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Matthew Coller: Kirk Cousins has many factors to weigh in free agency decision

The Vikings' quarterback laid out the elements of his decision during locker cleanout day

EAGAN — When Kirk Cousins got hurt in Green Bay, offensive linemen Brian O’Neill was so overcome with emotion that he couldn’t express how he felt about losing his quarterback. On locker cleanout day on Monday, O’Neill referenced that moment and said that he has told Kirk Cousins many times since then how much he appreciates him.

“He wasn’t the first overall pick, he’s not 6-foot-8, he doesn’t run a 4.2 [40-yard dash] but he maximizes 100 percent of everything he’s got and that story is relatable for a lot of guys,” O’Neill said.

“And he’s really, really good,” the right tackle added.

O’Neill made no bones about his stance. He wants Cousins back under center. While he stopped short of saying he was going to make his voice heard to management, the Pro Bowl tackle did say that if his opinion is asked that he will advocated for Cousins’ return.

“One-thousand-million percent that’s my guy,” O’Neill said. “I’ll tell anybody that. I would rather have nobody else under center than Kirk for us. I love that guy.”

It’s likely that opinion is shared within most of the locker room. Over the last two years as the roster turned over from the previous regime, Cousins has emerged more and more as the franchise’s leader. O’Neill told a story about a day at the lunch table when the Vikings were 0-3 in which the veteran quarterback talked players through all the rough stretches they had along the way and how they fought through them. It helped ease the tension of a difficult start.

If the decision for the Vikings at quarterback was a simple as whether Cousins’ approval rating from his coaches and teammates was high, he would already have a contract by now. The NFL, however, is an economics game. It’s also a game of windows. With 32 teams constantly rising and falling, every club is in a different phase of win-now, “competitive rebuild” or full rebuild mode.

You know who understands this well? Kirk Cousins.

Moments after Cousins’ fellow captain campaigned for a return, the veteran quarterback talked about his approach to possible negotiations with the Vikings and the potential of becoming a free agent for the first time since 2018. In laying out his wish list for a home in 2024 and beyond, he started with whether the team can compete for a championship.

“I think it ultimately is about winning football games, and so that will be the most important thing, winning football games,” Cousins said. “With that, no one thing is in a vacuum, usually you win football games because there are some other factors that are really important to me that are going to have to be there to be able to win football games, so it all ties together. The factors work together, but I certainly believe we can do that here.”

The Vikings have won a lot of football games since Cousins arrived in Minnesota. He is 51-39-1 (including playoffs) and 17-9 since Kevin O’Connell was hired prior to the 2022 season. He has been blessed with the top wide receiver walking the planet, an elite receiving tight end, two top-notch tackles and a young receiver in Jordan Addison who finished with the third most receiving yards among rookies. That’s a lot to work with going forward.

However, the Vikings’ roster has a boat load of free agents. Hitting the market is 31.5 sacks, around 3,500 defensive snaps, 77 receptions between KJ Osborn and Brandon Powell and the 20th ranked left guard in pass blocking who gave up zero sacks.

The team has cap space. projects $37 million and that doesn’t begin to touch on restructures. But the struggle for the Vikings since signing Cousins in 2018 has been finding the cap space to keep everyone on the current roster and add in free agency. The largest deal that the Vikings have signed for any player since 2018 in total cash was nose tackle Michael Pierce at $27 million.

That brings us to another challenge for Cousins. Would he take a “hometown discount” to stay with Jefferson, Addison and O’Connell and keep his kids in the same kindergarten class?

Cousins talked about both sides of that on Monday.

“I think God has blessed me financially beyond my wildest dreams, so at this stage in my career, the dollars are really not what it’s about,” Cousins said. “I had a coach who I was with, who was a younger coach at the time, this was back eight, nine years ago, before my first franchise tag, and we were talking about the situation and he made a great comment and he said, ‘Kirk, it’s not about the dollars, but it is about what the dollars represent.’ I thought that was an interesting comment that he made. There will always be some of that, but at today’s point, structure is probably more important.”

We can safely read into his comments to say that he isn’t exactly heading into this decision with only dollar bills in mind but can’t exactly take money that is wildly below the other top 10-15 starters in the league. There are 12 quarterbacks scheduled to carry cap numbers over $30 million next season, including Geno Smith, Daniel Jones, Derek Carr and Kyler Murray.

The structure part, by all reports, got in the way of an extension last offseason. At the NFL Combine, general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah pointed out how difficult it was to project a player for more than two years down the road. Yet Cousins’ side had a reasonable argument for a long-term commitment after a 13-win season. Will things change when it comes to the structure this time around?

Kirk Cousins

Kirk Cousins

A complicating factor is his Achilles injury. No matter the modern science, the Vikings or other signing teams will need to be completely comfortable with the potential risks involved before getting into a multi-year contract. Cousins, though, did not seem too worried about how much potential interest will be impacted.

“I do think the league needs quarterbacks,” Cousins said. “If you are trying to talk yourself out of a quarterback, then I can’t help you much. The Achilles is going to heal. It is on track, and I am a pocket passer and there is a lot of time before next season. So, for a lot of reasons, it doesn’t concern me.”

At Cousins’ age, there is an argument for the Vikings trying to pick their Jordan Love while Cousins is still on the roster. Of course, the Packers drafting Love caused consternation from Aaron Rodgers at the time. What if the Vikings want to split the difference and draft a quarterback for the future an extend him?

“It won’t really matter what happens in April, because once I sign my contract, that is done in March and what’s done is done,” Cousins said.

While he may be comfortable with another young QB coming in, passing on a position like edge rusher to pick a development quarterback in the draft takes away one more potential piece that would have to go along with a win-now approach if Cousins returns. That circles back to the first point he made about winning football games.

The bottom line: For the Pro Bowl quarterback, there is a lot to work through.

“You ultimately just want to try and find a fit that makes the most sense and also where you feel the most peace about,” Cousins said. “I felt great peace and clarity when I committed to Michigan State. I felt great peace when I arrived in Washington and saw the coaches I was going to get to work with. I felt great peace when I came here and that is really what you are looking for this time around. Where am I getting peace from the lord and following it.”