Heading into this year's NFL draft, the Minnesota Vikings are at an interesting crossroads when it comes to the quarterback position.
Unlike many other teams, they have a quality starter in place. Yes, despite the lazy national narratives that continue to surround his career, Kirk Cousins is a quality starter — and that might be underselling him. Since the Vikings adopted Gary Kubiak's play action-heavy scheme in 2019, Cousins has overcome slow starts to finish as a top-ten quarterback or better by virtually every efficiency-based metric in two straight years.
With that said, the concerns about Cousins' relative value and ceiling are legitimate ones. He has a $31 million cap hit this year and a whopping $45 million hit in 2022, $35 million of which comes in the form of a fully guaranteed base salary. And for all of Cousins' abilities as an extremely accurate passer, he's lagging behind the modern stars of the position in that he's not someone who can make things happen off-schedule at an elite level. Slow starts and turnover issues remain frustrating at times, as well.
The Vikings have now had three years to evaluate Cousins, two of them in the context of a scheme that maximizes what he does well. This year might be his last chance to prove to ownership, the front office, and the entire organization that he can lead a team to more than a wild card berth and one playoff win. He has all of the necessary offensive weapons to continue last year's success on that side of the ball, the Vikings' defense should be vastly improved, and they're expected to address the offensive line before the offseason ends. There might not be any more excuses in 2021.
If the Vikings don't believe Cousins can get them over the hump and win a championship, it would make sense to be proactive about looking for his successor. Instead of waiting until next offseason, that could mean adding a talented QB this year. More specifically, that could mean drafting one in the early rounds for the first time since they selected Teddy Bridgewater 32nd overall in 2014. ESPN's Courtney Cronin recently wrote a column saying Minnesota's draft success "hinges" on finding a potential successor this year.
There is mounting evidence that supports the idea that Rick Spielman and the Vikings will at least consider using an early draft pick on a quarterback. Eric Edholm of Yahoo! Sports tweeted this week that they "are a team that has done work" on this year's QB class. Plugged-in local reporter Darren Wolfson (of KSTP) added that they've "connected with many [QBs] for virtual interviews." Both of those tweets made reference to a late-round quarterback option, but the overall sentiment is the bigger takeaway. That the Vikings haven't brought back Sean Mannion in free agency yet is another potential indication that they could be looking to add a backup with more upside.
Then there's Spielman's pro day cycle. One of his earliest stops was North Dakota State, where he scouted left tackle Dillon Radunz — but also Trey Lance, one of the top five QB prospects in this year's draft. Later on, he went to Alabama (Mac Jones), BYU (Zach Wilson), and Ohio State (Justin Fields). He was obviously scouting a number of players at each spot, but the Vikings' longtime GM has seen all big five QBs in person with the exception of Trevor Lawrence, who is going No. 1 overall.
If one of those quarterbacks is on the board at 14 — particularly if it's Fields or Lance — would Spielman pull the trigger? It would mean passing up on an offensive lineman or pass rusher who could make more of an impact this fall for a team that appears to be in "win now" mode, but it could be incredibly beneficial down the road. The Vikings could let that player sit for a year under Cousins, get acclimated to the NFL, and take over in 2022. Cousins could be traded next offseason if the Vikings can find a team willing to take on his $35 million salary (an extension could lower the immediate cap hit for the team that acquires him). Maybe drafting a QB early would light a fire under the veteran, like what happened with Aaron Rodgers last year after the Packers drafted Jordan Love.
Realistically, none of the big five QBs will be there at 14. Would Spielman consider moving up to go secure the QB of the future? Your guess is as good as mine, but it's worth noting that he hasn't been shy to make aggressive moves in the past. The Vikings have never traded up within the first round under Spielman, but they moved up into the first for Bridgewater and have also traded up for players like Harrison Smith, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Dalvin Cook.
Some will make the argument that Spielman and Mike Zimmer don't have the job security beyond 2021 to pass up a player who will help them win this season, but I'd push back against that a little. First, the Vikings aren't one rookie lineman or edge rusher away from winning the Super Bowl. And second, I'd be surprised if the Wilfs were opposed to the idea of landing a high-upside QB on a rookie contract. They've watched Cousins play just like the rest of us.
In the likely event that the Vikings don't land one of the top quarterbacks, they'll still have the option to select one of the players in the second tier. That tier seems to consist of Stanford's Davis Mills, Texas A&M's Kellen Mond, and Florida's Kyle Trask. Any of those players would be a massive upgrade over Mannion at the Vikings' backup quarterback spot, at least in terms of future potential. Trask may well be available in the third round, but landing Mills or Mond could require moving up from 78. The Vikings had a contingent at A&M's pro day watching Mond, who some evaluators are very high on.
The history of quarterbacks selected after the first round in the last decade isn't a remarkably impressive one, but there are plenty of success stories mixed in. Those include Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson, Cousins, Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Nick Foles. A third-round QB is far more likely to turn out like Mannion (selected 89th in 2015) than Wilson (75th in 2012), but it might be worth a shot regardless.
Of course, there's also the possibility that the Vikings wait until the late rounds or UDFA cycle to add a QB, like they've done with Jake Browning and Nate Stanley the last two years. In that case, maybe they bring Mannion back too and wait until next offseason to consider adding an impact player at quarterback — or extending Cousins again, depending on how the season goes.
But even if that might be the most likely outcome, it's not a sure thing this year. Compared to the past couple years, there's more reason to believe that this could be the draft in which Spielman uses an early-round pick at the game's most important position, which would put a potential succession plan into place and increase the heat on Cousins heading into a critical 2021 season.
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