The impact of Kirk Cousins’ contract were felt in subtle ways in Year 1.
Last offseason there wasn’t much uproar when the Minnesota Vikings released receiver Jarius Wright and elected not to tender an offer to RFA offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles. After all, both were simply role players on the 2017 Vikings. Wright caught 18 passes and Sirles played 342 total snaps.
But both players had their moments. Wright made 10 of his 18 catches on third down and nabbed a huge reception in the divisional playoff game against the New Orleans Saints to set up a go-ahead field goal late in the game. Sirles played three different positions as a fill-in and did not allow a sack in 195 pass blocking snaps.
Nobody would suggest the difference between the 13-3 Vikings and the 8-7-1 Vikings of 2018 was Jarius Wright and Jeremiah Sirles, but salary cap constraints — not their 2017 performance — kept them from being on the team and both proved difficult to replace.
This year Cousins struggled to find third down options beyond Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Between Laquon Treadwell and Aldrick Robinson, the Vikings gained just 11 first downs on 28 third down throws in either player’s direction.
And the offensive line struggled with depth early in the year. Rashod Hill gave up 28 QB pressures in just 342 passing snaps and the Vikings were forced to pick up Brett Jones in a trade when Pat Elflein did not return from injury as quickly as expected. Backup guard Danny Isidora also mixed in with little success, giving up 11 pressures in just 145 passing snaps and receiving the lowest Pro Football Focus grade in run blocking of any Viking lineman.
These are the ripple effects of a big quarterback contract on a win-now team that also paid out extensions to Diggs, Danielle Hunter and Eric Kendricks last offseason.
As the Vikings head into the offseason with a number of areas to address on the roster, they are set to spend the fourth most cap space of any team on the quarterback position in 2019. Only the Saints, Lions and Patriots will have more of their cap tied up in a QB.
That won’t preclude the Vikings from signing players to fill the areas of need, but it does restrict their ability to hedge bets.
Take the offensive line for example. There are a handful of solid guards on the free agent market like Mark Glowinski, Roger Saffold and Ramon Foster. But those players come with a significant price tag, leaving little room to spend on solid backup options.
The 2017 Philadelphia Eagles demonstrate the benefits of having cap space while QB Carson Wentz is still on his rookie contract. Despite having a very good offensive line, they signed backup lineman Chance Warmack to a contract with a $1.8 million cap hit to provide depth. He ended up playing 321 snaps.
They were also able to add Jay Ajayi at the trade deadline when the running game needed help. Free agent receiver Torrey Smith gave them 36 extra catches. Veteran signing Corey Graham played 14 games when the secondary had injuries.
This year Philly paid backup QB Nick Foles $13.6 million on the cap and he nearly led them to the NFC Championship in relief of Wentz.
The Rams were able to sign Ndamukong Suh and acquire Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. As a backup plan, they brought in veteran Sam Shields as depth. Neither corner worked out as well as expected, but Los Angeles was still able to overcome some defensive issues, in part because they spent on the offensive side to sign Brandin Cooks last year and Robert Woods the offseason before.
Sure the Vikings can cut Mike Remmers and save cap space, but that means getting rid of a proven NFL offensive linemen who could provide valuable depth. Sure they could get rid of Andrew Sendejo to create cap space, but they better hope Anthony Harris carries over his strong performance from this year. Sure they can let Latavius Murray hit the market, but Mike Boone better be prepared to step in if Dalvin Cook gets hurt. Sure they could trade Xavier Rhodes, but Holton Hill better be able to handle Allen Robinson one-on-one.
The Vikings may end up in a position in which they need draft picks to make an immediate impact. With the 18th overall pick, however, that’s tough to count on. The three offensive linemen picked last year in the same range as the Vikings’ selection this year — Frank Ragnow, Billy Price and Isaiah Wynn — made little or no impact on their team in 2018.
Over the last four drafts, the first player selected either didn’t step into a starting role or suffered a season-ending injury early in the year.
None of this is to say that a rookie or free agent signee won’t be a hit. They could land the next Ryan Ramczyk (32nd overall in 2017) or sign a game-changer at guard or find a cheap wide receiver who stretches the defense.
It is to say: The Vikings’ QB contract — for a player who showed in 2018 that he doesn’t elevate the team’s play around him the same way Drew Brees or Tom Brady do — forces the front office to hit home runs every time they step to the plate. That’s a difficult ask.
One way the Vikings could approach the offseason is more conservatively than the big swings they have taken on OL recently in the form of Alex Boone and Riley Reiff. They could search for more reasonable deals or under-the-radar options. The Patriots traded a third-round pick for starting left tackle Trent Brown rather than re-signing Nate Solder to a monster contract.
While the fan base will be looking for big moves this offseason, cutting with a scalpel might be better than with a chainsaw in this case. Either way, it’s become clear how a $29 million QB cap hit can make roster surgery very tricky.