With the signing of tight end T.J. Hockenson to a massive contract and the expected signing of receiver Justin Jefferson to what could be a record deal, the Vikings are making their priorities clear.
They didn’t try to keep star running back Dalvin Cook, or star linebacker Eric Kendricks.
They let quarterback Kirk Cousins get to the final year of his contract without trying to negotiate a long-term deal.
They gave Hockenson, an important player but not the best tight end in the NFL, a precedent-setting deal that pays him more than two-time Super Bowl winner and superstar Travis Kelce.
Once they sign Jefferson, the Vikings will have set the market for premier pass-catchers.
Coming off a season in which their defense ranked among the worst in the NFL, they spent their first-round draft pick on a receiver, Jordan Addison.
The newish Vikings brain trust hopes (or intends?) to win a Super Bowl with a prolific passing offense. They are coming off a 13-victory season in which their quarterback played brilliantly in the clutch until the final offensive play of the playoff game.
They didn’t sign that quarterback to a long-term deal, while prioritizing a tight end and the receiver position.
You could read that as an indictment of Cousins. A monetary insult from the Vikings’ front office.
But is it that simple?
And do the Vikings have a succession plan in mind that would allow them to switch quarterbacks in Season 3 of the Kwesi & Kevin show?
I offer these answers to those questions: “No” and “No.”
My information is that the Vikings like Cousins but think that if they tried to sign him to a deal this offseason, it would have complicated getting the Jefferson deal done, and would have required them to pay Cousins more than the Giants paid Daniel Jones, who received a four-year deal valued at $160 million.
They don’t think Cousins is worth $45 or $50 million a year, and they think that if Cousins is facing free agency next season as he’s approaching his 36th birthday, he may find it preferable to do a reasonable deal with the Vikings and stay on the same team with Jefferson and with a coaching staff that knows him.
That’s an educated guess. What does not require guesswork is this: the Vikings have no succession plan, and it’s hard to imagine them moving on from Cousins in Year 3 of the Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell era unless he and the team self-destruct this season.
Can you imagine Adofo-Mensah, the general manager, and O’Connell, the coach, going to ownership after a successful 2023 season and saying, “Yeah, we’ve had two great regular seasons and we have one of the best passing games in the NFL, but now we’d like to rebuild with a new quarterback, and we might not be any good for a few years, even with Jefferson, Hockenson, Brian O’Neill and Christian Darrisaw in the prime of their careers.”
After allowing the Cowboys to acquire quarterback Trey Lance by trading a fourth-round pick, the Vikings are left with three quarterbacks on their roster: Cousins, who turned 35 in August; Nick Mullens, who is viewed around the league as a quality backup and nothing more; and fifth-round draft pick Jaren Hall, a long-term project.
If a promising 2023 season turns into a disaster, the Vikings would have a high draft pick with which to pursue a quarterback. If Cousins and the team perform to expectations, they will have a low first-round pick again, and won’t have a chance at the kind of talented quarterback who could start and win immediately. And even some quarterbacks taken at the top of the draft are either busts or projects themselves.
So while a common talk-show theme this season will be that Cousins is playing for his job, that’s only true in that every NFL player is constantly playing for his job.
One caveat: O’Connell was the offensive coordinator on a Rams team that traded Jared Goff and a grocery cart filled with draft picks to the Lions for Matthew Stafford, with whom the Rams immediately won the Super Bowl.
Even given O’Connell’s memory of that high-risk move, it’s hard to imagine the Vikings not keeping Cousins around to throw to these highly-paid pass catchers.