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Future of the Vikings, Part 7: Quarterback

The direction of the team rests on their QB decision this offseason and there's many paths available

Welcome to Part 7 of our Future of the Vikings series. For this edition we look at the quarterbacks. In previous years Cousins was on the field for nearly every game but in 2023 we saw half the season filled by three different QBs. But that’s not the biggest story of the position. Let’s dive in…


Kirk Cousins

The Vikings’ long-time starting quarterback opened up the season with a strong stretch despite a lot of things working against him. Through eight weeks he was the sixth highest graded passer by PFF, ranked second in total yards and third in passer rating. In that time Cousins suffered more drops from his receivers than any other QB and the Vikings led the league in fumbles. Just as Cousins led the Vikings back to .500 after a calamity-laden start to the season, he tore his Achilles at Lambeau Field, bringing his season to an end.

Prior to 2023 the Vikings and Cousins discussed a contract extension but ultimately never found common ground, leaving him to hit free agency if the two sides do not come to an agreement this time around. The wrinkle in his situation is that the Vikings restructured his deal to hold a $28 million dead cap hit in 2024 if he leaves, meaning that the two sides would need to ink an extension before the official start of free agency on March 13. If they do agree to a deal before then, the dead cap hit can be spread out over several years, though it does not disappear.

Cousins has said that he would like to remain a Viking but commented on locker cleanout day that “the league needs quarterbacks” and noted that structure of his next contract would be the most important thing. The Vikings are sure to have competition for Cousins’ services if they want him back. There are numerous teams, most notably the Atlanta Falcons and Pittsburgh Steelers, who can make a strong argument for having win-now rosters without a QB, as the Vikings once were in 2018.

While Cousins may be more worried about structure than price, he isn’t likely to take an insulting contract. There are 12 QBs who are making $40 million per year and Jared Goff is very likely to become No. 13 this offseason when the Lions negotiate a new deal. The market might try to get an Achilles discount but QBs with track records rarely come cheap. Derek Carr still landed $37.5 million per year and $60 million last offseason despite coming off a poor season with the Raiders.

If the Vikings weren’t willing to go all-in on Cousins prior to 2023, why would they want to do it now? Whether it’s logical to weigh as part of the decision or not, the performance of Vikings backups highlighted Cousins’ talent for operating Kevin O’Connell’s offense. If the Vikings brass believes it can pick up where Cousins left off with the offseason in Week 8, 2023, they might be willing to set aside the ramifications of a big QB contract and historical age comparisons in order to stay in the mix in the NFC North rather than risking a draft pick or bridge QB not being able to recreate his high-level performance.

Bringing back Cousins or moving on is the pivot point for the current regime. If he returns, the “competitive rebuild” goes out the window and the Vikings’ bar gets raised to getting deep into the playoffs or bust. If they move on, there are tons of options, those of which in the draft would allow for a longer-term approach.

Josh Dobbs

Backup quarterbacks have a way of giving and taking away hope. Dobbs arrived in Minnesota right after Cousins went down and then was thrust into action against the Atlanta Falcons. With the coach explaining the offense between plays, Dobbs scrambled his way to victory in Atlanta. The following week he lit up the Saints in the first half and held on for a second straight W. At the time, it felt like the Vikings had found something with their new mobile QB.

That notion did not die right away. They lost in Denver due to a late fumble and defensive failure in the waning moments but Dobbs’ performance over the two weeks that followed were so poor that he landed on the bench. In the end, Dobbs’ numbers looked very much like the rest of his career. He threw five TDs, three INT and had a 76.3 QB rating. PFF ranked him 21st of 28 QBs with at least 300 pass attempts.

Dobbs is a free agent. It appears very unlikely that he would return to the Vikings.

Nick Mullens

After Dobbs struggled for three quarters against Las Vegas, O’Connell called to the bullpen and Mullens came off the bench to lead a game-winning drive. Despite two interceptions in the red zone, he was on the doorstep of beating the Cincinnati Bengals but came up short on a QB sneak and allowed Jake Browning to pull off a comeback win. From there, the journeyman had a wild ride, throwing for 411 yards and four INTs against the Lions, getting benched for Jaren Hall and then returning in Week 18 to put up 396 yards and two back-breaking INTs. Overall he finished with 8.8 yards per attempt, 7 TDs, 8 INTs, an 88.4 QB rating and the fifth worst PFF grade of any QB with at least 125 pass attempts (out of 45).

Mullens deserves credit for airing it out when he got the opportunity. He ended with the second highest average depth of target per attempt in the NFL only behind rookie Will Levis. At the end of the day, his aggressiveness turned into turnovers far too many times. He is under contract through 2024 but is a cut candidate. The Vikings can make $1.8 million in cap space by releasing him with only $375k dead cap.

Jaren Hall

The fifth-round rookie had a rough ride in his first NFL season. He struggled in preseason and failed to beat out Mullens for the QB2 job and then was thrust into the starting position after Mullens went down with a back issue. When Kirk Cousins tore his Achilles, Hall was forced into action but suffered a concussion on the second drive of the game in Atlanta. Late in the season, on national TV against the Packers, he got the nod again as O’Connell desperately searched for an answer at QB. Hall went 5-for-10 with an interception and was sacked three times before the head coach went back to Mullens.

