INDIANAPOLIS -- Two years ago, the Minnesota Vikings went to the NFL combine in search for their next franchise quarterback.
The Vikings went through evaluations of their own pending free agents and those on other teams, and in the end, decided to go all-in on Kirk Cousins.
The conversation surrounding how much it would cost to sign the former Washington Redskins quarterback started during NFL combine week in 2018. The groundwork of Cousins' three-year, $84 million, fully guaranteed deal was laid out in Indianapolis between the Vikings' front office and Cousins' agent, Mike McCartney.
Two years into Cousins' contract, the Vikings are in a similar spot, headed to the combine to figure out whether they will sign Cousins, 31, to an extension or table negotiations.
After leading the Vikings to a playoff win over the Saints in New Orleans -- the first of his career -- Cousins put himself in line for a deal that could solidify Minnesota's quarterback situation for the next few years.
As the Vikings begin a long week in Indianapolis, extension talks for Cousins will be their top priority.
The price tag
By the end of the week, the rumored price tag associated with an early extension for Cousins will undoubtedly circulate at the combine. The type of deal Cousins will command is of relevance to a pending free-agent-quarterback market dominated by names such as Tom Brady and Philip Rivers, not to mention the others who are waiting to get paid, such as Dak Prescott and, eventually, Patrick Mahomes.
When McCartney helped Cousins become the first quarterback in NFL history to land a multiyear, fully guaranteed deal, a precedent was set.
Will Cousins want another fully guaranteed deal? And will this new contract again be short-term, allowing him to hit free agency in a few years?
It's hard to believe Cousins' representation will want to accept anything less than what they've already worked to earn, which would put another fully guaranteed deal on the table. It's also difficult to see the Vikings wanting to structure a new deal in that same fashion.
Minnesota discovered some hard truths about Cousins' deal, as it inhibited the team from being active in free agency last season. Cousins had cap hits of $24 million in 2018 and $29 million in 2019 and is on the books with a $31 million hit this season, which accounts for almost 16% of the Vikings' total cap. He also has had a no-trade clause.
The obvious benefit of an extension would be to lower Cousins' 2020 cap number to give the Vikings some flexibility going into free agency. The Vikings began clearing some space last week when defensive end Everson Griffen voided the remaining three years on his contract, creating $13.1 million in cap savings. The Vikings were projected to be $10 million to $12 million over the cap, so that move essentially brought the Vikings back to ground zero. A Cousins extension would create more wiggle room.
If Cousins seeks another fully guaranteed contract, McCartney's biggest challenge will be building a case for a deal of that magnitude over the ones signed by Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers, who have won Super Bowls. If Cousins were to sign a four-year extension with north of $120 million in guaranteed money (potentially entirely guaranteed), he would be in the range of making $30 million to $32 million per year. Expecting more -- something in the realm of $35 million per year -- is difficult to justify given Cousins has won one playoff game in his career.
But taking a hometown discount doesn't benefit Cousins after the type of season he had. If he replicates that success in 2020 without having signed an extension, he's in line to make even more as a free agent. So expecting Cousins to take a team-friendly deal, or whatever the Vikings opt to counter with, might result in a deal not getting done.
Importance of a deal before free agency
For the Vikings' sake, Cousins needs to be the first domino to fall this offseason. With a handful of other decisions to be made, particularly on defense with pending free agents Griffen, Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander and Anthony Harris, the Vikings need to know where their finances will be tied up in order to plan out the rest of 2020. That includes who they're able to bring back and which free agents they can pursue in March.
It also benefits the rest of the quarterback market for Cousins to sign an extension ahead of free agency, so other QB agents can know how they want to structure deals for their clients.
In Cousins' case, inking an extension now might not be in his best interest. With the aforementioned free-agent-quarterback names waiting to get paid along with Mahomes, who might be the first $200 million QB in history, Cousins' opting to play out his contract and becoming a free agent in 2021 could be the most lucrative option. If he waits to sign an extension post-Mahomes, he could be looking at an average of $36.5 million to $38 million per year.
Cousins was the trendsetter in 2018, becoming the richest QB in the NFL for a matter of weeks before Matt Ryan signed an extension with the Atlanta Falcons. This time around, it might be advantageous to wait it out to see how much others are in line to earn (Prescott in the immediate term, Mahomes thereafter) before negotiating.
If Cousins doesn't agree to an extension ...
Then the Vikings need to draft a quarterback in April. But before we get to concocting highly aggressive trade scenarios that would put the Vikings in play for one of the top QBs (like sending a haul to trade up and draft Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa in the top five), there are other options that appear more feasible, at least in the short-term.
If Cousins' reps and the Vikings can't agree to a number for an extension, he will play out the final year of his contract. In the meantime, Minnesota could look to the late first round (Washington's Jacob Eason) or second round (Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts or Georgia's Jake Fromm) to draft a quarterback who could learn under Cousins and possibly be in line to compete for the job in 2021.
At a minimum, the Vikings would have a bridge quarterback in the mix who could one day take the reins of the offense or serve as a trade candidate. A Cousins extension might help financial matters for the next several years, but if the Vikings' front office and coaching staff isn't on the same page with him being the long-term solution, it might be worth letting Cousins play out the final year of his deal and then moving on.