitive offer for disgruntled but uber-talented quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson is scheduled to make $10.54 million next season in the final year of his rookie deal before the four-year, $156 million extension (average of $39 million annually) he signed with Houston begins in 2022.

It’s at this point someone will point out that the Vikings would be replacing the expensive Cousins with an even more expensive Watson. The difference is Watson has the skillset to be a Top 5 quarterback in the NFL and Cousins doesn’t. Watson is worth the investment.

When Houston does trade Watson odds are he will end up with Miami or the Jets. But that doesn’t mean the Vikings couldn’t put themselves in position to get involved in the talks. Watson has a no-trade clause so he can control where he lands, but Watson is going to listen to a pitch that includes throwing the ball to Justin Jefferson.

As for Cousins, he’s the one that got away from Shanahan. The one that Shanahan thought would be his quarterback starting in 2018. That plan was altered when the 49ers acquired Garoppolo in October 2017. Lynch admitted as much during an appearance on ESPN Radio in March 2018.

“We made the (Garoppolo) trade, but then there were some days when Kyle Shanahan was, like, in mourning, because I think everybody knows his master plan was to have Kirk Cousins come in eventually,” Lynch said. “I was proud of Kyle, because I think he knew this was the right thing for our franchise. And he didn’t hesitate. But then, even then, Jimmy had to really prove himself.”

One big difference between Cousins and Garoppolo is durability. Since 2018, the latter has missed 23 regular season games and spent most of 2018 and 2020 on injured reserve. Cousins has missed one game — he sat out the Vikings’ final regular season game in 2019 after they locked into a playoff spot — since becoming a full-start starter in 2015.

This is in no way an endorsement for the Vikings to take back Garoppolo in a trade. He has no guaranteed money left on his contract and the 49ers would only take a dead money hit of $2.8 million by letting him go. Let San Francisco figure that out, if they move on to the 32-year-old Cousins.

If the Vikings stick with Cousins, he will count $31 million against the cap in 2021 and $45 million in 2022. In the extension the Vikings gave Cousins last March in order to free up $10 million of salary cap space for what became a 7-9 season in 2020, they agreed to guarantee his $35 million base salary for 2022, if he was on the roster on the third day of the 2021 league year. The Vikings almost certainly will be looking to restructure Cousins’ salary cap hit a year from now but that likely would mean extending him into his age 35 season.

At some point the Vikings are going to have to make a decision on how to transition from Cousins to his replacement. Cousins is a good quarterback, he puts up some impressive stats and he might have even helped a fantasy team or two to a title. But is he the type of quarterback who is going to help a team to a Super Bowl title? The Vikings signed him to a three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million contract in 2018 thinking the answer was yes.

Three years later, and with a two-year, $66 million extension in hand, the Vikings have one playoff win and have missed the postseason twice with Cousins at QB. He isn’t the only one to blame for this, but the go-for-it move of signing him did not work.

The Vikings can continue with Cousins or they can move in a different direction and potentially strike while the quarterback market is hot. The former would be the safe route that might get you back to the playoffs in 2021 and still not save anyone’s job. The latter would be risky but the payoff could be great.