Fans have long been divided in their perspective on Kirk Cousins, especially since he signed an offseason contract extension. There have been calls for nuance, and many have valiantly defended Cousins from baseless accusation. The issue, though, has been that Cousins continues to feed into narratives that are persuasive because they’re at least partially true.
Does Cousins shrink in big moments? Well, it depends. He certainly didn’t in last year’s overtime win against the Saints. Against the 49ers, though, it was a different story. Cousins failed to lead a game-winning drive against Dallas in Week 11, but he did successfully overcome the Panthers in the final two minutes of their Week 12 game. Arif Hasan has recently referred to this phenomenon as the eternal seesaw of Cousins’ career.
Cousins, in many ways, remains an enigma; he continually eludes one-dimensional characterizations that seek to obfuscate the complexity of his career. Nevertheless, it may finally be time to discard the narratives that don’t truly reflect Cousins’ on-field performance.
Folks, hear me when I say (write?) this: lies are only persuasive when they borrow from the truth. In order for a lie to be effective, it must latch onto some portion of truth. The Cousins lies (some of which I’ve been guilty of believing) have thrived by taking a partial truth – he shrinks in big moments, he doesn’t justify his contract, the impressive stats don’t coincide with the on-field play, etc. – and presenting it as the complete truth. Since the bye, Cousins has certainly done his utmost to knock down these partial truths.
Kirk Cousins, Franchise QB
After six weeks, I was Kirk Cousins’ biggest critic. In my opinion, Cousins was the main reason why the Vikings were a disastrous 1-5. He single handedly sunk our chances against the Falcons and Colts, and didn’t do enough to overcome the Titans and Seahawks. The Vikings were obviously planning on Cousins taking a step forward, but the opening six weeks suggested that he wasn’t ready.
Kirk Cousins since the bye week
– 3rd in Overall Grade (89.6)
– 4th in Passing Grade (87.9)
– 1st in Passer Rating (124.3)
– 1st in Clean Pocket Passer Rating (140.8)
— PFF MIN Vikings (@PFF_Vikings) November 30, 2020
Since the bye, though, Cousins has been sensational. When he is on (emphasis on the “when”), Cousins is truly one of the best quarterbacks on the planet. Over these past fives weeks, Cousins has been on fire, regularly throwing incredible passes after buying more time in the pocket. Indeed, the biggest area of improvement in his game has rested in his pocket presence:
Kirk Cousins' pocket presence and ability to escape and extend plays has improved so dramatically over the past few years: pic.twitter.com/D1d6RGb5cD
— Nick Olson (@NickOlsonNFL) December 1, 2020
I’m not ready to deem Cousins fully cured (like many Vikings fans, I’ve been hurt too many times!), but he has made a massive improvement in terms of his overall ability to extend plays. He has done a nice job of incorporating the Brady-Wiggle – subtle, albeit significant Tom Brady-style pocket movement – into his passing game as he keeps his eyes downfield. This improvement makes Minnesota’s passing game considerably more dangerous.
The results have been impressive. Currently, PFF ranks Cousins as the NFL’s best fourth-quarter QB. He is their fifth-best quarterback overall. He has a higher running grade than Josh Allen, Aaron “Voldemort” Rodgers, and Patrick Mahomes. More importantly, the Vikings are 4-1. The receivers are thriving, and Dalvin Cook has recently been named the NFC’s offensive player of the month. Cousins’ improvement has largely contributed to his teammates’ success.
Minnesota’s Salary Cap Situation
There is no debating that the Vikings are in a tricky spot financially. The current salary cap is set at $200 million, and the conventional wisdom suggested that next season’s salary cap would be around $210 million. Covid-19 has run amok on conventional wisdom. It now appears that teams will have around $175 million to spend on their roster. The Vikings, like the rest of the NFL, will likely be working with a $35 million deficit in their budget.
Of course, NFL front offices are accustomed to manipulating the salary cap. Trades, cuts, and restructures are all effective tools for shedding cap space; all three will be on the table for the Vikings.
Harrison Smith, for instance, can have his $10.25 million salary eliminated with no financial ramifications for the Vikings. It may seem ridiculous to cut Smith, but things are pretty tight for Minnesota. Over the Cap has them at roughly $7 million over next season’s projected salary cap.
Cutting Riley Reiff would result in saving just under $12 million. Shamar Stephen can be cut to save $3.75 million. Kyle Rudolph is continually in the NFL trade rumors, and perhaps it finally happens; the Vikings would certainly benefit from his $9.45 million salary cap hit. Of course, the Vikings may also decide to approach some of their high-paid stalwarts – Adam Thielen, Anthony Barr, and Danielle Hunter – and offer to convert some of their salary into guarantees in exchange for a lower cap number.
In other words, the Vikings have several moves available to them. One that ought to be under serious consideration, though, is offering Cousins another extension.
The Vikings are in-between the proverbial rock/hard place with their finances, so they’ll be considering all options once the season ends. Cousins’ improved play makes one solution glaringly obvious: tack on another year or two to his deal to help bring his 2021 cap number down.
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) November 29, 2020
Currently, Cousins will count for $31 million in Minnesota’s 2021 salary cap. We’ve already discussed some of the moves Minnesota will consider to shed salary, but Minnesota ought to consider restructuring Cousins’ deal, a move that essentially necessitates an extension.
In many ways, another Cousins extension is a ridiculous idea. He hasn’t even finished the initial three-year deal from 2018, let alone the two-year extension that he agreed to this past offseason. 2020 has been an unconventional year, though, so the challenges confronting us therefore require unconventional solutions.
The Minnesota Vikings believe that their Super Bowl window is open. They’ve committed themselves to the Cousins-Zimmer-Spielman Leadership Trinity for at least a couple more seasons, so they’re committed to finding solutions in the short-term. To have adequate cap space in 2021, the Vikings will need to make several moves, and extending Kirk Cousins’ contract ought to be one of them.