Featured Posts | Vikings

Zulgad: Vikings GM Rick Spielman says Kirk Cousins “is our quarterback,” but at what price?

Panthers Vikings Football
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) looks to pass in the first quarter during an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/David Berding)

Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said during a video call on Wednesday that Kirk Cousins “is our quarterback” for the 2021 season, trying to put to rest the speculation that in an offseason in which many quarterbacks will be moved, Cousins could be dealt after three seasons in Minnesota.

“I think Coach (Mike Zimmer) put that to bed when he spoke after the season,” Spielman said. “Kirk Cousins is our quarterback. I know there’s a lot of rumors floating around out there but Kirk Cousins is our quarterback. We felt that he played very well, probably the best that he’s ever played, down that stretch last year. Kirk’s our quarterback going forward and (I) look forward to him (having) another year in this system. (I’m) excited for him and what he’s going to bring to our team next year.”

There are a couple of ways to look at Spielman’s comments. The first is to assume he’s telling the truth, all the Cousins speculation has been nothing more than hot air and the veteran definitely will return. The second is to realize that Spielman is the same guy who told Vikings fans in February 2020 that “there’s no reason to anticipate (Stefon Diggs) is not going to be a Minnesota Viking,” and seven years earlier said the Vikings “have no intent” to trade Percy Harvin. Shortly after both of those comments were made, the wide receivers were traded.

Am I calling Spielman a liar? Yes, but it’s sports lying. That doesn’t make Spielman a bad human being, it just means that when he’s talking about his team you can’t believe a word he says.

Odds are that Cousins isn’t going anywhere and that the Vikings would not trade him unless they could get a better quarterback in return, or at least a high draft pick that would enable them to select a QB who would be a long-term solution and could take over at a much more reasonable price.

But here’s where things get interesting when it comes to Cousins’ situation and this probably has not gotten enough attention. The Vikings, desperate to create salary-cap space a year ago, went to Cousins and got him to rework the final season of the three-year, $84 million contract he signed in March 2018. Cousins received a two-year extension worth $66 million that reduced his salary-cap hit from $31 million to $21 million in 2021.

That wiggle room came at a significant price.

Cousins’ base salary jumps from $9.5 million in 2020 to $21 million (with a $31 million cap hit) in 2021. There’s more and this is the key: If Cousins is on the Vikings’ roster on the third day of the 2021 league year (which begins on March 17), his 2022 salary will become fully guaranteed. The base salary is $35 million and the salary-cap hit (this is not a misprint) is $45 million.

If nothing was changing with the usually increasing salary cap, this still would be a massive hit. According to the Spotrac website, it will be the biggest salary-cap number among all NFL quarterbacks. The situation is made even more difficult by the fact the salary cap will be going down this offseason because of the pandemic and no one knows what it will climb to in 2022. The cap was $198.2 million per team in 2020 and will have a floor of $180 million next season. The final cap figure hasn’t been announced yet but likely will be around $185 million in 2021.

This means the Vikings likely will have to go back to Cousins either this offseason or next to see if he will again restructure his deal, which is an issue for two reasons. One, he almost certainly would want a rich extension and the Vikings might be at a point where they want to move on. Cousins was signed to be the final piece of a potential Super Bowl puzzle but has been the quarterback on a team that has missed the playoffs in two of the past three seasons and won only one postseason game. Second, Cousins indicated on Pro Football Talk’s show during Super Bowl week that he would be happy to play out this contract and hit free agency again going into his age 35 season in 2023.

If Cousins forces the Vikings to cut him before the 2022 season, they would save $35 million against the cap and take a dead money hit of $10 million. That’s fine. The problem is ownership would still owe him his money because his contract is guaranteed. (The only help would be if Cousins has offset language in his deal, meaning the Vikings would pay the difference between the $35 million and what the new team agreed to give him.) Trading him at that point becomes next to impossible, too, unless he agrees to restructure the deal with a new employer and that isn’t a given.

Spielman, as usual, declined to get into any details about contracts on Wednesday, so he wasn’t about to expand on Cousins’ situation. But if Cousins is to be the Vikings’ quarterback going forward — and nothing is done between now and March 20 — there is going to be a significant price to be paid by the Vikings’ brass in 2022.