MINNEAPOLIS -- Early in the offseason, the Minnesota Vikings had the most stable quarterback situation in the NFC North. Aaron Rodgers called his future with the Green Bay Packers a "beautiful mystery." The Chicago Bears were considering life after Mitchell Trubisky. And the Detroit Lions shipped Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams for Jared Goff.
In Minnesota, there was little doubt Kirk Cousins, coming off a career-high 35 touchdown passes, was going to be the starter in 2021. But as the start of free agency nears, not even Cousins, who is under contract for two more seasons, has been immune to trade speculation.
Why is that? For starters, 15 to 18 quarterbacks could be changing teams this offseason. As the QB carousel spins and trade scenarios are considered, more names get pulled into the mix. Cousins, 32, is a massive financial obligation for the Vikings after he signed a two-year, $66 million extension last March. If Minnesota wants out of that contract to improve other areas of the roster, now would be the time to consider moving on.
There are plenty of reasons to keep Cousins, but there's a lot on the line for a team coming off a 7-9 season.
Here's a look at three scenarios this offseason for the Vikings' quarterback situation.
Why the Vikings will keep Cousins
Minnesota likely wouldn't promote 34-year-old Klint Kubiak, a first-time offensive coordinator and playcaller, and immediately change quarterbacks. Kubiak worked with Cousins as the Vikings quarterbacks coach from 2019 to 2020. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer prioritized offensive continuity when making the hire and wants this unit to be as explosive as it was last season (fourth in yards, 11th in scoring).
Cousins rebounded from a disastrous start and performed at a top-10 level at times in this scheme with a strong supporting cast. If the Vikings believe they can fix the defense through free agency and the draft, keeping Cousins and the offense intact makes sense.
There's also the financial part. Cousins' 2021 base salary of $21 million is fully guaranteed. His base salary for 2022, a whopping $35 million, becomes guaranteed a year ahead of time on March 19. Finding a trade partner willing to take on that contract might be difficult.
The rumored compensation the Philadelphia Eagles sought for Carson Wentz was upward of two first-round picks. In reality, they traded him to the Indianapolis Colts for a third-rounder this season and a conditional second-round pick in 2022. Wentz's play is inferior to Cousins', so it's possible that the Vikings could ask for more, but expecting to get a first-round pick and then some doesn't seem realistic.
Vikings GM Rick Spielman and Zimmer, who begin their three-year extensions, are under pressure to field a winning team this season. Taking a step back at quarterback could lead to another losing record and change in leadership. If the Vikings can upgrade around Cousins, their path to the postseason could be within reach.
The case for a trade
Very few players in the NFL are immune from being traded. If the price is right, teams will typically entertain offers. So while the Houston Texans are being publicly stubborn about trading quarterback Deshaun Watson, don't be surprised if they ship him to the New York Jets for a king's ransom.
We saw what the market was for Wentz. The cost of Stafford (Jared Goff, two first-rounders and a third-round pick) made sense for the Rams, who believe they are close to competing for a Super Bowl. A Vikings haul for Cousins depends on who's calling. Enter coach Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers, who will undoubtedly dominate the preseason contender conversation after an injury-ravaged 2020 -- especially if they make an upgrade at quarterback.
Shanahan reportedly thought the 49ers would make a run at Cousins in free agency in 2018. Having worked together in Washington from 2012-13, the pair have a relationship and Cousins knows the offense. Cousins and Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo are similar, but Cousins has the edge in durability.
No matter where Cousins would land, the Vikings would have to account for the remaining prorated portion of his signing bonus, which carries $20 million in dead money. That's not nearly as high as the $33.8 million the Eagles are paying for Wentz to move on, but it's a considerable sum ownership needs to sign off on.
If the Vikings got Garoppolo in return for Cousins, a high pick could be involved as well. San Francisco's 12th overall selection might be a reach, but if Minnesota could get the Niners' second-round pick at No. 44 it could turn into an immediate contributor.
Drafting a quarterback
Whether Cousins is with the Vikings in 2021 or not, Minnesota needs to come up with its succession plan.
Cousins' $31 million cap hit in 2021 is manageable. That number rises to $45 million in 2022 and could be brought down through a restructure of his contract. That seems unlikely considering Cousins has not taken a team-friendly deal, but they could extend him. That could open up salary cap space like it did last offseason when Cousins' extension freed up $10 million.
But an extension isn't the right play if Minnesota eventually wants to move on from Cousins so they may be forced to live with the cap charge in 2022.
The Vikings have three picks in the top 100 (Nos. 14, 78 and 92) and could use one of them to try to find a long-term option at quarterback.
NFL draft analyst Todd McShay had four quarterbacks go off the board with the first four picks in his first mock draft. If that happens in April, the Vikings may not be in a position to pick a quarterback at No. 14. If Cousins is on the roster, the Vikings might use that first-round pick on a defensive lineman. But if Ohio State's Justin Fields slips or Alabama's Mac Jones is available, finding an understudy to Cousins is a smart play.
Hitting on a first-round QB could help the Vikings financially for years. If he's not the guy when it's time to move on from Cousins then he can be an asset as a trade chip.
If they pass on a quarterback in the first round then they should still consider a move on Day 2. Jamie Newman, who played at Wake Forest in 2019 before transferring to Georgia and opting out, could be a target in the third or fourth round, as could Florida's Kyle Trask.
No matter what happens with Cousins, the Vikings need to start building for the future and using a high draft pick on a quarterback should be a priority.