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How the Vikings solve their mess with a Kirk Cousins trade...kinda

Minnesota Vikings v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

In this series, I’m looking around the NFL at potential cap casualties for each team. Some carry more than others and deserve their own post entirely. That’s what is happening right now in regards to the Minnesota Vikings, the team with the least amount of cap space in the league.

Previously, on Cap Cuts:

Jacksonville Jaguars

Pittsburgh Steelers

When the Vikings signed Kirk Cousins to a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract in 2018, I didn’t bat eyes like most people. I mean, if Cousins had signed a “normal” deal, it probably would have been for something like four years and $120 million with roughly $84 million guaranteed. The only difference between the deal he signed and the one that he didn’t was that it does not have a flimsy fourth year attached in which the team would release him anyway if he underperformed.

Carson Wentz signed a four-year, $128 million extension with $108 million guaranteed in 2019, $66.5 million of it fully-guaranteed. The rest of that “guarantee” basically just depends on him being on the roster at the beginning of the 2020 and 2021 league years and there’s little chance he wouldn’t be, so Wentz will also earn over $80 million in the first three seasons.

All that Cousins did, unless he didn’t believe in himself, was leave money on the table. Okay then ... maybe he did know what the future would bring.

The problem for Minnesota now isn’t so much the $31 million cap hit of Cousins but the fact that they have 10 players making at least $10 million in 2020. That’s perhaps the most in the NFL (I don’t have that figure readily available but knowing that I’ve perused every team page, 10 seems like the most), especially for a team that was barely in the playoffs and not a legitimate Super Bowl threat. The Patriots have two such players set for 2020: Dont’a Hightower and Stephon Gilmore. The champion Chiefs have eight and will soon have less than that. The Niners have five and will also likely reduce that number.

Added up, the Vikings have $212.3 million in total liabilities for 2020, which isn’t good for a season with a $201 million salary cap. That puts Minnesota at $11.3 million over the cap and they can’t cut Cousins. Not for savings. Not only that, but the Vikings have free agents like Anthony Harris, who tied for the NFL lead in interceptions and did so off of an impressive list of quarterbacks, such as Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Matt Ryan. Twice.

Minnesota is talented — and they’re paying for it — so how will they proceed next in order to remain competitive for next season? Some changes are coming and they could hurt.

But moving Cousins might not be the one that hurts them the most.

Minnesota Vikings

Effective 2020 cap space: -$11.3 million

2020 contract commitments: 52

Biggest Savings: Trade Cousins, $29.5 million

Kirk Cousins, QB, $31 million cap hit, $29.5 million saved if traded

Remember it or not, Cousins was in the MVP conversation last season after starting out like this: 70% completions, 24 touchdowns, four interceptions, 8.4 Y/A, 112 passer rating in the first 13 games. In the final two games of the season, Cousins completed 62% for 329 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, 5.8 Y/A, and a rating of 75.7. He was okay in a playoff upset over the Saints, but could average only 5.9 yards per attempt in the divisional round loss to the 49ers, 27-10.

Remember it or not, the Vikings’ best postseason QB in the last three years is...Case Keenum. Cousins can have good stretches in the regular season but fades against good teams (Minnesota lost regular season games to the Packers, Bears, Chiefs, Seahawks, and then the Packers again) so there’s little hope that he’s ever going to win a Super Bowl short of an Eli Manning or Joe Flacco miracle run.

The Vikings can’t give Cousins anything more than they already have, so they need a better QB or they’ll simply go into next season with nothing better than 2-and-done playoff aspirations. That’s only if they can afford their current roster, which they can’t.

Odds of departure: Confusing to answer. Cousins is tied with Wilson as the third-highest paid QBs of 2020, meaning that an acquiring team is paying for an elite QB — which Cousins is not. But what teams have the cap space and the desire, believing they could get over the hump with a better quarterback?
The Colts. The Bucs, without Jameis Winston. The Raiders, without Derek Carr, but why? The Patriots, if Tom Brady leaves. If even two dominoes fall that leave Indianapolis with a quarterback and shores up an openings, Minnesota has no choice. They either cut Cousins and have no relief, but maybe a better QB, or they are stuck with him. It’s dependent on other things happening, but I think the Vikings number one priority should be finding a way away from Cousins. And that would have been true if the contract was “guaranteed” for three years or not.
Would he help the Chargers: Tom Telesco hasn’t given any indications that he’s willing to make trades, but if he does part with Philip Rivers and they don’t find another veteran ... maybe? One thing that might appeal to Telesco is that instead of giving up a draft pick, he’d probably acquire one. Adding Cousins could net a team an extra second round pick because they have so much leverage in taking him off of Minny’s hands. He’d be a good bridge to a QBOTF for one year but let there be no allusions as to his ceiling...he’s hit it already and it ain’t that high.

Riley Reiff, OT, $8.8 million saved if released

Minnesota signed the former Lions right tackle to a $58 million contract to be their left tackle in 2017 and he’s been fairly decent there. The biggest reason he’s mentioned is that Reiff is 31 and carries big savings, but how would they replace him without giving those savings to a different tackle?

Odds of departure: Fairly low, I imagine. As mentioned, he’s good and they don’t have someone waiting, unless they move Brian O’Neill over from the right side. They could draft someone but you aren’t likely to find a LTOTF to start as a rookie if you’re picking in the mid-20s. So much hinges on the Cousins situation.
Would he help the Chargers: Yes, he’d be an upgrade at right tackle and if they had to cut or replace Russell Okung, he could fill in there too.

