“I would like to retire as a Viking,” Cousins said, “and so I would like to play my way into that, if you will. I know I’ve got to earn the right to do that. If I could draw it up, it would be to play well enough that you never have to play or wear another jersey anywhere else.”
The Vikings made no such pronouncement, but after committing $70 million in full guarantees over the next two years, they have signaled a plan to leave him in place at least through the 2023 season. Cousins will turn 35 in August 2023, prompting a few long-range questions that could affect the team’s approach to next week’s draft (April 28-30, ESPN).
Cousins has been exceptionally durable in his career, but can the Vikings expect that to continue into his late 30s? What is the responsible team-building approach in the meantime? When is the right time to begin a thorough and orderly process for a quarterback transition? If they don’t give serious consideration to one of the top quarterbacks in 2022, would it make sense to draft a developmental player at the position? Would a quarterback drafted on Day 2 or 3 realistically figure into future planning? Or does the active 2022 trade market for veteran starters portend a new era of quarterback availability moving forward?
None of these questions are new, but the people making the decisions for the Vikings are. Coach Kevin O’Connell said this week that he and general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah have talked about the direction of the quarterback position “a lot” over the past three months. They have made clear their short-term commitment to Cousins, but as for the draft, O’Connell said: “I don’t think anything’s off the table.”
The Vikings hold the No. 12 overall position, the same spot where the Houston Texans selected Deshaun Watson in 2017. But the Texans did not have an established starter at the time, and as the Green Bay Packers have learned – most recently when they upset Aaron Rodgers by drafting Jordan Love in the first round in 2020 – proactive draft strategy can levy some unintended consequences in the locker room.
That’s not always the case, of course. Two picks before the Texans selected Watson, the Kansas City Chiefs drafted quarterback Patrick Mahomes at No. 10 at a time when Pro Bowl starter Alex Smith was 33.
NFL teams don’t seem excited about the top of the 2022 class of quarterbacks — which includes Liberty’s Malik Willis, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett and Ole Miss’ Matt Corral — but they initially weren’t enamored with the 2017 class, either. (Pass-rusher Myles Garrett went No. 1 overall to the Cleveland Browns.) The Chiefs were executing an approach similar to what Adofo-Mensah has articulated in recent interviews, one he has described as a “competitive rebuild.” Adofo-Mensah has pushed back on the idea that a team is either building for the future or trying to win now, saying “we are trying to navigate both worlds.”
Addressing the 2024 quarterback position in 2022 could fit that vision, even as Adofo-Mensah has made clear that he wants to see “how high we can take this thing” with Cousins.
“[O’Connell] has a great term that he uses: ‘We do things on our terms,'” Adofo-Mensah said. “We do things on our terms on the field, and I also think that applies to team building.”
One question the Vikings won’t be able to address during the draft, or anytime soon, is whether they have Cousins’ eventual successor already on their roster. Former general manager Rick Spielman drafted Kellen Mond with the second pick of the third round in 2021 (No. 66 overall), but Mond did not make much of an impression during his rookie season. He missed 10 days of training camp after testing positive for COVID-19, part of why the Vikings added veteran Sean Mannion as the No. 2 quarterback just before the start of the season. Former coach Mike Zimmer made clear that he had no interest in seeing Mond on the field at the end of a lost season; Mond took three snaps in the season finale, but only after Cousins and Mannion were sidelined.
O’Connell studied Mond while preparing for the draft last year, in his role as the Los Angeles Rams‘ offensive coordinator, but said he won’t render a judgment until they start working together on the field.
“I always thought he was really successful in college [at Texas A&M],” O’Connell said. “[He was] successful in the pocket, creating off schedule. He’s got some real athleticism. And I think he’s a really accurate passer.
“Now, what will that look like in our offense? That’s really up to Kellen and the rest of our guys to make it go. I’m excited to get on the grass with him. … He’s been great in the meeting rooms early on. You feel some leadership from him, feel some early ownership of what we’re really putting on those guys. Now, it’s can you take it from the classroom to the practice field and go from there?”
Long-term starting quarterbacks overwhelmingly come from the first round of the draft — 28 of the projected 32 starting quarterbacks for the 2022 season were first-rounders — but the Cousins contract has given the Vikings some time to plot their next step. Adofo-Mensah said he is “not scared of uncertainty,” but the need to address a post-Cousins world is coming sooner than you might expect.