Zulgad: Vikings new brass was hired to find franchise QB, not stick with Kirk Cousins
There are a multitude of reasons why Rick Spielman no longer sits in the general manager’s chair at TCO Performance Center. A primary one was his inability to solve the Vikings’ quarterback conundrum during his run as the man in charge.
Spielman was sharing power over personnel decisions with coach Leslie Frazier in 2011 when he made Christian Ponder the 12th-overall pick in the draft. Ponder spent four seasons in Minnesota and ranks among the Vikings’ biggest draft busts. Spielman’s next big swing came in 2014 when he selected Teddy Bridgewater with the 32nd pick in the opening round. The hope of Bridgewater turning into a franchise QB ended with a gruesome, non-contact leg injury just before the 2016 season.
That resulted in trading a first-round pick for Sam Bradford, whose career was derailed by injury in 2017; the decision to go with Case Keenum, a huge one-season success; and finally the signing of Kirk Cousins to a fully guaranteed free-agent contract in 2018. (There’s no reason to pile on by mentioning Josh Freeman’s disastrous one-game stint in 2013.)
When Spielman was shown the door, along with coach Mike Zimmer, after the 2021 season, the investment in Cousins had led to only one playoff appearance in four seasons and back-to-back losing years.
The amazing thing is that in Cousins’ five years with the Vikings, there’s a case to be made that he’s among the top five among quarterbacks in franchise history. Fran Tarkenton is atop that list and then the debate begins with names (in no particular order) such as Daunte Culpepper, Randall Cunningham, Brett Favre, Tommy Kramer, Warren Moon and Cousins.
That means a franchise that began play in 1961 has had one franchise quarterback and he retired 45 years ago. Not surprisingly, this has created nervousness among some about the decision of new general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O’Connell to begin exploring a future without Cousins.
If you haven’t been paying attention this offseason, the Vikings have done everything but write Cousins a Dear John letter to announce their intention of a breakup after the 2023 season. The latest indication of this came when the Star Tribune’s Andrew Krammer reported Cousins had asked for less than what the Giants gave Daniel Jones but that conversation went nowhere.
As much confidence as O’Connell showed in Cousins throughout last season, here’s the truth of the matter: Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell weren’t hired to stick with Cousins long term. He turns 35 in August and even with a recent contract restructure will count $28.5 million against the salary cap in 2023.
O’Connell, in particular, was hired to find Cousins’ replacement and solve this longtime issue at quarterback. O’Connell played the position at San Diego State and was drafted in the third round by the New England Patriots in 2008. While he only appeared in two career games and threw six passes, his work with quarterbacks as an assistant impressed the Vikings enough to put their trust in him. It’s clear O’Connell knows what he’s doing and what he wants.
He was able to lead the Vikings to a 13-win season in his first year as a coach and oversaw a Cousins-led offense that had an NFL-record tying eight four-quarter comebacks. What the Vikings would like to see is O’Connell build off that success with a young quarterback, preferably a first-round pick, who will spend his first five seasons in Minnesota playing on a rookie contract and be as successful, if not more so, than Cousins.
NFC North titles shouldn’t be the goal. Long playoff runs and Super Bowl appearance should.
There is a necessity on the financial side considering wide receiver Justin Jefferson figures to get a huge contract this offseason that will kick in in 2025. Left tackle Christian Darrisaw, a first-round pick the year after Jefferson, will be eligible for a big extension next offseason. The easiest way to retain key players, and build a competitive roster, starts with having a quarterback on a rookie contract.
When you are normally as competitive as the Vikings have been throughout their existence, being in a position to draft a top quarterback prospect isn’t easy. But that’s why Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell are reportedly kicking the tires on different options and why the name of Kentucky’s Will Levis has been tied to the Vikings more than once.
It’s in the Vikings best interest to do as much due diligence as possible when it comes to life without Cousins. Owners Zygi and Mark Wilf trust Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell to do what their predecessors couldn’t and finally deliver a long-term franchise QB.
The pressure to do so will be immense and likely determine how long both are in their current positions. There is plenty of risk, but the potential reward could finally land a Lombardi in the trophy case.
Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Purple Daily Podcast and Mackey & Judd podcast at www.skornorth.com