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Zulgad: Let’s make a deal: If Vikings want to move on from Cousins, now would be the time

NFL: Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings
Jan 9, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) passes against the Chicago Bears in the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL’s new year doesn’t start for another eight days, but that didn’t stop the quarterback carousel from beginning to spin on Tuesday. First, Aaron Rodgers announced on Twitter that he would  return to the Green Bay Packers next season. With Rodgers off the market, that triggered a blockbuster trade in which the Denver Broncos reportedly sent a package of players and draft picks to the Seattle Seahawks for quarterback Russell Wilson.

So how does this impact the Vikings? In a few ways. First, it makes Kirk Cousins the top target for the teams that are quarterback-starved and think (mistakenly or not) that they can win now. That list includes the Panthers, Steelers, Colts and tCommanders. Second, the Packers retaining Rodgers actually simplifies the Vikings’ plan for next season.

Let’s start with item No. 2.

While Vikings’ ownership has made it clear it expects to compete next season, the Packers will remain the big favorites in the NFC North. If Rodgers and wide receiver Davante Adams, who had the franchise tag placed on him Tuesday by Green Bay, had gone elsewhere, the North would have been wide open and the Vikings could have been tempted to take advantage.

That temptation should no longer exist. Packers coach Matt LaFleur has won 13 regular-season games in each of his three years on the sideline and Rodgers has won two consecutive NFL MVP awards. Rodgers has had issues in the playoffs, but winning the division has come easy for him. There’s no reason to think that won’t continue for at least one more season.

New Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O’Connell should be thrilled. The Vikings’ roster has talent at several of the offensive skill positions, but this is a team that needs a reset. The defense was one of the worst in the NFL in 2021, and O’Connell’s offensive scheme will need some new talent plugged in.

The Vikings aren’t going to tank and they could even make a run at a wild card spot, but any pressure to try to win a division that could have only one good team is now gone. That’s a plus considering all the moves we’re likely to see in the coming weeks as Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell continue to put their stamp on the organization and remove much of what Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer built during their eight seasons together.

Could one of those moves involve a trade of Cousins?

That’s certainly a possibility. Rodgers staying put, and Wilson going to Denver, means that teams looking to acquire a veteran QB are exploring a shrinking market. San Francisco wants to move on from Jimmy Garoppollo, but other than that Derek Carr of the Raiders and Cousins are the only two other names that seem logical. It’s looking more and more as if Carr will get an extension in Las Vegas.

Cousins, 33, is entering the final season of a two-year, $66 million extension he signed with the Vikings in 2020. His base salary is scheduled to be $35 million and his cap hit will be $45 million. That cap number put Cousins third in the NFL for 2022 among quarterbacks entering Tuesday behind only Atlanta’s Matt Ryan ($48.663 million) and Rodgers ($46.664). But Rodgers’ new contract should reduce his cap number significantly.

Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell have been complementary of Cousins since joining the Vikings, but both have left the door open for the veteran not to be wearing purple next season. Adofo-Mensah and Cousins’ agent, Mike McCartney, have met at least twice to discuss Cousins’ future.

“We just talked generally about our vision for the team and what we want to accomplish,” Adofo-Mensah said during the recent NFL Scouting Combine. “Look, those conversations are ongoing and I can’t tell you anything at this moment, but we will communicate and we will do whatever’s best for the Minnesota Vikings and Kirk will do what’s best for Kirk. But I think there’s a lot of middle ground for us to work well together.”

There’s a chance the Vikings would do a contract extension with Cousins, if it’s on their terms or at least meeting in the middle. But Cousins’ camp reportedly has no interest in providing a future discount, while also reducing his 2022 cap hit. The latter they appear willing to do, but it will come with another significant pay day and plenty of guaranteed money. That would mean an extension would put Adofo-Mensah in the exact same situation Spielman found himself on the day he was fired.

Considering the Vikings have only one playoff appearance in Cousins’ four seasons in Minnesota, making another expensive commitment doesn’t seem wise. One option would be for the Vikings to bring back Cousins for another season, pay him in full and then let him leave as a free agent. This would provide a built in a reason for immediately jettisoning other veterans whom the new GM and coach want to move on from anyway.

It also could set up the Vikings to select a quarterback in what is believed to be a much stronger 2023 QB draft class. Of course, the Vikings would get nothing in return for Cousins if he walks. The best case would be to get a fraction of what the Seahawks did from the Broncos — Wilson brought back two first- and two second-round picks — and use that to build for the future.

Cousins, however, could sabotage a trade by refusing to sign an extension with an interested team and make himself too expensive and too much of a rental to want to deal with for one season. Those are issues Adofo-Mensah must handle in the coming days and weeks. But this much is certain: Adofo-Mensah’s phone is certain to start ringing now that the quarterback carousel is spinning.