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Zulgad: Will Vikings keep Kirk Cousins or are they hoping to drive up the price on veteran QB?

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Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) reacts during the second half of an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn)

It was interesting that on back-to-back days ESPN reporters Adam Schefter and Jeremy Fowler provided similar information on Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins and how soon-to-be named coach Kevin O’Connell feels about him. The two worked together in 2017 with O’Connell serving as Cousins’ quarterbacks coach in Washington.

Schefter reported Sunday during the Pro Bowl postgame show that one of the reasons O’Connell wanted the Vikings job was because of his relationship with Cousins, adding that Cousins endorsed O’Connell for the job. Schefter said that leads him to believe Cousins and the Vikings will figure something out and could do a restructured contract that will enable the team to avoid the $45 million salary cap hit the QB is set to carry in the final season of his contract.

Fowler tweeted the following on Monday: “Soon-to-be Vikings HC Kevin O’Connell conveyed a firm belief in Kirk Cousins during the interview process, I’m told. He’s high on him. The front office must decide on Cousins’ future due to his $45M cap hit, but many coaches interviewing for the job liked Cousins, O’Connell included.”

This has led some to assume Cousins will return next season. But anyone who has followed the madness that is the NFL offseason knows such assumptions often prove incorrect. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Schefter and Fowler are getting information from someone with an agenda. Perhaps it’s the Vikings, or maybe Cousins’ reps.

Either way, making it clear that Cousins likely will remain in Minnesota is the smart play. There figure to be plenty of quarterback-starved teams — Carolina, Denver, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay for starters — and it’s in the Vikings’ best interest to make potential trade partners believe that it will cost a substantial amount for new general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah to part with Cousins.

The Cousins camp, meanwhile, is going to do everything it can to put a happy face on the quarterback’s situation and make it clear that wherever Cousins plays next season he’s going to be making big money. A restructure should be a given whether Cousins stays in Minnesota, but taking a pay cut after playing on a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract and then getting a two-year extension worth $66 million isn’t likely to be part of the deal.

Former general manager Rick Spielman, who signed Cousins to both of those contracts, has left Adofo-Mensah with some serious cleanup work to do. The Vikings are $15.597 million over the projected NFL salary cap of $208.2 million for next season, according to the Over The Cap website. That means that significant room is going to have to be cleared and simply doing restructures isn’t likely to do the trick. Some veterans are going to have to go.

Cousins, 33, could be tempting for a team that thinks it could plug him in and win a Super Bowl. Is that realistic? That’s not the Vikings’ problem. NFL teams have proven that hubris often gets in the way of common sense.

A year ago, the Vikings were believed to have quietly shopped Cousins before ownership objected to moving the guy they had been told was the key to a Super Bowl. But Adofo-Mensah is unlikely to be under any such restrictions as he hits the reset button on the roster. While the Vikings, or any other NFL team, can’t officially complete a trade until the NFL’s new year begins on March 16, Cousins’ future could be decided much sooner than that.

It was just before Super Bowl week last year when the Rams and Lions agreed on a trade that sent quarterback Matthew Stafford to Los Angeles for QB Jared Goff, first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 and a third-rounder in 2021. In 2018, Washington acquired quarterback Alex Smith from Kansas City for a third-round pick and cornerback Kendall Fuller during Super Bowl week in Minneapolis. That trade opened the door for Cousins to leave Washington.

The Stafford trade, meanwhile, has worked out extremely well for a Rams team that felt it needed an upgrade at quarterback for an all-in roster to reach the Super Bowl. That proved to be correct and in many ways is what the Vikings thought they were doing in 2018, when they signed Cousins but then missed the playoffs.

So will Adofo-Mensah be calling his fellow NFL executives this week to gauge their interest in a possible deal involving Cousins? Or has he called them already? That seems likely given the fact that bringing back a high draft pick for a talented but overpriced quarterback would open the door for O’Connell to develop a younger and less expensive passer. That doesn’t guarantee a deal will get done in the next few days, or even before March.

But continuing to maintain the appearance that the Vikings have no real intention of moving Cousins is one way to get the most in return. Even if Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell have decided that moving on from him is in everyone’s best interest.