Linval Joseph, DT, $10.5 million saved

One of the best in the NFL at what he does, which is stop the run, but being one of the best to do that isn’t as valuable as it might have been a few decades ago. Joseph is a throwback defensive tackle who turns 32 in October. He’s very good but he’s in a bad situation because of Minnesota’s spending habits to get into this predicament.

Odds of departure: He may be screwed. This one move gets the Vikings almost out of the red and he’s playing in the wrong era at an advanced age.
Would he help the Chargers: For sure. Though I think the run-stopping defensive tackle market could be a flooded one and that doesn’t make it a priority. I wouldn’t be surprised to see LA cut Brandon Mebane and add a name of note to replace him. Joseph? Could be good value.

Xavier Rhodes, CB, $8.1 million saved

Rhodes made the Pro Bowl for the third time in the last four years last season at age 29, but ... how? As an alternate, with uninformed players and coaches and fans getting a say, I suppose. Rhodes was maybe one of the worst starting corners in the league, recording six passes defensed and zero interceptions. Find me an outlet, a publication, a person who says Rhodes is good right now.

Odds of departure: High. Though corners Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander are free agents, keeping a bad player won’t fix their issues in the secondary. If anything, they need to use that money to keep Waynes or to find someone else.
Would he help Chargers: At a low price point, maybe a one-year deal, he could potentially slot next to Casey Hayward and be okay.

Everson Griffen, DE, $13.1 million saved

“But Everson Griffen is really good, ya chump!” Yeah and the Vikings are in trouble. They also have a 26-year-old end named Ifeadi Odenigbo who they really like, having recorded seven sacks as the backup to Griffen and Danielle Hunter. In the final game of the year, Odenigbo got 91% of the snaps, had six tackles, a sack, two QB hits, and a forced fumble. Griffen is also turning 33 this year. Minnesota had five Pro Bowl players on defense and at least two of them could get cut if Cousins isn’t dealt.

Griffen, you may remember, also took a break in 2018 to reportedly work on his mental health. He signed a revised deal in 2019 that may allow him to void the contract anyway.

Odds of departure: Again, dependent. I would put cutting Griffen below cutting Joseph and Rhodes, but it could happen; Minnesota is still in financial trouble even after cutting Joseph and Rhodes. Given that Hunter is an elite pass rusher and Odenigbo seems quite interesting, it may be a place where the Vikings can save money and hope to improve through the draft. However, Griffen was a key force in the wild card win over New Orleans.
Would he help the Chargers: Theoretically, but edge isn’t a priority.

Adam Thielen, WR, $4.6 million saved

We’ve got to at least address a potential surprise move. Thielen missed games for the first time in his career — 6 total — and he posted really bad numbers a couple of times: six yards on six catches and 57 snaps vs Chicago, 0 yards on four targets in 50 snaps vs Packers. He turns 30 in August.

Odds of departure: I don’t see it, but if the news came out in a month that the Vikings were trading or releasing him, it wouldn’t be as surprising to me as it would have been before looking at their whole cap situation. Remember when Thielen had eight straight 100-yard games to open 2018? In the 18 games since, he’s caught 69 of 105 targets for 866 yards. That’s okay! It’s not great, but it’s okay! It’s not great though!
Would he help the Chargers: The next QB would have a hell of a trio to work with.

Kyle Rudolph, TE, $3 million saved

If pennies remain this tight because of Cousins, then you have to look at the 30-year-old tight end with 22 yards per game in 2019. The savings on Rudolph aren’t massive, but worth addressing.

Odds of departure: Probably not, right? But they’ve put themselves in this position to wonder.
Would he help the Chargers: Without Hunter Henry, or even with if Rudolph is cheap, he could be beneficial.

Moderately bold: Linval Joseph, Xavier Rhodes, Shamar Stephen ($2.3 million saved)

Cap Space: $9.1 million

Worth a crack: Re-negotiate with Harrison Smith

I don’t know what this would save, but Smith is making $10.75 against the cap with $8.75 saved if traded or released. I would be shocked (though we’ve seen more shocking cuts) if the Vikings had to come to this, but maybe Smith could help them get where they need to be to keep Anthony Harris.

Try to: Trade Kirk Cousins

Is it worth it to use a second rounder to relieve yourself of $29.5 million? If you’re Minnesota and you’re about to lose some of your best players because of it, maybe yes. If you’re willing to ride it out until 2021, then maybe not. But I would want to franchise or keep Anthony Harris. I’d also want to try and keep Trae Waynes. And I would not want to lose Riley Reiff at this point, unless you’re very confident in O’Neill on the left side.

Might need to: Watch Everson Griffen leave

Cap Space: $22.2 million

If you franchise Harris: $9.5 million

If you just sign Harris with a $5 million first year cap hit: $17.2 million

One Cousins deal changes everything, but it won’t be easy and it won’t tell us who Minnesota’s quarterback in 2020 will even be. I mean, the only other QBs on the roster are Sean Mannion (bad, free agent) and Jake Browning. Washington let Cousins walk and then traded for/signed Alex Smith. What’s the Vikings plan? Tom Brady? Philip Rivers? Marcus Mariota?

Even trading Cousins, the Vikings will have to release a few starters. Maybe even a couple “Pro Bowl” ones.

Chargers Interest:

In a world where Telesco even does entertain a trade proposal, is it worth it to him to have a $29.5 million one-year stop gap if the Chargers also get an additional day two pick? Cousins wouldn’t necessarily help LA get to the Super Bowl, but if they think they have a Super Bowl roster, he could potentially Flacco his way into some moderate success, I guess.

Joseph and Reiff might be good starters for a team next season, Rhodes could be worth a one-year tryout. And should Minnesota now be unable to keep him because of their problems, Anthony Harris may soon be considered one of the best safeties in the league.