At his Combine press conference, Vikings’ GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah provided a bit of insight into his thinking about building a championship roster. It included some of his analytical thinking, and a view that his time to do so is limited. After all there is plenty of precedent for teams moving on from a GM after a few years of not having a championship-caliber roster. The Vikings may or may not part ways with Adofo-Mensah after giving him a fair space of time to do so, but he’s not wrong that franchise owners tend not to extend GMs that haven’t put the team in a position to win a championship in their first contract. Not-For-Long applies equally to coaches and GMs - not just players.
Quarterback is the most important position in professional sports, so it’s also a critical position for general managers to choose wisely and build around. Last year Kwesi Adofo-Mensah didn’t seem as confident in Kirk Cousins’ ability to be his guy at quarterback as Kevin O’Connell was, but Adofo-Mensah seems if anything more confident in Cousins now than a year ago. After all, it doesn’t take a pair of Ivy League degrees to see that quarterback was not the Vikings’ shortcoming last season.
Be that as it may, Kirk Cousins will be in the last year of his contract this season, and a decision on his future with the Vikings will need to be made in the coming weeks. Much will hinge on what direction the Vikings go with Cousins.
Decision at Quarterback
Earlier this off-season, it was reported that the Vikings were not interested in signing Kirk Cousins to another one-year deal. It was either going to be a multi-year deal (maybe 3 years) or nothing, allowing Cousins to play out his contract this season. The reason was likely that the Vikings and second-year GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah want clarity at the quarterback position so they can better make other roster decisions. Adofo-Mensah said that Kirk Cousins met the threshold of performance needed at quarterback for a championship-level roster, but also that you sometimes explore quarterbacks with different skill sets to find the best solution. Having a quarterback that meets championship-level criteria, knowing who that quarterback is along with his salary cap, helps inform other key roster decisions.
Given that, it would seem the most likely outcome for the Vikings is a longer-term deal with Cousins that isn’t much higher in Average Annual Value (AAV) than his current contract. My sense is that Cousins isn’t as concerned about driving a hard bargain as he was coming off his rookie contract and multiple franchise tags in Washington, in part because he likes being in Minnesota and isn’t looking to switch teams again, and because he’s now collected over $200 million in career earnings. Cousins’ market value, according to Spotrac, is $43.2 million/year. But I don’t see the Vikings being interested in going north of $40 million to extend Cousins and may be making the case that beyond $36-$38 million AAV, they’d rather explore alternatives. The rationale is that while Cousins may meet the minimum threshold for a championship caliber roster quarterback, he’s not top tier either and there should be a salary cap discount to top-tier QBs that allows for another premium contract.
Looking back at Super Bowl winning teams over the last decade, half of them didn’t have a top-tier quarterback. There is also the fact that top-tier quarterbacks tend to have top-tier offensive lines and multiple offensive weapons at their disposal. This makes it difficult to assess how much of a quarterback’s performance is exclusively his own and how much is due to the team around him, including the coaching staff.
The point here is there is no single blueprint for a championship caliber roster. One includes having a top-tier quarterback. The 49ers, Rams, and Eagles in their Super Bowl appearances of recent years represent another blueprint based more on the strength around the quarterback than the quarterback himself. Truly dominating defenses are another type of team that is championship caliber- like the 2015 Broncos, 2000 Ravens, or 1985 Bears, but I wouldn’t say that’s a blueprint a general manager actively uses to build a roster these days- even if they take steps in that direction.
If the Vikings and Kirk Cousins aren’t able to agree on a multi-year extension, the Vikings would likely explore options in both free agency and the draft.
A championship-level option in free agency could be Lamar Jackson.
