The Minnesota Vikings‘ defensive rebuild ironically begins with Kirk Cousins, who an insider does not expect to take a pay cut despite a year where he blossomed as a team leader.
Minnesota is currently $24.5 million over the projected salary cap and must reinforce their defense that finished 28th in scoring and 31st in yards last season. Many cap-clearing moves can be made before free agency begins in March, but the decision on Cousins’ future is the first domino that needs to fall before Minnesota can move forward with its offseason rehaul.
Cousins carries the sixth-highest cap hit among quarterbacks with a guaranteed $36.3 million on the books in the final year of his contract.
An extension could help create cap space by pushing his earnings down the road. However, for those future years beyond 2023, KSTP’s Darren Wolfson is bearish Cousins, who has expressed his desire to retire as a Viking, will give Minnesota any discount at the negotiating table.
“What proof is there that Kirk would take a pay cut? There’s none,” Wolfson said on a January 24 episode of the SKOR North podcast, adding that Cousins’ camp expects an extension to happen this offseason. “I’m not saying he’s looking for significantly more, but there’s no proof he’s willing to go backward. I would fully expect him to ask for more.
“Until I see otherwise, he’s going to seek more money.”
The Vikings have their work cut out for them this offseason with five starters approaching free agency and numerous others on the chopping block. An extension may give Minnesota short-term cap relief to again go all-in.
However, a veteran quarterback contract will still weigh heavily on the roster construction for the future, keeping the Vikings in the same financial they’ve found themselves in the past three seasons.
Vikings Defense Underperformed Its Price Tag This Season
While Cousins’ contract has been a bane to rebuilding a defense that has needed an overhaul for years, the defense also didn’t play up to its price tag in 2022.
According to Spotrac, the Vikings spent $69.5 million on their defense, ranking 12th in the league, and finished 31st in yards per game and 30th in points per game (including the postseason). The Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers, both playing in the NFC Championship game on Sunday, are the next two teams ahead of Minnesota in spending by less than $5 million.
However, their defenses are among the two most threatening units in the league — largely due to drafting well and retaining veteran talent in their prime.
Meanwhile, the Vikings defense atrophied in the Cousins era with veteran talent from the 2017 NFC Championship run aging out and few draft picks since then developing into quality starting talent.
The only fix for drafting poorly is to sign valuable free agents, however, strapped by cap constraints, Minnesota has had to go with budget free-agent signings in recent years who are past their prime.
Justin Jefferson’s Mega Deal With Usher New Era at QB
The Vikings are expected to make Justin Jefferson the highest-paid wide receiver in league history this offseason, which could signal the end of Cousins making top dollar in Minnesota.
Jefferson’s extension won’t be effective until the 2026 season, but by then, the Vikings should have Cousins’ succession plan in place.
That will likely mean drafting a rookie quarterback who can develop behind Cousins for a season.