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If Cousins goes, who are the best veteran and long shot QB options for the Vikings?

The Vikings could be looking at many, many potential QBs if Cousins leaves for free agency

Momentum appears to be building for Kirk Cousins exiting stage left.

On Monday Pro Football Talk reported that there are “very credible indications” that Cousins is going to sign with the Atlanta Falcons. At the NFL Combine in Indianapolis Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell made his case for Cousins to return but acknowledged that Cousins was going to “go through the process” of free agency.

While the most likely place that the Vikings will land their next quarterback if Cousins leaves is in the NFL Draft, it is almost certain that they would pair any draft pick with a veteran. There is also a scenario where they could get left out of the party in the first round and all of their potential draft targets are gone by No. 11, leaving the team to look elsewhere for answers.

Let’s take a closer look at the best possible options for veteran mentors, “bridge” types and long shots and analyze which QBs would be the best answer for the Vikings in 2024…

The long shots

Sam Darnold

Key stat: 90.8 QB rating in his last seven starts

Why he might work: Nobody had a worse situation in his first two stops than Sam Darnold. His No. 1 receiver as a rookie was Robbie Anderson and then Jamison Crowder the next two years. The Jets were a mess with Adam Gase as their head coach and then Matt Rhole similarly struggled as HC in Carolina. If Darnold won over Kyle Shanahan, he may still have the potential to take a Geno Smith or Ryan Tannehill jump in the right situation. His arm talent is top-notch and he would have two former QBs on staff to guide him in the Vikings offense, not to mention the league’s best receiver.

Why he might not work: He might be bad. In 56 starts Darnold has an astonishing 56 interceptions and has a sub-80 quarterback rating and never put up a PFF grade over 70 in a full season as a starter. It wouldn’t have to be a jump, rather a gargantuan leap to become an above average starter.

Verdict: Having already shown he is willing to play No. 2 to a younger quarterback and previous experience alongside new QB coach Josh McCown, Darnold might be a good fit for the Vikings if paired with a high draft pick. Expectations otherwise should be tempered.

Jan 7, 2024; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Sam Darnold (14) before the game against the Los Angeles Rams at Levi's Stadium.

Jan 7, 2024; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Sam Darnold (14) before the game against the Los Angeles Rams at Levi's Stadium.

Justin Fields

Key stat: Over 100 rushing first downs in the last two years

Why he might work: Fields has a live arm and all-time great running ability at the quarterback position. He’s shown an ability to throw special deep passes and break off Michael Vick-like runs at the drop of a hat. He was put in a rough spot with the Bears turning over their entire roster and rolling with a defensive head coach. The possibility exists that if Fields can master an offense with multiple weapons and add a dynamic that Minnesota hasn’t seen since Daunte Culpepper.

Why he might not work: He might be bad. Fields has averaged 166 yards per game passing in his career and he’s posted a quarterback rating of 82.3 and ranked 25th of 45 in PFF passing grade last year.

Verdict: It does not seem like a fit for a rhythm passing game to take on a quarterback who holds onto the ball too long and takes sacks at an extremely high rate. The upside could potentially be high but rarely have first-rounders who have been given up on by their teams ended up thriving elsewhere.

Trey Lance

Key stat: 102 total pass attempts

Why he might work: The book on Lance was that he needed reps. What has he not gotten in the NFL? Reps. He has incredible physical tools that need to be molded and developed in order to have any chance to succeed in the league. His development may has been set back by COVID and then the 49ers’ desire to win right away with their stacked roster. Maybe some patience and coaching could unlock the huge arm talent and athleticism.

Why he might not work: It isn’t a great sign when a team trades everything for a quarterback and then bails for a fourth-round pick. Lance has had problems with injuries and lost the camp competition to Brock Purdy and Sam Darnold. If O’Connell is looking for someone to grasp a complex offense that might be a lot to ask.

Verdict: It’s worth a shot. Not the only shot but a shot.

The Bridge QBs

Baker Mayfield

Key stat: Mayfield had the third highest average depth of target in 2023

Why he might work: Including playoffs, Mayfield threw for over 4,700 yards, 34 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and finished 10th in QB rating with the Bucs last season. Paired with the right offensive leader and great wide receivers he took a massive step from his previous showings with Cleveland, Carolina and Los Angeles and won a playoff game against the Eagles and went toe-to-toe with the Lions on the road.

His huge arm strength and willingness to cut it loose could remind you of a shorter Matthew Stafford if you squint. Placed in Kevin O’Connell’s system and with his positive coaching style, Mayfield might be able to continue ascending as he comes into his prime. He would also give Justin Jefferson an experienced QB who can push the ball into tight windows and is willing to toss up jump balls.

Why he might not work: Mayfield might end up being pretty expensive to pry away from the Bucs. It still makes the most sense that he returns to the club that believed in him and played a huge role in changing the narrative about him. With Mike Evans returning, he’ll have his No. 1 target and a division that is less than daunting.

Mayfield on a multi-year deal with a fairly significant cap hit might remind you of somebody. While he plays a different style than Kirk Cousins, he is probably the 10th-15th best QB in the NFL at his best, meaning the Vikings would need a complete team in order to go deep into the playoffs. Could that happen over a few year period? Yes. Is it still a tough needle to thread in a division of good QBs? Yes.

Verdict: Maybe. Under the right circumstances it could work but the high end is probably limited.

Russell Wilson

Key stat: Graded 92.3 on passes over 20 yards

Why he might work: If O’Connell wants an experienced veteran who can run his downfield passing offense, Wilson has to be in consideration. He may have lost mobility but his deep balls were still landing in the hands of receivers last season. Wilson even put up strong numbers throwing in the intermediate areas of the field in 2023, which hasn’t always been his reputation.

