EAGAN, Minn. – Kwesi Adofo-Mensah will barely be settled into his new role as the general manager of the Minnesota Vikings before he begins navigating a series of challenges that will define the direction of this franchise.
First up is leading the search for the next head coach, a process that will intensify in the coming days as the Vikings schedule second interviews with candidates. Adofo-Mensah has been “deeply involved” in the process so far, according to co-owner Mark Wilf, and Adofo-Mensah said he knows the type of candidate the team is looking for.
Next will be the personnel moves, and none is more important than deciding what happens with quarterback Kirk Cousins.
The verdict on Cousins will be arrived at with the help of the new head coach, but Adofo-Mensah has a lot of work to do with a tricky salary cap situation and other personnel decisions that will change the outlook of this roster.
Minnesota is an estimated $13-$14 million over the salary cap and needs to make room ahead of the start of the new league year in March to be compliant and determine how active the team can be in free agency.
Adofo-Mensah will make a statement either way with the players he keeps or moves off the roster. Executive vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski will help the first-time GM pull off maneuvers to keep the Vikings financially viable, even if it means making roster decisions that drastically impact the team in the short term.
The Cousins conundrum
The Vikings are at a crossroads with their quarterback. Cousins has one year remaining on the two-year, $66 million extension he signed in March 2020 that comes with a $45 million cap hit. That figure accounts for 21.24% of the Vikings’ total salary cap in 2022 and puts considerable restraints on what the team can do elsewhere with the roster.
At the conclusion of the 2021 season, Cousins discussed his desire to stay in Minnesota when asked about the possibility of having to re-do his contract to make that happen.
“I know that I want to be a Viking, and that’s kind of the foundation of it all,” Cousins said on Jan. 9. “From there, it’s pretty easy to make those conversations happen when you want to be a Minnesota Viking.”
It’s too early to tell whether that means Cousins will be willing to restructure his contract to give the Vikings a more manageable cap number to work with. In the meantime, Adofo-Mensah needs to make the quarterback decision his No. 1 priority and pore over three options.
There could be a meaningful trade market for a quarterback who finished fourth in passer rating (103.1), ninth in touchdowns thrown (33), tied for fourth in game-winning drives (4) and ninth in touchdown-to-interception ratio (33-7). Teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints and Denver Broncos are all in need of a quarterback in 2022, and then there are the teams who still don’t know what they’re doing at the position, like the Green Bay Packers or Las Vegas Raiders. If the Vikings decide to pursue the trade route, Adofo-Mensah would need to use the time ahead of the March 1 combine to find a partner. Maybe he even places a call to his former team in Cleveland to see if the Browns, who have their own decision to make on Baker Mayfield, would be interested in reuniting Cousins with his former offensive coordinator, Kevin Stefanski.
The parameters of a trade could be costly. Cousins’ $35 million base salary for 2022 is already fully guaranteed. Moving him to another team would likely require the Vikings to absorb some of that base salary guarantee, which, if they were able to get the right amount of draft capital back in exchange for the quarterback, could be looked at as Minnesota paying double-digit millions for high draft picks. The most painless way to make this happen would be to convert a portion of Cousins’ base salary (maybe in the ballpark of $10-$15 million) to a signing bonus. That way the acquiring team would take on a much more manageable figure like what the Indianapolis Colts did with the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for Carson Wentz, and the Detroit Lions-Los Angeles Rams quarterback swap involving Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff.
Even if the Vikings are somehow able to get another team to take on all of Cousins’ 2022 salary, they’d still be left with over $10 million in dead money.
Moving the 33-year-old quarterback would leave the Vikings in a bind at the position in 2022 unless they are able to land a cheaper starting-caliber veteran QB (there aren’t many who will be unrestricted free agents) or trade for one, who may not be sold on getting an extension right away.
It would nearly assure the team would use its first-round pick at No. 12 on a quarterback and not roll the dice with 2021 third-rounder Kellen Mond, but would Liberty’s Malik Willis or Pitt’s Kenny Pickett assure Minnesota it can field an offense capable of being competitive right away? It would be a dramatic move that may not mean the Vikings are contenders in the short term, but it could allow the team to re-do its strategy for the position in the next two to three seasons.
The Vikings extended Cousins in 2020 and created $10 million in cap relief by lowering his cap hit by 32%. If they followed the same method, it would save Minnesota $14.4 million, which barely gets the team into the black.
Ever since his back-to-back seasons playing on the franchise tag in Washington, Cousins has taken short-term deals to allow himself to be eligible for free agency every two to three years. Historically, he hasn’t taken deals that would fall into the team-friendly category and would almost certainly want to capitalize on his leverage to earn a base salary above the $33 million he makes on average on his current deal as the league’s eighth-highest paid QB.
If Cousins was willing to take a lesser base salary, potentially in the $28-$30 million per year range, it would likely need to be another fully guaranteed deal on a two-year basis -- based on his previous contract history -- to allow him to re-up when he’s 35.
An extension does not happen unless the new regime feels it can be competitive with a quarterback who has one playoff win in his career. It feels highly unlikely that Cousins would take anything less than another two-year extension, based on his previous negotiations. Adofo-Mensah has to weigh whether keeping Cousins in the fold via an extension is putting a Band-Aid on an issue the team will inevitably have to deal with again in a few years, or if it is truly the right move for the health of the franchise.
Let him play out the final year of his deal
If the Vikings let Cousins play out the final year of his deal, they’ll have to get their cap healthy in other ways.
That could very well mean the team tries to trade players like Harrison Smith ($13.5 million cap hit) and/or Adam Thielen ($16.9 million cap hit) ahead of the draft while they can still get the best value for these expensive veterans.
The second-most expensive player behind Cousins is defensive end Danielle Hunter, who has played in seven games over the last two seasons due to neck and pectoral injuries. Hunter has a $26.12 million cap hit in 2022 that comes with an $18 million roster bonus due on the fifth day of the new league year. He’ll only be 28 next season and has been the catalyst of the Vikings’ pass rush when healthy (he last played on Oct. 31, but he led the team in sacks with 6 until the final week when D.J. Wonnum surpassed him with 8), but do his injuries make Minnesota want to move on and not pay him in the range of the top pass rushers in the NFL? Would Hunter consider a more realistic salary around what he makes now – $14.4 million a year? Could they pick up his $18 million roster bonus and then trade him?
Additionally, does Adofo-Mensah want Dalvin Cook on the books with a $12 million cap hit? Cutting the running back with a post-June 1 designation -- which allows the team to spread the remaining cap space over two years -- would save Minnesota $9 million, but it would take away a staple of the offense. Defensive tackles Michael Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson could also become cap casualties.
Adofo-Mensah won’t have time to ease into his new job as big decisions require immediate attention, beginning with a new head coach.