Now that Kirk Cousins has suffered a season-ending injury- a torn Achilles tendon- which will be confirmed by MRI tomorrow, the Vikings’ front office is faced with some urgent issues- particularly given the NFL trade deadline is in two days.
The first decision is whether they want to bring in a starting-caliber quarterback. They’ll certainly look at bringing in a backup to complete their QB room once Cousins goes to IR, but the real decision is how far they’re willing to go to try to salvage the season. The Vikings are currently the 7th seed in the NFC postseason standings and a wild card team. They have a very favorable schedule the next five games and could also see the return of Justin Jefferson and Marcus Davenport in the coming weeks as well.
And there is still a lot of football to be played- just over half the season.
Vikings Have an Attractive Offense for Veteran Quarterbacks
First off, the Vikings have an offense that represents a great opportunity for a competent quarterback to succeed. They have a good offensive line and as talented a receiver group as you’ll find in the NFL when Justin Jefferson returns. Jefferson, Jordan Addison, and TJ Hockenson provide ample weapons for a decent quarterback to feed.
Secondly, they have a favorable schedule over the next five games and a bye-week for a new quarterback to use to get up to speed with the offense. And a former NFL quarterback as head coach who can help a new quarterback succeed. It’s as good a situation as a quarterback coming in mid-season is likely to find.
And what the Vikings’ front office decides to do could rub-off on the rest of team. Making a bigger splash in bringing in a new quarterback could rally the rest of the team around him. Conversely, not making much of an effort could cause the opposite effect.
Front Office Doesn’t Have a Lot to Work with in Bringing in a New Quarterback
On the other hand, the Vikings don’t have a lot of cap space to work with. According to Spotrac, the Vikings have $9.6 million in cap space available. That’s not a lot, but enough to bring in a decent veteran. Some quarterbacks looking at one more chance to make a splash might be willing to take a discount on a half-season of work to either have a chance at another postseason, or to improve their stock for another contract next season. But the other question is how much the Vikings are willing to pay in draft compensation in a potential trade.
In any case, let’s look at some of the options for a starting-level quarterback to replace Kirk Cousins.
First, the Vikings could go with one or more of their in-house options. The problem with that is none of them are positioned for anything more than spot-duty at this point. Jaren Hall is a rookie and 5th round draft pick- and looked very much as such in relief of Cousins against the Packers. That may not be a fair assessment of Hall’s potential, given only a relative handful of snaps without any work with the first team offense in practice, but the Vikings should have no illusions about his ability to step-up at this point in his career.
Nick Mullens and Sean Mannion are both past their prime and meant more as a veteran voice in the quarterback room than as an extended starter. Planning to go with one of them to finish the season is planning to fail. Hall may be called upon for his first start next weekend, given the limited timeframe for alternatives to be signed and learn the offense- or Nick Mullens to get healthy. But beyond that is a question mark, particularly as Vikings’ head coach Kevin O’Connell did not commit to Hall or Mullens or Mannion going forward.
Keenum has the history in Minnesota that would draw some excitement for a repeat performance and is an affordable option for the Vikings. Keenum is currently the third-string quarterback in Houston and a $2.8 million cap hit for the season- the Vikings would likely have to absorb half that in addition to his 2024 cap hit which they could get out of for a $1.375 million deadcap hit.
Keenum’s glory year in 2017 was six years ago, however. Keenum is now nearly 36 years old and hasn’t started in several years. He was a one-year wonder with the Vikings that was unable to do much as a starter either before his stint with the Vikings or since the 2017 season. He could probably be had for a Day-Three pick and at least has some history of heroics as a mid-season backup.
Realistically, Tom Brady is retired and very likely to remain so. He’s the GOAT with nothing to prove. Still, he’s an option and if he had a desire to give it a go one more time, the Vikings situation is a good one for him. But at age 46 and probably not having bothered to keep in shape since his last retirement, a very unlikely option.
Ryan did not rule out a return to the NFL after retiring this off-season. In fact, he said he was planning to stay ready for the right opportunity. The Vikings could be that opportunity. But Ryan, now 38, lost his fastball at least a year or two ago and could prove somewhat disappointing. Ryan would also have to play for a lot less than he’s made since he was on his rookie contract. Unclear if he’d be willing to do so, or if the Vikings have much interest in reaching out to the old veteran.
Wentz, out of North Dakota State, has some fans locally but has been horrendous in his last few stops since getting the boot in Philadelphia. Accuracy, decision-making, and poise all seemed to go from bad to worse since 2017. I’m sure he’d jump at the chance to play again, however. But not a lot of time for Kevin O’Connell and company to correct his issues, if that’s possible at this stage.