Hall was clearly not ready to play in the NFL yet. He was facing a huge learning curve from college and would have been better served to develop on the sidelines but he can learn just how far he will need to go in order to even be a serviceable backup. Next training camp will be pivotal for him.

Free agency / trade options

If the Vikings move on from Cousins, they will need another veteran quarterback even if their plan is to take a QB in the draft. Let’s cast a wide net looking at each option…

Arizona, Kyler Murray — It now seems very unlikely that the Cardinals move Murray. Were they picking No. 1 overall it may have been a more difficult decision but building around a quality QB is favorable to throwing another rookie to the wolves of a rebuild.

New England, Mac Jones — After a promising first season Jones’ career has gone down the tubes. He was also playing for a team that ranked 29th in pass blocking and 28th in receiving by PFF. Could he be a Ryan Tannehill-type reclamation project?

Tampa Bay, Baker Mayfield — At one point Mayfield was competing for a starting job in training camp and then six months later he led the Bucs to a home playoff win. Mayfield found a home in Tampa Bay, throwing for over 4,000 yards and finishing 12th in QB rating. He has the arm talent to succeed with the Vikings’ receivers but wouldn’t likely require a franchise QB level commitment.

Indianapolis, Gardner Minshew — The former Jaguar nearly led the Colts to the postseason but showed why he is a career backup. Minshew had more turnover-worthy plays than big-time throws (PFF) and ranked 29th in QB rating among players with 125 attempts. As a mentor to a rookie and just-in-case QB, there are few better choices than Minshew.

Denver, Russell Wilson — Wilson’s contract with Denver could allow for him to sign somewhere else for cheap but still get his money from the Broncos, which opens the door to him being a value play for a team looking for QB help. Wilson’s tenure in Denver was disappointing and he doesn’t exactly match up with the Vikings’ timeline but he did throw downfield effectively last season and finished seventh in QB rating.

Tennessee, Ryan Tannehill — It’s been a rough last two seasons for Tannehill but there may still be enough gas in the tank for him to be a quality veteran backup.

Philadelphia, Marcus Mariota — A journeyman veteran, Mariota played mediocre football as Atlanta’s starter in 2022. He could be a just-in-case option if the Vikings draft a QB with hopes for the rookie to play right away.

New York Giants, Tyrod Taylor — Health has been a major problem for Taylor in recent seasons but he was able to get significant playing time last year for the Giants with solid results. He graded as the 19th best passer by PFF and showed he can still scramble from time to time. Taylor would be a great backup to pair a young QB with.

Washington, Jacoby Brissett — A classic high-character veteran backup, Brissett is a mentor candidate who is capable

Los Angeles, Carson Wentz — His reputation was not in good shape and the entire league elected to leave him in free agency until the Rams picked up the former Eagle/Colt/Commander midway through the year. He played in just one game and was sharp. It’s questionable whether a team would want him in the room with a rookie.

San Francisco, Sam Darnold — The 49ers backup has put together a mediocre career despite being picked No. 3 overall but he hasn’t been so bad that he doesn’t belong in the league. In his last seven games Darnold has a 90.8 QB rating, including playing well in Week 18.

Draft options

Trade up — Is it time to give up the farm for a quarterback? Based on reports that the Vikings brass considered it last year, the trade-up option seems to be on the table. The problem is that the top three teams in the draft are all QB-needy. Should that change in the coming months, the probability would increase that they could make a deal with teams like Arizona or Los Angeles to pick whichever QB of the top three (most likely Jayden Daniels) slides just far enough to be in range. The price tag for trading up will be enormous. They will have to think very deeply about how the rest of the roster can be constructed in the future without future first rounders.

Oregon, Bo Nix — An older prospect, Nix put up incredible numbers in college, throwing 45 touchdowns to three INTs and ranking among the best in the NCAA when throwing downfield, passing under pressure and avoiding sacks. Mock Draft Database has him as 29th on big boards.

Washington, Michael Penix Jr. — Injuries are a significant concern but arm strength is not. Penix Jr. led Washington into the national championship by slinging the ball downfield from the pocket. He isn’t a mobile playmaker but does have a cannon and fearless mentality. Penix Jr. is one of the most debated prospects in the draft. Mock Draft Database has him 26th.

Michigan, JJ McCarthy — A big-armed, athletic prospect with upside, the national championship winner is more of a project than the others at 21 years old. He would be a candidate to sit for one year before taking on a starting job. Mock Draft Database lists him 32nd.

It’s worth noting that Nix, Penix Jr. and McCarthy have all been mocked by some draft experts in the top 15.

Mid-to-late rounders?

There are a number of project types that the Vikings could pick if they bring back Cousins with hopes that they develop over a few years, including Spencer Rattler (South Carolina), Michael Pratt (Tulane), Joe Milton (Tennessee) and Jordan Travis (Florida St.).

The bottom line

The franchise’s overall direction will be significantly impacted by the QB decision. If they sign Cousins, they go right back into all-in mode and they will face the same challenges of previous seasons with building a championship-caliber roster around an expensive quarterback. If they decide to move on from Cousins, it is inevitable that they will turn to the draft but that doesn’t mean the Vikings have to take a massive step back considering there are veteran QBs available who could keep them in the race. We will know which way they have picked by the time free agency begins.