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Zulgad’s Roundup: Kirk Cousins’ absence puts focus on Vikings’ need to improve at backup QB

Kirk Cousins, Kellen Mond
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) and Vikings quarterback Kellen Mond prepare to throw at the NFL football team’s practice facility in Eagan, Minn., Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)

If Kevin O’Connell didn’t realize just how big of a problem he had at backup quarterback before Thursday, he does now. The Vikings coach was forced to conduct practice without starting QB Kirk Cousins, who was sent home in the morning because of illness, and thus was forced to split first-team reps between Kellen Mond and Sean Mannion.

Neither had been impressive running the second team in camp, and it got downright ugly late Thursday afternoon with Mond and Mannion attempting to make the first-team go. A small sample: Mannion started in team drills and had a pass tipped at the line of scrimmage, threw a sure interception that safety Cam Bynum dropped and spiked a ball into the ground because of pressure from Za’Darius Smith. He then finally completed a pass to Justin Jefferson.

Mond, meanwhile, continues to hold the ball far too long as he surveys the field for receivers. My charting had four sacks on Mond, although he was allowed to keep plays alive after he would have been taken down, and he dropped another snap from under center. That has been a consistent problem for the 2021 third-round pick in this camp.

Considering the expectations ownership has for the Vikings, first-year general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell have to know they need to upgrade behind Cousins. Cousins has missed only two games since becoming a starter in 2015, and neither was because of injury. But expecting the 33-year-old Cousins’ good fortune to continue seems like a recipe for disaster.

There also has been the thought that Mannion is capable of starting if Cousins only misses a game, as he did late last season when Cousins had COVID-19.  But the Vikings and their fan base quickly learned that having Mannion start at Lambeau Field turned into a sure way to lose an important game.

This isn’t saying the Vikings need to make a trade for a quarterback who eventually could succeed Cousins. But Mannion, 30, and Mond, 23, have no business playing in a regular-season game for a team that wants to win the NFC North.

The Vikings’ options to find a quarterback could either come via a trade or by signing a free agent. Among the available quarterbacks is Blake Bortles, who has started 73 games in five seasons with Jacksonville and has since been with the Rams (twice), Denver, Green Bay and New Orleans. Bortles got into three games with the Rams in 2019 and returned to the team for a brief stay in 2020.

The 30-year-old’s knowledge of the Rams’ scheme, means O’Connell’s offense wouldn’t be completely new to him. O’Connell was hired as the Rams’ offensive coordinator in January 2020, so he’s familiar with Bortles.

Adofo-Mensah also could look to make a trade with a team that is willing to move a quarterback off its roster, but the longer that takes the more important it will be to acquire someone who is familiar with what O’Connell is installing offensively.

Is this backup quarterback angst really necessary? That depends on how you look at it. If your preference is to not worry that anything will go wrong, then you roll with Mannion and Mond. But if you are a good executive or coach, and thus plan for the worst, you are working the phones right now trying to upgrade behind Cousins.

  • The Vikings elected not to announce Thursday whether Cousins has COVID-19 or something else, but that information should come Friday. If Cousins has COVID-19 for the second time, look for him to be away from the team for at least five days. Cousins also missed five days in training camp last year because of  the NFL’s rules for close contacts to known cases of COVID-19. He spent the season in the NFL’s protocols for unvaccinated players. The NFL suspended all coronavirus protocols last March.
  • There appeared to be a good chance Cousins wasn’t going to play in the Vikings’ preseason opener Sunday against the Raiders in Las Vegas, but now he is unlikely to make the trip with the team. If Thursday’s practice was any indication, look for Mannion to get the start, but for Mond to see extensive action. The Vikings do not have a fourth quarterback in camp.
  • O’Connell declined to map out how he plans to use players against the Raiders, but it won’t be surprising if many first-team players don’t see a snap on Sunday or in the other two preseason games. The Vikings have worked very hard in camp to keep players fresh and healthy and having a guy like Justin Jefferson or Adam Thielen play a few snaps in a meaningless game seems like a risk these Vikings won’t want to take.
  • Rick Spielman’s final draft as Vikings general manager in 2021 has turned out some good players. First-round left tackle Christian Darrisaw has had a very good camp, and fourth-round safety Cam Bynum appears set to start. Other potential contributors could be running back Kene Nwangwu, wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette and tight end Zach Davidson. But the third round is another story. Spielman had four picks in that round, taking Mond, linebacker Chazz Surratt, guard Wyatt Davis and outside linebacker Pat Jones II. Jones figures to make the 53-man roster but the other three all could be looking for work. Davis, whom some expected to start at right guard last season, is barely getting any snaps in practice and is with the third team.
  • Competitions to watch: Second-round pick Ed Ingram is now splitting first-team snaps at right guard with veteran Jesse Davis, and second-round cornerback Andrew Booth Jr., got some reps with the first-team at right corner on Thursday in place of Cameron Dantzler. Dantzler also worked with the first team but it appears Booth is pushing Dantzler hard for the job.
  • Veteran Chris Reed, who has been working at both guard and center with the second team, didn’t practice for a second consecutive day. That left the second-team snaps at center to Austin Schlottmann.
  • Greg Joseph ended the competitive portion of Thursday’s practice by hitting a 60-yard field goal to end a late-game drill. Joseph’s kick looked like it could have been good from 70 yards. The veteran kicker has been outstanding all camp.