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Matthew Coller: Vikings QB decision is about which risks they want to take

Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah talked about the decision surrounding Kirk Cousins at the team's year-end press conference

EAGAN — At the Minnesota Vikings year-end press conference, general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah gave ESPN and NFL Network a quote to put along the bottom scroll.

“It is certainly my intention to have him back here,” Adofo-Mensah said regarding Kirk Cousins’ free agency.

But the GM’s follow-up comments pulled back the curtain on the nuance within the decision-making process.

“There are a lot of factors that go into these things,” Adofo-Mensah said. “It is age. It’s injury, but it is also performance. How do you believe the performance will go, and there’s different examples through time. Obviously, you have to also pay attention to the person and what he puts into his body and how regimented and detailed he is. All those factors go into. But, at the end of the day, we are just taking risks, and we try to measure it as best we can and protect ourselves and ensure against it.”

When it comes to Cousins’ Achilles tear that ended his season, the quarterback said “it will heal” and “I’m a pocket quarterback” and “I’m not going to sell myself” but the Vikings are facing uncharted waters when it comes to an injury of that magnitude for a quarterback that is in his mid-30s.

Historically speaking, age has not been kind to anyone except the greatest of all time. Since 2000, the only quarterback over the age of 35 to throw 30 touchdowns that wasn’t named Manning, Rodgers, Brees, Brady, Roethlisberger, Favre, Rivers or Warner is Carson Palmer with the 2015 Arizona Cardinals. If we lower that number to 25 TDs it includes Rich Gannon. Borderline Hall of Famer Matt Ryan only produced 20 TDs at age 36 and then was an Indianapolis Colt at age 37 and is presently out of the league and presumed retired.

Cousins’ lack of previous significant injury issues and overall management of his body gives him a chance to buck history but that is a difficult projection to make. Cousins said that whether he remains a Viking is all about “structure” and a contract that is representative of a quality starting QB. It isn’t difficult to surmise that structure refers to length, guarantees and possibly a no-trade clause, which Cousins reportedly had in his most recent deal.

“There are levers that you pull that if you get this thing, maybe you give up this other thing,” Adofo-Mensah said in regards to the upcoming negotiations.

What things the Vikings are willing to give up may depend on how they view their short and long-term salary cap situation. They are in the most flexible position in years heading into the offseason but it would be challenging for that to remain true with a Cousins extension considering Justin Jefferson will undoubtedly become the NFL’s highest paid receiver this offseason and the team has needs at all defensive line positions and the secondary.

In responding to questions about how the cap would need to be managed with a Cousins extension Adofo-Mensah again used the “risk” word.

“We have a lot of talented people in the salary cap department, and it is really just being thoughtful about those contracts,” Adofo-Mensah said. “The risk of those contracts and the money out in the future and all those different things. I believe we do. It depends on now if you do one thing it maybe pins a different option that you can do, but I do believe we do have the ability to both address those offensive players… but also provide resources for the defense.”

Again historically this has proven difficult. Per, there have been six instances of quarterbacks reaching the Super Bowl with top 10 salary cap hits since 2013. The list is Patrick Mahomes, Matthew Stafford, Tom Brady, Matt Ryan and Peyton Manning (twice).

Kirk Cousins

Kirk Cousins on the sideline at Lambeau Field before he suffered a ruptured Achilles on Oct. 29, 2023.

Not that reaching the Super Bowl is the only measure of the success of teams with expensive quarterbacks but it does speak to the challenges of building a complete roster around an expensive player, as the Vikings have found in the recent past.

Whether the risk is higher or manageable when it comes to a high Cousins cap hit may depend on how close the Vikings believe the current roster to be to competing for a Super Bowl. The Rams, for example, famously traded away all their draft capital to go all-in on the 2021 season and their roll of the dice brought them a championship. They also had the greatest defensive player on earth and the No. 1 cornerback in the NFL and added Hall of Famer Von Miller and superstar Odell Beckham Jr. to the squad. Are the Vikings in that spot?

“I think, at different times this year, you would say that, ‘yeah, we’ve shown it,”’ Adofo-Mensah said when asked if they are close to being a finished product. “You want to get to that place in your program that it is consistent year in and year out and you can overcome adversity. We are not there to that standard yet, no. But we have made the playoffs. We have been in playoff contention for a lot of this year through a lot of things, so I think we’re pointed in the right direction. It is going to take a big offseason for me to answer that question.”

Adofo-Mensah added that he feels the team is close to being able to remove the “rebuild” portion of his much-discussed “competitive rebuild” but the team needs to get to the point where they have enough depth to overcome the type of aversity with injuries that they faced this year.

The rebuildy elephant in the room is a first-round draft that could have as many as six quarterbacks. The Vikings have the 11th overall pick, their highest selection since taking Trae Waynes in 2017. But moving on from Cousins to pick a rookie quarterback would come with its own barrel of risk.

If the Vikings select the right QB, it would mean years of salary cap flexibility and opportunity to build a 49ers-like roster around their current stars. If they pick the wrong quarterback, well, you all know what happens.

Then again, the last regime did not pick a quarterback and tried to push cap space into the future and that’s how Adofo-Mensah got here.

Turns out that being a decision maker isn’t easy. Each path has its risks. Each path has people — from the coaching staff to ownership — with opinions on what it would take to win and which direction gets the team there faster. Ultimately the decision they way they end up going at QB will shape what happens to the organization for years to come.

No pressure, right?

“It’s an important offseason,” Adofo-Mensah said. “I can’t really run from that in any kind of way.”