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Vikings Off-Season Evaluation Part II: Quarterback

Big decisions looming for Vikings at quarterback

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

As the Vikings put a period on the 2023-24 season with a loss to the Lions, I move forward with the second installment in my Vikings offseason evaluation series, this time looking at the quarterback position. You can check out the first installment- an overview of the offense- here.

Kirk Cousins: Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

The Vikings had issues offensively before Kirk Cousins was lost for the season Week 8, but Cousins’ performance wasn’t one of them. Turnovers, drops and injuries were issues - a few of which were on Cousins- but overall Kirk Cousins was performing at a top 5 level on the season before he went down. He ranks 3rd in passer rating and 7th in ESPN’s QBR, 6th in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (ANY/A), 5th in overall composite value as a starter, and 4th in PFF passing grade, and 7th in overall PFF grade among QBs.

Perhaps more than the stat sheet, the Vikings recognized Cousins’ value after he was lost for the season in two other ways. First, the value of his leadership was acknowledged by players and the coaching staff in ways that may not have been apparent before he was injured. Secondly, apart from a couple of outlier games from Josh Dobbs, the Vikings were not able to come close to Cousins’ ability and performance on the field and running the offense. Overall, more than the loss of Justin Jefferson, Cousins’ absence caused the Vikings’ offense to head south in a hurry.

nfeloapp.com

The chart above illustrates the Vikings overall EPA (solid purple line) and offensive EPA (dotted purple line) on a rolling 250 basis over the course of the season. The Vikings offensive EPA was peaking right around when Cousins went down to injury and fell down the cliff afterward. Clearly the loss of Cousins was a big one for the Vikings’ offense, and the Vikings season in general.

All of that puts the question of extending Cousins in a different light. Clearly his injury and age are factors too, but at the moment the Vikings have no comparable substitute for Cousins. Having secured the #11 pick in the NFL Draft at the end of April, they could use that pick or their second-round pick on a quarterback. But without Cousins, they’d need a rookie to come in and have a non-rookie quarterback type season to be competitive next season without Cousins.

All of that, along with some potential pressure from Justin Jefferson to extend Cousins, could lead to an extension deal by mid-March. My guess is that the Vikings and Cousins will reach something near a 2-year, $35 million/year average deal, given Cousins’ age and injury. Cousins has indicated he appears to be ahead of schedule in his recovery from his torn Achilles tendon.

What About the Backups?

While I expect the Vikings to extend Kirk Cousins, I also expect them to use a high draft pick on a potential QBOTF. It may not be their first-round pick, but it will likely be either their first or second round pick. Taking a quarterback that high automatically makes him at least the backup- or it least it should. That means guys like Nick Mullens and Jaren Hall will be competing for a QB3 spot and likely will not make the roster. Josh Dobbs is now a free agent and is unlikely to be extended.

At the end of the day for guys like Nick Mullens and Josh Dobbs, they had their chance and weren’t able to deliver when it mattered most. That not only keeps them as backup-only options, but also makes them less viable in that role as well. Jaren Hall also came up short, which limits ability to compete for a backup job as well. Hall could still develop, but with the Vikings likely investing a lot in the quarterback position this off-season, Hall likely ends up no higher than QB3 going into the 2024 season, and his roster status is in doubt as well.

Possible Quarterback Draft Prospects for the Vikings

The Vikings have the 11th pick in the NFL Draft, but that is unlikely to be high enough to land either of the two top quarterback prospects: Caleb Williams and Drake Maye. The Chicago Bears own the #1 pick in the draft and may well use it on a quarterback themselves. And even if they decided to trade it, it’s unlikely they’d do so with a division opponent. Washington and New England own the second and third picks in the draft and will likely spend them on a quarterback. Washington has new ownership and will want a fresh new star at quarterback to help sell tickets and build the team into contenders. New England may be starting a new post-Belichick era and are also looking for a quarterback as Mac Jones has disappointed.