Winston is currently signed as a backup quarterback with the Saints, whom the Vikings play in two weeks, in a modest $4.5 million cap hit contract. The problem is he has $10+ million in a 2024 deadcap hit as his contract voids after this year. That’s not particularly enticing for a half-season of work. The Saints would have to agree to eat his deadcap hit- if that can be finagled somehow- for the Vikings to really consider Winston. Alternatively, the Saints could offer draft compensation in lieu of eating that deadcap hit.
But Winston has been a Jeckel and Hyde type quarterback. Sometimes making great throws downfield, but just as often throwing bad interceptions. He improved a bit on that more recently, but far from clear if he would ultimately be an asset or a liability as a starter for the Vikings the rest of the season.
The Vikings met with McCoy earlier this season, and Kevin O’Connell has experience coaching McCoy. But whether McCoy would be another viable backup or a potential starter is a question mark. He’s never really been good, but could potentially be a better option than any of the current in-house options. But probably not the best choice to salvage the Vikings’ season. He’s also 37 years old.
The Cowboys spent a 4th-round pick to acquire Lance from the 49ers early this year and would probably want at least that much in draft compensation to trade him. He’s their 3rd string quarterback. The problem is that Lance may not be any better than Jaren Hall this season. Lance’s struggles with the 49ers since being drafted, along with his injury issues, are well documented. And he simply hasn’t played a lot of football in several years. Probably not a viable option to step-in as a starter, learn the system, and play at an above average level- something he’s yet to do.
Fields is currently injured but could be healthy again within another week or two. He’s the starting quarterback for the Bears when healthy, but backup Tyson Bagent is playing well enough now for the Bears to consider trading him now for whatever they can get as they’ll likely use a top draft pick on a new quarterback next April.
Fields has never really got it as a passer in the NFL after two and a half seasons- although he’s a weapon running the ball- and there is some question about his ability to really understand and operate effectively as a passer in an NFL offense. He’s affordable as he’s still in his rookie contract- with another year left on it- but unclear if the Bears will actually move him by the deadline or if he’s a viable solution for the Vikings. His ability to learn the system and operate effectively in the Vikings’ offense would be a big question mark, especially in mid-season. He’d have some advantages over the offense in Chicago to be sure, but his ability above the shoulders remains in doubt until he proves otherwise.
He’s currently the backup in Washington and an affordable trade option. Not sure he moves the needle much over other options, however.
Tannehill is currently with the Titans but they were reportedly trying to move him earlier this year- but no takers. Tannehill is in the same draft class as Cousins, but hasn’t aged as well in recent years. He’s lost his fastball but still could be a better option than most for the Vikings. Tannehill has a massive contract, however, which the Titans would have to absorb for Tannehill to be a consideration.
Murray is reportedly about healthy enough to play again, but has a long contract averaging about $50 million/year for the next several and a nearly $100 million deadcap hit. The Cardinals would have to absorb that massive contract for him to be an option. Not going to happen.
Nick Foles and Joe Flacco are also free agents still looking for an opportunity. There are also any number of backups currently on NFL rosters that teams may be willing to trade for the right offer. Difficult to know which of them are really available for trade for a Day Three pick however, and not sure the Vikings would be willing to go higher than that for a backup.
The Vikings certainly have options they could bring in to replace Kirk Cousins, but each of them have issues and drawbacks- otherwise they’d be starting quarterbacks teams would not be willing to trade away.
But it is certainly worthwhile for the Vikings to kick the tires on some of these options and figure out if any of them would be better than an in-house option, given the difficulties of coming in mid-season to play the most difficult position in professional sports.
Clearly the Vikings would prefer a veteran than has the ability to come in and learn the system quickly, throw with accuracy and poise and make good decisions so maximize the talent the Vikings have at other positions. Having a good offensive line should help whoever steps in as quarterback for the rest of the season, but as is sometimes mentioned, sacks are a at least partly a quarterback stat, as a quarterback needs to get rid of the ball in a timely manner and move well in the pocket to avoid the rush. Cousins did a good job with that- especially this season- and others may not be as good in that regard. Having a feel and rapport with the offensive line helps in that regard too.
Bottom line, whoever takes over for Cousins needs to play better than they have in the recent past to give the Vikings a chance to salvage their season and at least make the postseason. They may be helped by entering a better situation than they’ve had in the past, but there can be no guarantees and the odds of Cousins’ replacement playing as well or better than Cousins are low. They have a better team than they did last season on defense, at the skill positions and along the offensive line. But in losing Cousins, they lost their most important player. There are never good options to replace a franchise quarterback mid-season in the NFL.
But now the Vikings are forced to find one. Not just for this season, but potentially for next season and beyond as well.