We’re on the eve of the NFL Draft, and visions of trade-ups to get the next Mahomes are dancing in the heads of many fans. It’s that time of year in the NFL annual schedule where teams with a quarterback situation to solve are busy evaluating their options, while the teams content with their quarterback are looking to bolster their trenches and other skill positions.
For the Vikings, they have a championship caliber quarterback in Kirk Cousins, according to GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, so they should be among the teams looking to bolster other positions on their roster. But although Cousins just finished arguably his best season, though not his best statistically, the Vikings front office is beginning to worry about how long Cousins can maintain his form, now that he’s 35 years old. They were willing to extend Cousins and guarantee his salary for 2024- but not 2025- a couple months ago, which led to an impasse in extension talks, at least for now. But the Vikings’ position does offer some insight into how long they may be committed to Cousins. And it may not all be age-related either. Justin Jefferson and Christian Darrisaw could eventually each command $30 million a season. TJ Hockenson in the neighborhood of $15 million a year. All that plus Cousins’ salary, and Brian O’Neill’s, would make the Vikings’ payroll very lobsided in favor of the offense, and it might be nice to not always be just scraping under the salary cap limit, although in practice only the worst teams have significant salary cap space these days.
Be that as it may, the Vikings continue to explore their options at quarterback. The new regime did a fair number of evaluations on quarterbacks last year, and at least as much this year. Particularly on a couple they thought may be within reach at the time of the Combine for their first draft pick tomorrow- Anthony Richardson and Will Levis. They also met with Dorian Thompson-Robinson at the Combine, and more recently have been evaluating Hendon Hooker, although it's unclear if they actually met with him or not. They’ve also met with and have been evaluating Jaren Hall and Tanner McKee according to Darren Wolfson.
The Vikings were also exploring trade interest in Kirk Cousins during the Combine, and according to Mike Florio also discussed acquiring Trey Lance with the 49ers, although Florio said he wasn’t sure if those talks are on-going or not.
So where does all this lead? And what does this tell us about the Vikings’ draft strategy?
Vikings Draft Strategy Options
When the Vikings met with Richardson and Levis at the Combine, their draft projection was somewhere in the mid-first-round or so. Within reach for the Vikings at #23. Bryce Young and CJ Stroud were expected to go 1-2, and the Vikings elected not to meet with either of them. Hendon Hooker was expected to be a second-round pick, but the Vikings elected not to meet with him either. But they did meet with Richardson and Levis. Now, however, both Richardson and Levis are expected to be drafted in the top ten, possibly even the top five. Many pundits don’t expect any of the top four quarterbacks to make it past Tennessee at #11.
I suspect that the Vikings will be watching quarterback developments closely tomorrow, but probably won’t be too interested in making a move unless one of them falls further than expected- into the teens perhaps. There are rumors that the Vikings are exploring trading up, and also trading down, as there is every year at this time. And that’s because every year they do explore trading up and down as part of their pre-draft process. GMs and their staff routinely talk to each other exploring potential trade possibilities, compensation, etc., laying the groundwork for a deal should the conditions for a trade arise.
But should a top-four quarterback fall further than expected, it’s unlikely that the Vikings would be the only interested party. There may be upwards of a half-dozen other teams willing to make a trade, or stand pat, and draft a quarterback that falls to them. It’s unclear how far the Vikings are willing to go in leveraging future draft picks to move up for a quarterback, but my guess is no more than what next year’s first-round pick would get them, and maybe not even that. It doesn’t appear that the Vikings have fallen in love with any particular quarterback at this point, which is understandable as all the ones they’ve been considering come with a good deal of uncertainty and risk. Richardson has a high ceiling given his physical gifts but has only played one season in college and has accuracy issues that can be difficult to fix. Recent experiments with quarterbacks with only a year as a starter in college- Mitch Trubisky and Trey Lance- haven’t gone well. Levis has a Carson Wentz comp and mixed college performance that is concerning to some as well.
Another option that increasingly looks like it would require a first-round pick is Hendon Hooker. Hooker tore his ACL and although it was just reported that his doctor thinks he’ll be ready to play by the beginning of the season, I doubt teams would rush to play him. Most expect him to sit his first year regardless. And Hooker too has his pros and cons and different takes by different analysts. Some think he’s got everything it takes to be a great quarterback; others think the transition to the NFL could be a difficult one for him and that his ceiling may not be as high. Geno Smith is a frequent comp for Hooker. But Hooker could be available within trading range of #23 for the Vikings, if not at #23, and is likely a consideration for the Vikings. It’s unclear how favorable a view the Vikings have of Hooker, or whether they would be willing to trade up for him, or risk trading down with him on the board, or if they like him enough to draft him with their first pick. The Vikings may be evaluating whether Hooker is their best option as a successor to Kirk Cousins, or if they’re better off waiting for a better opportunity later in the draft, or in next year’s draft, which some say is a good one for quarterbacks, or possibly acquire a quarterback outside of the draft. And they could still elect to extend Cousins and continue to evaluate options until they find one they’re really sold on. At this point the need is not urgent. Cousins is a top ten or so quarterback, but more relevant is that he’s at least top five in the NFC, and probably among the top three. He’s also the top quarterback in the NFC North now too.
