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Matthew Coller: Vikings head to Combine with everything at stake

The Vikings' plan for the future at QB will be forged in Indy

Some teams don’t even send their coaching staffs to the NFL Combine. Heck, if you are the Rams and your motto was “F Them Picks” then why waste everyone’s time flying them into Indianapolis? Many teams arrive with hopes of clearing up a handful of concerns about players’ medicals and double checking that the measurements from their college bio pages were actually true. Maybe somebody pops to them in the interviews or on the field.

Most teams do not get off the plan in Indy with their entire future on the line but that’s the case for the Minnesota Vikings.

In the lead up to the Combine the Vikings’ brass has presumably been putting together their potential plans like a Choose Your Own Adventure game. With so many moving parts to this offseason they will need options on options on options.

What happens if Kirk Cousins comes back at their price? What happens if his side wants to go higher? What happens if Cousins would prefer to roll the dice on free agency? What happens if teams at the top are interested in trading down? What happens if they aren’t? Is Danielle Hunter returning? Where do their other free agents stand? Which free agents who are about to hit the market might have interest in Minnesota? (Not that anyone in Indy would ever tamper!)

Those are just the questions they are asking themselves. We are asking whether they are looking to be sold on a quarterback at the Combine. Do they need to sit down with JJ McCarthy, Bo Nix and Michael Penix Jr. before knowing whether they should keep the offer on the table for Cousins? Or is Cousins the first choice if he will come back at a certain dollar figure? If they only love Drake Maye or Jayden Daniels, how much would they be willing to send to Washington or New England to get up to their draft slot? How much competition will there be to move up?

There’s also the matter of whether the projections for these quarterbacks are accurate or if the league is going to feel differently than the outside world like with Malik Willis and Will Levis. Are there actually four or five first rounders or just three? Are they going 1-2-3 or does somebody slide.

Will other options arrive at the Vikings’ doorstep? What if Kyler Murray was available? What if Baker Mayfield’s dream was to live near the Mississippi River?

Is it over dramatic to view the team’s trip to the Combine as the fork in the road for the next five years of Vikings football? It doesn’t appear that way because the plans around the QB position are so much different if Cousins returns. The expectations are so much different if he returns or not. The feeling of the fan base is so much different.

If Cousins’ rep meets with the Vikings in Indy and they agree on a price, there will be a mad scramble for the team to figure out the rest of the roster. Rebuilding the defense becomes the first priority — though it would be negligent not to improve Cousins’ backfield and get him a better fit at WR3.

If Cousins comes back then the expectations are to reach the NFC Championship or the decision is a failure. Why should we move off the bar to reach when Cousins signed? The only reason to bring back a 36-year-old QB with a repaired Achilles is if you believe in a deep playoff run, right?

If Cousins comes back then the fans will need to be won over. Offseason hype means nothing. Signing a defensive tackle and left guard won’t be enough to get everyone jacked for Year 7 of this. Training camp buzz means little. Every single game from September to January will be a referendum on the decision and the US Bank Stadium crowds won’t be at peak volume until they are shown they deserve to be. Excuses for one-score losses will be for the birds. And if it fails, the coach and GM will deserve to be on the hottest of seats.

On the flip side, drafting a quarterback means that a slower offseason approach will be acceptable. The Vikings won’t need to land Brian Burns or Christian Wilkins yet. Save those big whoppers for 2025 when QB1 is ready to win.

The expectation will be progress and intrigue. It doesn’t need to look like CJ Stroud in Year 1 in order to be a success, just to give reason for belief that the next quarterback could be here. Even sitting that player to develop them would be accepted so long as a bridge QB gave them a fighting chance each week.

The HC and GM would be given a grace period. Not a long one — nobody gets that in the NFL — but the bar to reach would simply be to look like they were a team ready to pop. To go into 2025 free agency ready to take the team to the next level.

If Cousins comes back, there has to be an answer about how to compete within the division. Detroit isn’t going anywhere. The Packers look scary. The Bears have two top 10 picks and could do a whole lotta damage with them. If Cousins doesn’t return, the NFL has a way of turning quickly and the North could look quite different by the time the Vikings arrive at camp 2025.

When the Vikings speak with the media at the Combine (PI will be there!), they are not going to announce their plans. So it feels odd to hype an event which won’t have a final score. But for the team, this is the final step before The Decision. With Cousins’ dead cap hit ready to kick in if he isn’t on the roster when the new league year behind March 13 we have a pseudo deadline.

This feeling is somewhat familiar. In 2018 the Vikings arrived at the Combine with a similar decision on their hands. There were five projected first-round QBs, Cousins was a free agent and Alex Smith was set to be traded. Sam Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater and Case Keenum were all free agents and many insiders thought two of them would be back in purple. At the Combine Mike Zimmer laid out the trouble with every scenario, referencing the knee issues for Bradford and Bridgewater and he openly wondered if Keenum could repeat his 2017 season or whether it was a random pop-up year. He talked about whether signing Cousins or trading for Smith would take up too much cap space.

What will we hear this time? While the Vikings’ brass hasn’t been as up front as Zimmer, last year Adofo-Mensah did (in a round about kind of way) lay out the case against a long-term deal for Cousins, saying that the team could only project two years out with a given player. Last year we walked away from the Combine feeling that an extension might not be imminent and it turned out not to be. How will we feel in those anxious days before a decision is made? We’ll find out next week. And along the way we’ll be keeping a very close eye on every quarterback’s performance just in case they are the quarterback of the future that we have been talking about during trips to Indy for so long. 

Mar 5, 2023; Indianapolis, IN, USA; A general overall view of the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Mar 5, 2023; Indianapolis, IN, USA; A general overall view of the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.