Wilson would allow the Vikings to have a proven starter right away and he wouldn’t be particularly costly with the offset language in his contract. They would not be precluded from drafting and developing a quarterback behind him.

Why he might not work: Gestures at everything. Wilson’s trade to Denver will go down as one of the worst in NFL history, which doesn’t exactly inspire anyone that it’s going to work in another location. He did not appear as a Bronco to have the same type of playmaking burst that made him special once upon a time and it’s hard to see him sitting in muddy pockets and waiting for route progressions to develop as KOC’s offense often requires.

Bringing in Wilson would be like adding a worse Cousins and there’s no guarantee he doesn’t continue to fall off even worse.

Verdict: Not a good fit

Ryan Tannehill

Key stat: Posted a 100.5 QB rating from 2019-2022

Why he might work: Tannehill had a rough ride the last two years as he watched his once-stacked roster fall apart, particularly at the wide receiver position. But it wasn’t that long ago that he won a lot of games by efficiently executing Tennessee’s offense. He went 36-19 as a starter prior to last year and had two seasons of 90+ PFF grades. With 11 years in the league he’s seen just about every offense and has always had quality arm strength to make the requisite throws.

Why he might not work: Tannehill’s 2023 season was an utter disaster. He got sacked constantly en route to a 3-5 record with a 78.5 rating and just 161 yards passing per game. At 36 years old and with a long record of injuries it’s hard to see him ever returning to the 2021 version.

Verdict: Hard pass. Tannehill deserves to be remembered fondly in Tennessee but what’s left in the tank won’t be enough to make the Vikings contenders.

Jameis Winston

Key stat: 14 touchdowns, 3 interceptions as a starter in 2021

Why he might work: If O’Connell wants a quarterback who will push the ball downfield then there is a big-armed former No. 1 pick available who will do just that. Winston hasn’t seen many opportunities since Tampa Bay sent him packing in favor of Tom Brady but the only time he did get a shot he went 5-2 with a 102.8 rating for the Saints.

Why he might not work: Winston’s wild streak may have been contained by Sean Payton for a handful of games but over his career he’s simply been under the bar of NFL starting QBs. He has 99 interceptions in 80 starts and a career 87.0 QB rating.

Verdict: It would be a wild ride but probably isn’t the best fit

Carson Wentz

Key stat: 40 touchdowns, 17 interceptions since leaving Philadelphia

Why he might work: Wentz had a reclamation year as a backup for the Rams last season and performed very well in his one start. The last time he started a full season the Colts he finished with a winning record and he is still in his prime. Wentz has a big arm and experience in Sean McVay’s offense.

Why he might not work: It hasn’t worked for Wentz in a long, long time. It was telling that nobody wanted him last year despite all the issues with quarterback injuries and his leadership and ability to take coaching has been questioned. That would make him a poor candidate to work with anybody on the younger side. His arm may be strong but it’s also wild and turnover and sack prone.

Verdict: Hard pass

The mentors

Joe Flacco

Key stat: Averaged 7.9 yards per attempt in five starts for the Browns in 2024

Why he might work: Flacco still has the cannon. Last year was the first time since he left the Ravens that he played alongside a quality group of weapons and he posted over 320 yards passing per game. The Browns were able to take advantage of his arm strength to throw downfield and execute Kevin Stefanski’s offense despite the fact he landed in Cleveland halfway through the year. He could mentally take on all the things O’Connell would ask of him.

Why he might not work: Flacco is old. He turned 39 in January and hasn’t started a full season since 2017. It would be a huge ask to have him return as QB1. Flacco also threw eight interceptions in five games and has 19 in 22 starts since leaving the Ravens. That doesn’t bode well for contending in the long run.

Verdict: Does he want to be a mentor? That’s not clear but if he would enjoy that role then he makes sense.

Jacoby Brissett

Key stat: As a starter in 2022 he graded a solid 82.6 PFF grade

Why he might work: Brissett has a sterling reputation as veteran quarterback who can work with younger quarterbacks and he has played for multiple offenses. He is smart and accurate enough to keep an offense moving if he needs to start several games.

Why he might not work: If a rookie QB isn’t ready, Brissett wouldn’t be the type of quarterback you’d want to ask to start double digit games in a season. He’s 18-30 as a career starter with a QB rating of 85.3 and doesn’t have the physical tools to win consistently.

Verdict: Brissett would be great to pair with a first-round draft pick

Gardner Minshew

Key stat: Went 7-6 for the Colts last year when Anthony Richardson got hurt

Why he might work: Minshew plays with a lot of heart and teammates seem to gravitate to him. He’s taken on the veteran mentor role already in Indy and gave the Colts a chance to make the postseason when the rookie went down or wasn’t ready.

Why he might not work: Minshew is a fighter but his upside is limited.

Verdict: Minshew would be a great fit to pair with a young QB.

Tyrod Taylor

Key stat: Taylor led the NFL in big-time throw percentage

Why he might work: It would not be Taylor’s first rodeo as a backup to a young QB. He’s been just that in Cleveland, Los Angeles and New York. He has a ton of experience around the league and is a hard-working professional who can fill the void and give his team a chance to win games, particularly with his playmaking and deep accuracy.

Why he might not work: Taylor has a tendency to get injured. He’s struggled to make it through even short spans when he is given playing time. 

Verdict: If the Vikings get a playmaking QB like Jayden Daniels, he would make a ton of sense.