The Cousins Contingency
Nevertheless, at 35 years old, it’s unclear how long before Cousins begins to show signs of physical decline or begins to have injury issues. It’s also unclear how many more years he wants to play. He hasn’t shown the physical decline that Russell Wilson and Ryan Tannehill have (they were drafted the same year as Cousins), but it's unclear if he will in the coming years or if he can maintain himself like Tom Brady did through his late 30s. My guess is that he’s got at least a few more good years left, but you never know.
In any case, it’s better to be grooming a successor than being caught off-guard by an injury or decline which could leave the Vikings with few and unattractive options- like being caught over a barrel and spending a first-round pick on Sam Bradford the week before the season opener. That argues for drafting a quarterback in the next few days. But here too is a dilemma:
What if Cousins continues to play well? After all he tied the all-time record for game-winning drives last season, also his best from a win-loss perspective and as a playmaker, and that was his first year in Kevin O’Connell’s offense. He may improve in his second year with the same scheme, offensive coordinator, and signal caller- something he’s rarely, if ever, had in back-to-back years. Not a bad problem to have, but then what? Cut him loose and let the new guy start, ready or not, knowing he probably won’t be as good the first couple years? Or do you extend Cousins and have the new guy ride the bench another year or more? What if he’s a first-round pick?
The key advantage, after all, in having a young quarterback is that he comes cheap in a rookie contract. But if you keep your expensive quarterback, then that advantage is lost. And there is still a learning curve period, often a couple years worth of starts, before a new quarterback becomes an above average performer. And, as we’ve seen time and again, most often they never become above average. The failure rate of first-round quarterbacks by that standard over the past decade or so is about 80%.
Still, not grooming a successor to Cousins means not having one when he’s needed- whenever that may be.
Cousins’ Example May Be the Answer
Back in 2012 when Cousins was drafted, Washington made its fateful choice and went all-in for an uber-talented, dual-threat quarterback named Robert Griffen III. They bet the farm by trading three first-round picks and one second-round pick to move from #6 to #2 and draft RGIII. As sort of a curious after-thought, they also spent a fourth-round pick on a quarterback- Kirk Cousins. Three years later he was their starting quarterback.
In 2019 the Eagles extended Carson Wentz with a 4-year, $128 million contract after betting the farm by trading up from #8 to #2 to draft him in 2016, including two first-round picks, and a 2nd, 3rd and 4th round pick. In 2020 they drafted Jalen Hurts in the second-round. Later that year he became their starter.
In 2021, the 49ers bet the farm by trading up from #12 to #3, spending two more first-round picks and a 3rd round pick, and drafting Trey Lance. Last year they drafted Brock Purdy with the last pick in the 2022 draft. Now Purdy is the starter, and Lance is third string.
In 2012 the Seahawks drafted Russell Wilson in the 3rd round amid much criticism as he was considered too short and they had just signed Matt Flynn to a 3-year contract. Wilson became the starter that year.
In 2001, the Patriots extended former #1 overall pick Drew Bledsoe in a ten-year, $103 million contract. The previous year they had drafted Tom Brady in the sixth-round. Later that year Brady became the starter.
In 2014, when Tom Brady was 36 and soon to be 37, the Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second-round as a potential successor to Brady. He remained a backup for three years before being traded to the 49ers for a second-round pick.
I’m sure there are other examples I’ve missed, but the point is clear. It makes sense to spend some draft capital on a quarterback that may only be a backup but may also become a future starter. Perhaps more sense than betting the farm on a big trade up.
Of course the counter-example is the Chiefs trade-up for Patrick Mahomes with Alex Smith as starting quarterback, but how many other successful examples are there? There are lots of failed attempts- some mentioned above.
Spending a mid-round pick on a quarterback with potential makes sense, even if they don’t work out most of the time like Kellen Mond. The reason is because if they don’t work out, it’s no big loss- it’s just another of many mid-round picks that don’t work out. Just like any other year. And if they do work out- the team has a groomed successor and not a big hole to fill. Taking a big risk in trading up, by contrast, will set the team back a few years by having leveraged the lion’s share of the team’s draft capital in a failed experiment.
There are some that argue a team should draft a quarterback regularly- like a running back- because the upside of hitting on a quarterback is so great- especially if the team has a good quarterback coaching staff. And for all the analytics and evaluations that go into quarterback draft prospects each and every year, the success rate remains pretty random and low. The key is not to risk too much draft capital with any one pick. And to the extent the team can have a starting quarterback on a rookie contract, so much the better. With the explosion in the veteran quarterback contract market, with $50+ million the new top threshold- for now- and even more questionable QBs like Daniel Jones getting $40 million/year, teams may begin drafting more quarterbacks throughout the draft than ever before- hoping to get lucky.
For the Vikings, who have Cousins under contract and the option to extend him, taking another shot at a quarterback later in the draft may be the best way to approach their quarterback conundrum. It would be in keeping with Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s mantra of competitive rebuild, and represents a low-risk, potentially high-reward strategy of grooming a successor to Kirk Cousins, whenever he may be needed.
We’ll find out which way the Vikings decide to go soon enough.
What’s the best way for the Vikings to address their quarterback situation in the draft?
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Go big or not at all
Take a shot but don’t bet the farm