As a result, motivation for either team to trade out of that spot may not be particularly strong. In any case, it would take a lot for the Vikings to trade up that far from #11- most likely three first-round picks, using the 49ers trade up to #3 for Trey Lance as a comparable. Kwesi Adofo-Mensah has, apparently, shown interest in making a big move up for a quarterback in past drafts, but such a move would be a surprising and one I’m not sure the Wilfs would be willing to sanction at this point in Adofo-Mensah’s tenure. He hasn’t proven himself as a drafting GM, and he’ll be in the third year of his four-year contract, so it would definitely be a leap of faith for the Wilfs to allow Adofo-Mensah to leverage the next two first-round picks on a quarterback at this stage.

Other teams likely to potentially draft a quarterback in the first round (beyond the Bears, Commanders, and Patriots), include the Falcons at #8, the Jets at #10, and the Broncos at #12. It’s not out of the question for the Giants (#6) to draft a quarterback either, as they could get out of Daniel Jones’ contract after next season. That’s a total of eight teams, including the Vikings, looking for a quarterback and in relatively high draft positions. My guess is that both the Cardinals and Chargers (picks 4 and 5) will be willing to trade down for the right compensation, but the Falcons and Titans would be more viable trade partners.

At the moment, there may be a total of five quarterbacks with first-round grades- although not necessarily top ten pick grades. These include Caleb Williams, Drake Maye, Jayden Daniels, Michael Penix Jr., and Bo Nix. J.J. McCarthy potentially too with a strong game in the Championship game, but probably not a good value in the top half of the first round either. Indeed, you could argue that only Williams and Maye are top ten-worthy picks. In any case, the Vikings will have a lot of competition wanting to secure the services of a top quarterback in the draft, and the move up to get the #3 quarterback after Williams and Maye could be an expensive one, if it’s even possible.

So, that could lead the Vikings in a different direction with their first pick, potentially looking for the best player available, whether quarterback or edge rusher or other premium position player.

Lots of Variables

The Vikings are in a position where Kirk Cousins remains their most viable option to field a competitive team in 2024, but also have a relatively high draft pick that puts them in a good position to draft a QBOTF. Whether a quarterback available to them is worth that much draft capital remains a question mark, however. Beyond Williams and Maye, the quarterbacks in this year’s draft class come with some downsides or question marks that would make them a poor value at #11. Certainly the Vikings could trade down from #11, or trade up from #42, and draft a quarterback, but I don’t see them doing so and not extending Kirk Cousins.

The timing of free agency and the draft also makes it more likely the Vikings will look to extend Cousins first, which gives them more freedom and leverage in the draft, and then pursue a quarterback in the draft as they see fit. The fact that a lot of key players and team captains from Brian O’Neill to Justin Jefferson want Cousins back will also influence the Vikings decision to extend Cousins, who may also be more willing to move a bit in negotiations to secure an extension following his Achilles injury.

Lastly, there is the possibility- which is inconsistent with the competitive rebuild mantra of Kwesi Adofo-Mensah- of going all in with Cousins or a drafted quarterback and using all available draft and salary cap capital to build the roster around only one quarterback. It’s a riskier strategy as going with Cousins leaves them without a successor to groom to eventually replace an aging quarterback or ties them to rookie quarterback that may or may not work out over the course of his rookie contract. The Rams appear to be going that way with Matthew Stafford- who is the same age as Cousins- and other teams have ridden it out with aging quarterbacks with mixed results- but probably no worse than those taking the same risks with a rookie draft pick.

What the Vikings end up doing in the draft will likely depend on how the draft falls to them and the value of non-quarterbacks available to them. In addition to quarterbacks, the top ranked prospects in this year’s NFL Draft are primarily receivers and tackles, which aren’t needed by the Vikings but may well be selected by the non-quarterback needy teams picking ahead of the Vikings. That could result in the Vikings being in position to land one of the top defensive players in the draft. We’ll see.

At the end of day, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and the Vikings organization will have multiple decisions to make at the quarterback position in the coming months.

