After one season adjusting to head coach Kevin O’Connell’s offense with the Minnesota Vikings, Kirk Cousins had finally settled into some perfection. He was walking to the line of scrimmage with no less than three plays in his back pocket, reading defensive disguises at arguably the highest level of his career, and finding a groove with a handful of players beyond his most trusted weapon, wideout Justin Jefferson.
And that’s when the injury bug sunk its teeth to a vicious degree, tearing Cousins’ Achilles and erasing the remainder of a campaign that was on its way to new statistical single-season highs in virtually every category. In the snap of a tendon, one of the most durable quarterbacks of the decade was lost for the remainder of the 2023 season. And everything after it was curled into a singular question mark.
What happens with Kirk Cousins now?
That’s going to be an entertaining curiosity, with Cousins seemingly heading for new heights when his Achilles gave way Sunday. A free-agent-to-be this coming offseason, the 35-year-old looked like a quarterback with some prime years left in his arm. It's a reality that should make him an intriguing prospect for a few NFL teams this offseason that could be in the market for a veteran if their seasons — or current starters — go sideways in the coming months.
Three specific fits could come into play, given their current quarterback situations and the fact that they feature an offense rooted in the coaching tree and scheme of Kyle Shanahan: The San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams. There’s also the Miami Dolphins to consider, if Tua Tagovailoa suffered another string of concussions.
And lest we forget, there’s O’Connell, who now faces the task of figuring out who will be his Vikings quarterback in 2024 and how long it will take that player to absorb the offense. On Tuesday, O’Connell spoke about “coping” with losing Cousins at a seeming peak in his game, then shifting to getting a look at the other quarterbacks on the roster. In that same context, he kept the door open for a possible Cousins return.
“Like I’ve said many times, Kirk Cousins is going to be healthy again,” O’Connell said. “I know he’s going to be a free agent after this season, but Kirk knows how I feel about him. That will be something that will hopefully work itself out. … You guys know how I feel about Kirk. Kirk knows how I feel about Kirk. I think he was playing as well as anybody in the National Football League.”
Given a healthy recovery, that level of play at the time of Cousins’ injury will likely keep him on the mind of a multitude of teams this offseason. Those with some iteration of the Kyle Shanahan offense (and verbiage) would be the most ideal fits because they would offer Cousins an opportunity to immediately hit the ground running in 2024. As it stands, his recovery timeline from this week’s Achilles surgery is unknown, but if it’s the typically optimistic window of nine months, that would put Cousins back on the field by training camp. If he’s a candidate for the “speed bridge” procedure that was successful for Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers — and which appears to be working wonders for Aaron Rodgers — Cousins could be working out for teams as early as April.
Of course, that’s all speculation at the moment, much like the potential need for Cousins elsewhere. Anything could happen over the remainder of the season, but it will be worth seeing how the quarterback situations play out for the Vikings, 49ers, Rams, Packers and Dolphins.
Of that group, the Dolphins and Tagovailoa appear set for extension negotiations next offseason, barring any kind of injury that would jeopardize his career. Stafford and the Rams also appear to be in good shape, although his UCL sprain again raises the specter of an elbow problem that clouds his future. At the very least, there will be renewed questions about whether Stafford will consider retirement next offseason. Meanwhile, the Packers will continue to get an extended look at Jordan Love, but if the current trend of mediocrity continues and Green Bay isn’t in position to draft another quarterback in April, veteran bridge options would almost certainly be on the table for 2024.
And then there is the 49ers, who of course feature Shanahan and his longstanding admiration of Cousins. One month ago, it seemed wildly unlikely that a reunion could be in play for the pair, whose relationship dates back to their time together in Washington. But starter Brock Purdy has now staggered through the worst three-game stretch of his career, reviving the Shanahan microscope for a player who could certainly play himself out of the starting job in the coming months. Not just because Shanahan has notoriously high expectations for his quarterbacks, but also because we still haven’t seen Purdy prove that he can go into a spiral like the current one and pull himself out.
For now, Cousins will have to wait out the next three months to see what options are realistically on the table. Come next offseason, a prolonged recovery could force him to look for the most advantageous backup spot in the league. The next rung up from that would be surveying franchises looking for a bridge starter. But the top rung, which is what Cousins will be reaching for if his health permits, will be a franchise that sees him as an instant solution for a roster that’s ready to compete in 2024 and beyond.
Between now and February, Cousins and the teams that might court him next offseason are going to get a very good look at who that will be.