The Kirk Cousins Extension Keeps the Minnesota Vikings’ Super Bowl Window Open
The first two years of the Kirk Cousins experiment in Minnesota have been a rocky ride. They've had both their major ups and major downs, and it hasn't always been pretty.
But they're going to run it back at least a couple more times.
The Vikings have signed QB Kirk Cousins to a two-year extension, per his agent @MikeMcCartney7.
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) March 16, 2020
Cousins' contract was scheduled to expire after this year, meaning he should now be locked in for three more seasons. The Minnesota Vikings were pressed up against the salary cap prior to the extension with $16.7 million in projected cap space, according to Spotrac. Cousins was scheduled to count for $31 million against the cap, and it's possible this extension lowers that number for 2020.
That may seem a bit short-sighted, even with the salary cap likely to grow in the coming years thanks to the collective bargaining agreement. But for the Vikings, being short-sighted is the right move. It's all about extending their window to make another playoff run, and holding onto Cousins at least keeps them in the running.
Teetering on the Edge
The Vikings' season has ended in spectacular fashion in both of Cousins' first two years with the team. That shouldn't nudge us toward viewing them as being a poor team.
In both of Cousins' seasons, the Vikings have finished the year in the top 12 in nERD, numberFire's metric that tracks a team's strength relative to a league-average team. Their nERD was 2.3 points above average in 2018 and 4.73 last year, ranking them 12th and 8th, respectively.
If a team ranks eighth in nERD for an individual season, they're probably not going to win it all. For example, by nERD, the Vikings would have been 9.55-point underdogs to the Baltimore Ravens on a neutral field this year, so there's still a big gap between them and the top of the league. That's a concern if you're going to pay your quarterback like he's a superstar.
But it also puts the Vikings in a zone of relevancy that is key for projecting them forward.
Over the last 15 years, no team has won the Super Bowl while ranking outside the top-11 in nERD the previous season. If we go by that criteria, these are the 11 teams we'd expect to win it next year: LAR, CHI, NO, LAC, NE, BAL, KC, PIT, SEA, IND, HOU.
— JJ Zachariason (@LateRoundQB) February 7, 2019
That tweet is from 2019, and it included the Kansas City Chiefs, who were sixth in nERD during the 2018 season. They went on to win the Super Bowl, continuing that streak to 16 years.
The Vikings are absolutely not the Chiefs, and they weren't as high this year as the Chiefs were in 2018. Still, it's not unprecedented for a team to make the leap from where the Vikings are currently to the top of the league the following year.
Someone just asked to see the list of champions and their previous season nERD ranking. Here it is: pic.twitter.com/X5D6h8orCv
— JJ Zachariason (@LateRoundQB) February 7, 2019
There are lot of imperfections with this Vikings team, and it may be hard now to see a path to them hitting that high end. However, they are relevant, and that matters when it comes to the Cousins contract.
If your team has the potential to win a Super Bowl, you should do what you can to extend that window, even if it means potentially harming your team down the road. A lot of weird stuff can happen once you get to the postseason, and giving yourself a chance to exploit that randomness is a good thing. With Cousins still in town, the odds the Vikings make the playoffs stay elevated, and that's a good thing.
That's why you can rationalize the Vikings making this move. It does come with a hefty cost, though, and that's going to impact the way the Vikings address other needs this offseason.
The biggest issue with giving Cousins all of this money is that it impacts your ability to pay other players. We've already seen some ripple effects of that recently.
The #Vikings have terminated the contracts of DT Linval Joseph and CB Xavier Rhodes.https://t.co/VIg4PYgTK7
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) March 13, 2020
Both Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph had seen their play fall off during the past season, so the moves themselves are not massive losses for the Vikings' defense. It does, though, show that Cousins' contract has put the team in a cap crunch where they need to get creative in order to spend.
It also impacts their ability to re-sign someone like Everson Griffen, who opted out of his contract and is now set to hit free agency. The team has expressed optimism about being able to bring Griffen back, but losing Griffen would hurt the team's pass defense, which ranked sixth in numberFire's schedule-adjusted metrics this year.
Assuming they do work out a deal with Griffen, there won't be much left to spend on free agents to patch up other needs. The team has holes at cornerback, guard, and wide receiver, and although they have five draft picks in the first four rounds, counting on dice rolls to fill gaps at important positions is tough. Their position right now is far from being enviable, and Cousins' contract is a big contributor to those pains.
What This Means
Cousins was always going to be back in 2020, so this doesn't change the Vikings' outlook for the upcoming year in a negative sense. In fact, it may actually brighten things there if the new contract allows them additional cap space. It's down the road where things could get dicey.
Right now, the Vikings are 18/1 to win the Super Bowl at FanDuel Sportsbook and 9/1 to win the NFC. Given that they were in the "Super Bowl zone" for nERD last year, those numbers aren't terrible. It just might not be wise to bet them now.
As teams sign high-profile free agents, their Super Bowl odds are going to shift. It's clear the Vikings aren't going to be in the running for that. In other words, it seems unlikely that the Vikings' number will shorten at any point in the near future. In fact, it may even lengthen to account for the improvement of other teams.
Because of this, even if we do bump the Vikings slightly up in our minds, we probably shouldn't pull the trigger on betting them to win Super Bowl XV right now. It's possible we'll get them at a better number after the draft and free agency, and it allows us to keep that bankroll available to us a bit longer. That's the luxury of knowing with a decent degree of certainty that a number isn't going to shorten in the near future.
The Vikings still have holes to fill, and they're likely going to pay for this Cousins deal at some point in the future. But for 2020, it keeps their window open, and they showed last year they are relevant enough to potentially exploit some variance. That should keep them in our minds from a betting perspective, even if we aren't necessarily pulling the trigger right now.