Reports are that the Ravens will likely exercise a non-exclusive franchise tag on Jackson, as the two sides remain far apart on a contract extension. Doing so would allow the Ravens to match any offer made or accept two first-round draft picks as compensation if they decided not to match the offer. Jackson is reportedly seeking a deal in the upper $40 million/year range that is fully guaranteed. That’s a big ticket if there ever was one, and Jackson has an injury history that cannot be ignored, but he’s a dynamic playmaker that can carry a team offensively. You could also make the case that Jackson would be even better in the Vikings offense alongside Justin Jefferson and TJ Hockenson than he was with the Ravens, who lacked a top-tier wide receiver.
Landing Jackson would be complicated, as the Vikings would need to first make an offer the Ravens wouldn’t match, part with two first round picks, and then have Kirk Cousins, who has a full no-trade clause in his contract, agree to be traded. Not to mention have a trade partner for Cousins.
Other than Lamar Jackson, there aren’t really any feasible options that make sense for the Vikings. Aaron Rodgers isn’t feasible and doesn’t fit with the Vikings wanting at least medium-term clarity at quarterback, Derek Carr isn’t really championship caliber- nor is any of the other free agent quarterbacks this off-season. You could make a case for Geno Smith based on his performance last season, and he could come cheaper than Cousins, but it’s not super compelling either.
A less complicated, but much riskier option is for Kwesi Adofo-Mensah to spend a first-round pick- or more- on a quarterback and let Cousins play out his contract. Less than 10% of quarterbacks picked in the first round make it to the Super Bowl during their rookie contract, and the vast majority fall short of the championship caliber performance threshold as well, so this is an option that could easily cost Adofo-Mensah his job. Picking a quarterback in the draft and electing to let Cousins play out his contract would also create more uncertainty around signing Justin Jefferson to an extension- which is a priority for Adofo-Mensah.
Lastly, there is also the possibility of a quarterback trade, but this doesn’t seem terribly likely. A team like the 49ers or Jets may or may not be ready to punt on their first-round draft pick (Trey Lance or Zach Wilson), and maybe Kevin O’Connell can coach them to a higher level, but there isn’t much precedent for first-round quarterbacks dumped during their rookie contract amounting to much later on.
Quarterback Bottom Line
Kwesi Adofo-Mensah has said that Kirk Cousins meets the minimum threshold needed for a championship caliber roster. I suspect he also has a clear view of him as a top ten, but not a top tier, quarterback in the NFL. On a scale of 1-10 Cousins is a clearly labelled 8. With a better offensive line he could be a 9.
At the end of the day, the quarterback position was one of the strongest position groups on the Vikings roster last season. Cousins will turn 35 later this year but given his durability and no real decrease in his physical ability, there is reason to believe he could maintain his level of play for at least another few years. There is ample history of quarterbacks playing well into their late 30s that back that up.
From a roster-building standpoint, electing to extend Kirk Cousins means Kwesi Adofo-Mensah will go the path of building around Kirk Cousins, rather than replacing him with a top tier quarterback or one he’ll hope can be one down the line.
There is also the possibility that after a year in Kevin O’Connell’s system, Cousins improves. Cousins improved more as a playmaker and field general this past season, but his passing stats declined- in part due to learning and becoming more comfortable in a new scheme. With a year in that scheme under his belt, and a full year of TJ Hockenson to go with Justin Jefferson- and the perennial hope for an improved offensive line- Cousins could still show improvement at his age.
All of the above makes an extension for Cousins the most likely outcome for Adofo-Mensah, with a focus on improving other position groups that have more room for improvement.
I’ll take a look at other position groups in Part II.
The quickest way for the Vikings to have a championship caliber roster is to...
This poll is closed
Extend Kirk Cousins and selectively build around him
Make a strong offer for Lamar Jackson if he’s placed on a non-exclusive franchise tag, knowing that limits your ability to draft top players (it would cost two 1st-round draft picks) & sign top free agents given his salary cap hit, while trading Cousins.
Take a high risk by drafting a quarterback- most likely using 2023 & 2024 first-round draft picks to move up for one of the top QBs in this year's draft class- and letting Kirk Cousins play out his contract or potentially trading him.