How things play out will depend on what sort of deal they’re able to make with Kirk Cousins. Cousins indicated in an interview today that structure- all the non-dollar-amount terms of the contract- is more important than the dollar amount at this stage in his career. He also talked about ‘winning football games’ as the most important factor in where he plays next season, adding he thought that could be done here in Minnesota. He also seemed fine with the idea that a quarterback could be drafted in April even if he signs an extension with the Vikings.

But reading between the lines, my guess is that Cousins is looking for a contract that will allow him to finish his career with the Vikings, and so the length of the contract, the guarantees, and a no-trade clause may be at least as important as the dollar amount, and he may be willing to take a discount to his market value if he’s okay with the other terms of the contract. I suspect that means at least a 2-year guaranteed deal, with one or more non-guaranteed years beyond that and a no-trade clause but will be willing to go lower on the average annual value (AAV) to get that done. Spotrac has his estimated market value at $39.6 million/year, using the last contracts of Matthew Stafford, Dak Prescott, Derek Carr, and Aaron Rodgers as comparables. If Cousins were to agree to something around $35 million AAV- the AAV of his last contract and 15th highest among quarterbacks- that could be enticing for the Vikings front office.

However, when contract talks broke down between the Vikings and Cousins last year, the sticking point was the guaranteed contract length. It’s unclear how the events that have transpired since then will affect each side’s position. On the one hand Cousins’ injury negatively affects his market value to some degree- although 41-year-old Aaron Rodgers coming off the same injury still makes more even after offering the Jets a discount- and probably worries the front office about the possibility of another injury or loss in performance. On the other hand, Cousins appears to be more valued within the organization than he was a year ago, and top quarterback salaries are now in the mid-$50 million range, whereas they were in the mid-$40 million range last year, making a mid-$30 million deal more of a mid-tier deal than it was a year ago and one of the lowest price tags among starting quarterbacks not on a rookie deal.

The other key variable is how the Vikings rate this year’s crop of quarterbacks and whether there is one that will be available to them at #11, or within realistic trading range, that they’re really sold on. My guess is that those names include Jayden Daniels, Michael Penix Jr., Bo Nix, and JJ McCarthy- two of which (McCarthy and Penix Jr.) face off in tonight’s college football championship game. Those quarterbacks haven’t been talked about much as top ten picks, and McCarthy more so as a second-round pick, but have seen their draft stock elevate with late season success and accolades with Daniels winning the Heisman trophy. But Daniels has questions about his processing ability, as does Nix, while Penix has an extensive injury history, and McCarthy has some pocket poise issues. All have some other weaknesses too that may factor into their draft stock by the end of April. How the Vikings value these quarterbacks compared to non-quarterback alternatives will certainly influence their actions on Day One and Day Two of the draft, and perhaps in advance of the draft as well.

Bottom Line

The Vikings’ season offensively, while significantly hindered by turnovers, went downhill fast with the loss of Kirk Cousins. That Cousins was injured and that his replacements proved ineffective will have an impact on how the Vikings approach the quarterback position this off-season, with Cousins a free agent and no other veteran replacement on the radar at this point. Those events, and the quarterback marketplace changes, will also affect contract negotiations between Cousins and the Vikings, and may make it more likely they will reach a deal by March.

But the Vikings having the highest draft pick they’ve had since 2015 will also result in them spending a lot of time evaluating quarterbacks and potentially making a move for one at the end of April in the NFL Draft. It will be interesting to see how much of a priority drafting a quarterback will be for the Vikings if they do indeed extend Cousins, and what may be implied by any deal the Vikings strike with Cousins to extend his time as starting quarterback for the Vikings.

Poll

Should the Vikings focus on building around one quarterback this offseason, whether Cousins or a draft pick, or should they both bring back Cousins and spend a top draft pick on a QBOTF, which limits their ability to compete next season?

This poll is closed

  • 21%
    They should go all in on one option
    (238 votes)
  • 78%
    They should plan to be competitive next season while grooming Cousins’ successor
    (846 votes)
1084 votes total Vote Now