Now the Great Quarterback Watch begins. “Purple Nation” waits in anticipation the next few months to learn how the Vikings intend to solve their quarterback dilemma and who will lead the offense next season.
Fairly or not, the result may define the general manager era of Kwesi Adofo-Mensah. Why fairly? Because it may not be known for a while if the Wilf ownership group dictates a strategy that the franchise’s inexperienced GM disagrees with but is forced to carry out.
The Wilfs have declined past purges of the roster and the resulting long-term strategy to rebuild the club. Their “competitive rebuild” approach of recent years dictates roster patching with a minimum goal of qualifying for the playoffs.
The Wilfs want badly to win the Super Bowl. Zygi Wilf, often seen as ownership’s leader, is a serious football fan who is pained by Vikings losses. The Wilf family has stepped up with a willingness to provide the resources needed for a successful franchise including the state-of-the-art practice facility in Eagan and downtown’s U.S. Bank Stadium.
The guess here is ownership will have to be talked out of re-signing free agent Kirk Cousins if Adofo-Mensah wants to go in a new direction. If Cousins recovers by next fall from his right Achilles tendon tear last October, the offense could be among the best in the NFL. The Wilfs may take that position and argue the defense can be patched up through the NFL Draft and free agency.
The result? A likely playoff team emerging from a competitive NFC North Division but not an elite group.
Cousins is all but certain to favor staying in Minnesota. The 35-year-old likes Kevin O’Connell personally and likes the head coach’s offensive system. That system is not an easy one to master but can produce high scoring results. Cousins has about two years invested in the system, and it makes more sense to enjoy the rewards of familiarity rather than the challenge of starting over.
And how could Cousins not want to stay here and enjoy the company of pass receivers Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison, and T.J. Hockenson? Jefferson, a superstar, has 11 career games with at least 150 yards in his first four seasons and that’s an NFL record. As a rookie this fall Addison emerged as a talented big play target and complement to Jefferson at wide receiver. Although Hockenson is a tight end, he is also a deep and intermediate threat.
Signing Cousins will be expensive but it’s safe wagering money to think he will demand less money from the Vikings than a rival organization chasing him. Cousins might be willing to accept compensation of $30 to $40 million on a two-year deal. The length of the contract could be a challenge for both Cousins and any front office that pursues him.
But that’s not to minimize the importance and amount of money the Vikings must be accountable for to their owners and NFL salary cap. Adofo-Mensah will have payroll challenges including with Jefferson who is in line for a deal that annually will rival Cousins. The Vikings have a long list of free agents including starters and headed by sack artist and defensive end Danielle Hunter who will be looking for a per yearly deal of perhaps $20 million.
Because of their 7-10 season, the Vikings will draft at No. 11 in the first round of April’s NFL Draft. They could decide to say no thanks to Cousins and draft a quarterback with the intent of starting the rookie next fall. That says rebuild and a focus on the playoffs in a couple of years.
At No. 11 the Vikings might put a trade package together and jump up even further in the draft. That might ensure the Vikes can select one of the top quarterbacks in the draft and may ultimately be their strategy.
There are six quarterbacks who could go in the first round: Caleb Williams, USC; Drake Maye, North Carolina; Jayden Daniels, LSU; Michael Penix Jr., Washington; Bo Nix, Oregon; and J.J. McCarthy, Michigan. At least a couple of them will likely still be available at No. 11.
However, the catch is it looks like there’s a gap in desirability right now between the first four and the last two quarterbacks. Nix, who turns 24 next month, may not appeal to the Vikings who could prefer McCarthy if positioned to choose between the two and failing to move up in the draft order. McCarthy is as athletic or more so than his prolific rivals, has played in a more conservative offense and is perhaps more intriguing because at 20 years old he is the youngest of them.
Williams, Maye, Daniels and Penix could be year-one starters, with the outlook more uncertain for Nix. Don’t wager anything other than yesterday’s garbage that a young McCarthy will be ready to lead an NFL team next fall.
If the Vikings tell Cousins the plan is to draft McCarthy and school the former Wolverine for a couple of years, then Kirk would almost for sure take that deal if the other contract terms were agreeable. Then the Wilfs remain in their comfort zone of “competitive rebuild.”
How competitive will the team be if there is a Cousins return? Much of that will be answered by if Hunter returns, a quality edge rusher is added or developed to complement him, and the GM finds some cornerbacks who can consistently tackle and not get lost in coverage. And, oh yes, the miracle worker defensive coordinator, Brian Flores, returns rather than accepts another NFL job, possibly as a head coach.
Lots of “Purple” drama is coming in the offseason.