There was already a real chance that the Minnesota Vikings would move on from QB Kirk Cousins next season. New developments in both the NFC and AFC in recent weeks have now increased those odds.
On December 20, Brad Spielberger of Pro Football Focus (PFF) published a list of “realistic trade proposals” involving some of the game’s top signal callers, from the Green Bay Packers Aaron Rodgers to the Seattle Seahawks Russel Wilson to Cousins in Minnesota. Spielberger posited then that a deal between the Vikings and the Pittsburgh Steelers, swapping Cousins for significant draft compensation, made sense all around.
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Of course, in the NFL, a couple of weeks is like a lifetime in terms of all that can happen to change a team’s fortune or a roster’s makeup. Some plans that make sense fall apart with an injury here or an unexpected game result there. Then, other times, the internal logic of an idea grows stronger with unforeseen developments. The Cousins to Pittsburgh scenario falls clearly into the latter category.
What a Difference Two Weeks Makes
Two possibilities became reality over the last 18 days since Spielberger pitched the idea that Minnesota should clean house at the quarterback position and start over anew. The first was that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made official, more or less, his retirement from football.
Pittsburgh wasn’t going to shove Big Ben out the door even though, based on his inconsistent and degrading level of play, the 18-year veteran appeared to have one foot out of it already. Furthermore, it would have hardly been an original story had Roethlisberger changed his mind about letting go of his life’s work and professional identity as the end grew nearer. But the QB stuck to his guns and said, in so many words, “I’m out” after the season ends.
That means the Steelers, who have a roster good enough to still be competing for a playoff spot with one week left to play in the regular season, are in the market for a quarterback. Pittsburgh doesn’t have a viable option in-house and won’t be looking for a project with a team that’s already this good. If Cousins is available, the Steelers will be a player for him.
The second reality is that the Vikings failed to make the playoffs for the second straight season with Cousins under center, despite Pro-Bowl years from running back Dalvin Cook and wide receiver Justin Jefferson. While that isn’t all Cousins’ fault, the brunt of the blame falls on his shoulders and those belonging to head coach Mike Zimmer.
Zimmer is on his way out as a result, and it’s feasible Cousins could follow. The quarterback is owed $35 million in salary in 2022, along with a $10 million bonus. That’s a hefty price tag that also handcuffs maneuverability elsewhere on the roster in exchange for sub .500 results in the win/loss column — not exactly the deal of the century where the Vikings are concerned.
Minnesota could use draft compensation from a theoretical deal for Cousins to draft a QB, or they could put a considerable number of their eggs in the Kellen Mond basket, the team’s rookie signal caller drafted in 2021. Finding a placeholder quarterback, or slightly better, at value would allow for money spent to improve the roster elsewhere and equal potentially greater results on the field. Minnesota could also look to the free agent or trade markets to pursue established quarterbacks looking for a change, like the aforementioned Rodgers or Wilson.
The point is, Cousins is an above average NFL quarterback but he’s paid like one of the greats, despite repeatedly falling short of greatness in terms of results. And if that hard truth is not enough for the Vikings to pull the trigger, there is also the notion that with Zimmer gone, new leadership may want a fresh start with a new man under center.
PFF Trade Proposal of Cousins to Pittsburgh Makes More Sense Now Than Ever
Under Spielberger’s proposal, the Vikings would eat Cousins’ $10 million signing bonus, while the Steelers would pick up the final year of his contract and pay out the $35 million base salary. In return for the privilege of putting that money in Cousins’ bank account, Pittsburgh would send the Vikings their first round selection in the upcoming 2022 NFL Draft, along with shipping a second-round pick to Minnesota in 2023.
Spielberger laid out his thinking in the PFF piece from late December:
This may seem a bit crazy, given that Cousins is PFF’s fourth-highest-graded passer (86.1), but if Minnesota ownership elects to move on from head coach Mike Zimmer and start over, trading Cousins is the quickest means to turn things around in a hurry. A decision must be made this offseason one way or the other because Cousins is entering the final year of his contract, which carries a fully guaranteed $35 million salary. After receiving two franchise tags with the Washington Football Team, Cousins has effectively become untaggable for the remainder of his career.
No team wants to enter a season with their quarterback playing on the final year of his deal with no ability to ensure he sticks around if extension terms cannot be agreed to in the offseason. This provides Cousins with tremendous leverage, and Minnesota is therefore probably unwilling to let it play out this way. The team must either extend or trade him this offseason.
Cousins will start Sunday against the Chicago Bears in a game that means nothing for either team, while Roethlisberger will play out the string in Pittsburgh, which could extend his career at least one game with a win over the Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers would also need an Indianapolis Colts’ loss and a finish to the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders game that results in anything except a tie if Pittsburgh hopes to make the playoffs.
Come the offseason, however, things could move quickly in Minnesota — most likely starting with the firing of Zimmer, the hiring of his replacement and a decision on Cousins soon to follow.