Former Vikings GM: Cousins Departure Signals New Vikings Era

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The start of free agency is always a whirlwind, and this year more than recent years for the Vikings. It was apparent last weekend that Kirk Cousins was likely headed out of Minnesota when a new contract had not been agreed to. That was confirmed on Monday morning with the news that the Cousins era was over in Minnesota as he was headed to Atlanta.

Former Vikings GM: Cousins Departure Signals New Vikings Era

This unfolded in a mild surprise since both the Vikings and Cousins discussed continuing with him at the helm. The Vikings took a $28.5 million dead money hit with Cousins’ departure after his tenure, which included two playoff appearances (with one victory in the 2019 wild card round at New Orleans) and three Pro Bowl selections.

Former Vikings GM
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I still believe the team would’ve been better off this season to re-sign Cousins and draft his successor (J.J. McCarthy, perhaps) with the 11th overall pick next month (or more likely by trading up into the top 10). And then let the rookie develop for a season or two under the guidance of Kevin O’Connell (and new QB Coach Josh McCown).

The Vikings decided not to step up to the $45 million per year level (that I predicted months ago as his new contract) even though they could’ve made it work cap-wise and actually lowered the 2024 salary cap hit from the $28.5 million in dead money they now take on. But perhaps they made a competitive offer, and

Cousins just wanted a new start in Atlanta, where his wife Julie is from and where the in-laws live to help with the kids. Perhaps at some point, we’ll hear what actually took place to derail his staying. I think the Vikings were only willing to go so far on Cousins’ next contract with the idea of resetting the QB salary clock, which was their overriding goal.

Regardless, it’s a new era in Vikings football, and the pressure is on GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Coach Kevin O’Connell to identify the college QB they want (other than the top three of Caleb Williams, Drake Maye, and Jayden Daniels, who will be challenging to trade up for). And then find a way to move up from No. 11 and get their guy (if it’s McCarthy they like, I don’t see him making it out of the top five or six picks, but we’ll see).  

Sure, it’s possible new signee Sam Darnold can be this year’s Baker Mayfield and have a career resurgence in Minnesota. But it’s not probable even for a QB picked third overall in the 2018 draft, given Darnold’s inconsistency over his six-year career. O’Connell and McCown will coach Darnold, and the system will be similar to the 49ers offense under Kyle Shanahan.

Maybe he can be a decent bridge quarterback until a first-round draftee is ready, but expecting anything beyond that is a reach. Cousins clearly would’ve been the better bridge quarterback, but Darnold is a lot cheaper (like $35 million per year less with his one-year, $10 million deal compared to Cousins’ $45 million per year with $100 million guaranteed over the next three years in Atlanta).

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If Kwesi and Kevin pull this off, get a McCarthy, and develop him into a top 10 NFL QB, it’s a massive win for the Vikings organization with a rookie QB contract to work with for several years while putting the Cousins savings into a great supporting cast for the young QB. That will start with Justin Jefferson’s extension in the $35 million per year range.

Beyond the Cousins departure, I like the Vikings’ aggressiveness in early free agency. I like their signings of defensive playmakers/edge rushers in Jonathan Greenard (12.5 sacks last season in Houston and a good run defender) and Andrew Van Ginkel (an underrated, durable player who had six sacks and eight passes defensed for Miami in 2023).

I think Blake Cashman is a great addition as a talented, athletic linebacker who had 106 tackles last season for a final-eight team in Houston, and he’s a former Gopher from Eden Prairie. He can be a fine replacement for Jordan Hicks, who is headed to Cleveland.

Losing the team’s best defensive player, Danielle Hunter is going to be hard for O’Connell and DC Brian Flores to overcome. But perhaps the Vikings can be better on defense if they find some more talented corners in free agency and the draft. The younger and less costly Greenard, along with the versatile and talented Van Ginkel, plus some help up front on defense in the draft, can get the job done.

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If Aaron Jones can stay healthy and play as well as he did on the Packers’ late-season run (with five straight 100-plus yard rushing games, including in their two playoff games), he’ll be a big help as a dual-purpose back splitting time with Ty Chandler (and Jones is a clear upgrade over Alexander Mattison). At 29 years old, he missed six games with a hamstring injury last season, so he and the Vikings have to work hard to keep him stretched out and healthy.

As a GM, I always tried to sign free agents from divisional rivals, believing it served the double whammy of strengthening our team and weakening a division foe. That’s the case with Jones, who will have revenge on his mind in the two meetings with the Packers next season after they tried to cut his salary (for a second straight year) before releasing him and signing Josh Jacobs.

As for Darnold, he’s a relatively low-cost, wild-card signing, and we’ll just have to see how that plays out.   

Back to Cousins: I always thought he was a better quarterback than most Vikings fans and media gave him credit for. But the team is not losing Patrick Mahomes, so if this plays out the way the organization hopes, it could kick start an era of Super Bowl contending, ultimately for the Purple.

Time will tell.

Cousins dealt with high expectations and scrutiny, and he’s a fine person on and off the field. He was a consistent QB with a 101.2 passer rating and a 50-37-1 record as a Vikings starter. However, his postseason record is 1-3 (including one loss with Washington). In his best season in 2022, he directed eight fourth-quarter comebacks as he led the Vikings to the NFC North title with a 13-4 record, but the season ended with a home playoff loss to the Giants (and we can’t forget that final play checkdown he threw to T.J. Hockenson short of the first-down sticks that stoked fan ire). 

The Vikings could not place the franchise tag on Cousins due to a clause in his contract, so they didn’t have control over the situation as free agency approached.

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There is risk in signing a player who turns 36 in August and is coming off a major injury. But Cousins had never missed a start due to injury before last season, and if he stays healthy, Atlanta solves its biggest issue with a consistent veteran quarterback to provide stability for an offense that was held back by shaky quarterback play last season from Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke. 

Cousins leaves a head coach with whom he had great synergy and an outstanding supporting cast led by Jefferson, along with Hockenson and Jordan Addison in the receiving corps. There’s no Jefferson in Atlanta, but Cousins has talented young skill players to work within three recent first-round picks–tight end Kyle Pitts, running back Bijan Robinson, and wide receiver Drake London. And he will have one of the NFL’s highest-paid offensive lines to protect him.

The pressure is now on the Vikings to find a worthy successor to Cousins. It certainly will keep things interesting in Vikingland in the near future.

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