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The Kirk Cousins Signing Swings Open the Vikings’ Super Bowl Window

Though not official yet, the former Washington passer is expected to ink a fully guaranteed offer with a team that was one game away from playing for the Lombardi Trophy

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Deal

The specifics of the deal have yet to be reported, but the pact is fully guaranteed for three years and around $86 million ($28-28.7 million annually) according to reports by ESPN’s Adam Schefter and NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. The agreement can’t become official until Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET.

“Should we bring in a third quarterback?” “I was thinking a fourth!”

Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer was asked at the NFL combine about Minnesota’s quarterback situation with Sam Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater, and Case Keenum all set to become free agents. Zimmer was blunt.

“Can Sam stay healthy? Is Teddy what he was? Is Case the guy he was last year or was two years ago? That’s really the $64,000 question with us.”

Try the $86 million question, and the answer is the organization chose to go with none of the above. The team agreed to make Cousins the highest-paid player in NFL history by annual salary on Tuesday. Now Cousins will be responsible for charting the Vikings a course to the Super Bowl.

The best way to build a Super Bowl contender is to get a franchise quarterback. The second-best way is to build an elite defense. The Vikings now have both. Minnesota has one of the best defensive cores in football, a group with a rare combination of All-Pro-caliber players hitting their prime with a deep understanding of their scheme, the most complex in the league. But as the Seahawks and Broncos are demonstrating, talented defensive cores have a thin margin for error and can decline quickly. Linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, defensive end Danielle Hunter, and receiver Stefon Diggs are all free agents next year. Minnesota wisely signed cornerback Xavier Rhodes, safety Harrison Smith, defensive end Everson Griffen, and wide receiver Adam Thielen to long-term deals, but without a franchise quarterback, a Super Bowl window built on that core is smaller and closes faster.

That reality loomed over Minnesota in the playoffs. The Vikings went 13-3 and earned the NFC’s no. 2 seed in 2017, anchored by the no. 2 defense and the no. 5 offense by DVOA. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur designed an aggressive scheme, and Case Keenum delivered, but in the playoffs, the wheels came off. Minnesota needed a miracle (a.k.a. a whiff from Saints safety Marcus Williams on the final play) in the divisional round to beat New Orleans before getting rocked by Philly in the NFC championship game, 38-7. If you remove Diggs’s Greg Jennings–on-a broken-leg-esque touchdown, the Vikings managed just 13 points in their final six quarters of the playoffs. Shurmur left to coach the Giants, and Zimmer acknowledged what everyone was thinking. Enter Cousins.

In his three years as the full-time starter in Washington, Cousins averaged a season line of 4,392 passing yards on a 67 percent completion rate and 7.8 yards per attempt with 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Washington went 24-23-1 in his 48 starts. Those are great numbers, but he had the luxury of working in a well-designed offense in Washington. Cousins is accurate and has an excellent understanding of NFL defenses, and while he occasionally throws some face-palm-inducing interceptions trying to play hero ball, he’s worlds better than anyone Minnesota has had under center since Brett Favre. Landing a top-12 quarterback to pair with the Vikings’ top-two defense is a worthy gamble to capture a Super Bowl. Even if it comes at the expense of cap flexibility down the road, it’s the best possible move Minnesota could make to improve its Super Bowl odds.

Bet on Yourself

Kirk Cousins and Washington couldn’t agree on a long-term deal and he played on the franchise tag twice. That strategy culminated in a multiyear, fully guaranteed contract, unprecedented for veteran players in modern NFL history. Unlike the NBA or MLB, where contracts are usually fully guaranteed, NFL contracts are a mirage—only the guaranteed figure is real at signing. Cousins’s deal could change the complexion of how quarterbacks earn a living. Cousins, a fourth-round draft pick, spent six years trying to convince Washington to believe in him. Apparently, Minnesota does.

As much as Cousins has raised the quarterback-value ceiling, steeper market corrections still loom on the horizon. Both Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan are up for new contracts soon, and each can reasonably set Cousins’s deal as the floor in their own negotiations. Jimmy Garoppolo held the title of highest-paid player in NFL history for less than a month, and Cousins may not hold onto the title for the rest of the offseason. But he could also gain it back sooner than you’d think: Cousins will be in line to hit free agency again in 2021, the first year after a new collective bargaining agreement, and could break his own record then. If he likes it now, he’ll love it then.