Kirk Cousins’ FA Prospects and Conference Championship Predictions
As the calendar moves toward the start of NFL free agency on March 11, the clock is ticking for the Vikings to get Kirk Cousins signed before he hits the open market.
GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah could let Cousins leave and take his chances that a top-rated QB will be available when the Vikings pick at No. 11 overall (or trade up a few spots to get their man). Or the Vikings could sign a lesser veteran QB to play until a young QB is ready, but it’s a thin free-agent crop after Cousins and Baker Mayfield, whose stock has risen with a good season in Tampa Bay and is likely to re-sign there.
Kirk Cousins’ FA Prospects and Conference Championship Predictions
But that’s a very risky path to take when they can still draft a quarterback in the first round and bring back Cousins, a top-10 quarterback, in 2023. He says he wants to stay in Minnesota, where he knows the offense and has a great supporting cast of skill players led by Justin Jefferson, T. J. Hockenson, and Jordan Addison and an offensive line with talent that needs to play better and perhaps be upgraded on the interior. Cousins also has a great connection with Coach Kevin O’Connell and has young kids in school here that he’d prefer not to uproot.
I’m on record as endorsing a plan where the Vikings sign Cousins on a two-year extension for $45 million per year (that could bring a lower cap number than the $28.5 million dead money hit if Cousins leaves) and draft a QB with their first-round pick. Coach Kevin O’Connell could develop such a QB for a year or two behind Cousins (a la Patrick Mahomes behind Alex Smith for one year in Kansas City before he took over and was NFL MVP in 2018).
That option gives the Vikings the best chance to compete in a fast-rising NFC North that could be the NFL’s best division in 2024 (with two final-eight teams in the Lions and Packers and a Bears team that won four of their last six games and has the No. 1 and No. 9 picks in the first round of the upcoming draft).
At the time Cousins tore his Achilles at Green Bay in Week 8, the Vikings had won three straight games, and Cousins was playing as a top 10 caliber QB. His performance in the Week 7 Monday night upset of the mighty 49ers was the best game I’ve seen him play against a top defense and he was without Justin Jefferson. Cousins completed 35 of 45 for 378 yards and two TDs. He was leading the league in TD passes (18) and ranked third in passer rating (103.8) when he was injured in the Green Bay game with a 24-10 lead (and a 122.2 rating that day with 274 passing yards and two TDs).
As I’ve often said, it’s obvious the Vikings would’ve won two to four more games and made the playoffs (perhaps challenging the Lions for the division title) with Cousins in the lineup instead of Josh Dobbs, Jaren Hall, and eventually Nick Mullens.
Cousins should be fully recovered soon from his torn Achilles, and several teams will be interested in signing him if their team doctors feel optimistic about his recovery. As I’ve often said and learned in my NFL career, it only takes one team out of 32 to make a more attractive offer for more years and higher guaranteed money than what the Vikings are willing to do and sell a player on the opportunity.
There have been rumors that if Bill Belichick takes the Atlanta head coaching job, he may want to go after Cousins, and the Falcons are a team with a lot of talent on offense and a decent defense who play in a winnable NFC South. Plus, Cousins’ wife Julie was born and raised in the Atlanta area.
Cousins is the best quarterback headed to free agency (and the Vikings can’t put the franchise tag on him). Next in line is Mayfield. Then there are lesser talents, including aging and often-injured Ryan Tannehill, Gardner Minshew, Jake Browning, Mason Rudolph, Joe Flacco, Drew Lock, Jameis Winston, and Jacoby Brissett. Aside from Mayfield, none of these other veteran QBs will excite the many QB-needy teams, some of whom will draft a first-round QB and still look for a bridge starter until the rookie is ready. And a first-year starter can rarely have the success that C.J. Stroud did for the Texans this season.
Adofo-Mensah has his hands full the next six weeks with the contract situations of Cousins, a must-sign free-agent-to-be in Danielle Hunter, and Justin Jefferson, with whom the team can free up about $10 million in cap space by getting his extension wrapped up.
That additional cap room would come in handy on top of approximately $25-30 million in current 2024 cap room (and an additional $11.4 million that would be available if Harrison Smith retires after his outstanding, Hall of Fame worthy career). And a new deal for Cousins could bring a lower cap number than the $28.5 million dead money hit if Cousins leaves.
Hunter will cost the Vikings around $25 million per year as the team’s most important defensive player who is coming off his best season with 16.5 sacks and a league-leading 23 tackles-for-loss.
The Vikings’ second-best pass rusher—D.J. Wonnum (eight sacks)—also is headed to free agency and needs to be re-signed for a team that fell from the NFC North title in 2022 to seven wins amid an injury-riddled 2023 season. The Vikings have four other starters free agency-bound: WR K.J. Osborn, guard Dalton Risner, DE Jonathan Bullard, and LB Jordan Hicks, along with kicker Greg Joseph and several depth players.
The Vikings need to keep their top players—starting with Cousins– and bring in more talent via free agency and the draft, especially at cornerback.
Lots to do for Adofo-Mensah and not a lot of time to do it. It will be interesting to see how things unfold for the Purple in the coming weeks.
Around the NFL Observations headed into the conference championship games:
1. The pressure of conference championship Sunday makes for exciting games with two fun matchups upcoming. On the NFC side, the Lions are a great story after hard-fought playoff victories over the Rams and Bucs. They’re making their first NFC title game appearance since 1991 as they seek their first Super Bowl berth.
The NFL’s No. 3 offense, led by QB Jared Goff, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jahmyr Gibbs, Sam LaPorta, and a great offensive line (but missing starting guard Jonah Jackson) gives the Lions a chance against the 49ers but I still think the Lions’ pass defense is shaky (Mayfield had 349 passing yards with three TD passes but he threw two picks including one in the last two minutes that clinched the win for Detroit). Pro Bowl DE Aidan Hutchinson (three playoff sacks so far) will have to play great once again this week to help the secondary.
If 49ers Pro Bowl WR Deebo Samuel is out or limited with an injured shoulder, it definitely helps Detroit’s chances, just as Samuel’s absence aided the Vikings in the October victory for Minnesota. The pressure is on the 49ers’ defense, which gave up some big plays last week by Jordan Love (before picking him off on an awful throw to end the game), and the run defense allowed 108 rushing yards from Aaron Jones. Brock Purdy also needs to play well on the big stage.
I think San Francisco’s defense will force a couple of Goff turnovers, and the offense led by Purdy, Christian McCaffrey, and George Kittle will make enough plays for a 31-24 win at home to get over the hump in their third straight NFC title game appearance after losses the last two years (to the Rams and Eagles).
2. Kansas City at Baltimore for the AFC title is a tough one to call, with both teams playing well. It’s a great QB matchup of Patrick Mahomes vs. Lamar Jackson. The Chiefs showed their championship pedigree with a tough win in the cold at Buffalo last week (in another heart-breaker for the Bills, Josh Allen and their passionate fans). The No. 2 ranked Baltimore defense held Stroud and the Texans to three points on offense and 213 total yards, while Jackson stepped up from a shaky playoff past with two TD passes and two TD rushes (as part of his 100 yards on the ground).
It’s hard to pick against Mahomes in the postseason, but I think this is Jackson and the Ravens’ year, and I’m picking them at home 27-24.
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl.