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Kirk Cousins’ extension was the Vikings’ best option for both now and the future

Yes, Cousins was expensive. But that’s just the going rate for above-average quarterback play.

NFL: JAN 11 NFC Divisional Playoff - Vikings at 49ers Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Kirk Cousins and the Vikings aren’t parting ways after 2020. Rather than play out the final season of his three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million contract, the two sides have agreed to an extension that will add at least two more years to Cousins’ tenure in the Twin Cities. The cost is $66 million — $61 million of which is guaranteed.

The move bumps Cousins back into the top tier of NFL quarterbacks in terms of paychecks. His $33 million annual average salary, for now, ranks fifth-highest in the league. It sets him up for another trip to the well in 2023, when he’ll be 34 years old and primed to cash in once more.

This is all great news for the veteran quarterback, who will have made nearly $200 million in his NFL career by the end of 2022 despite being, well, Kirk Cousins. Where does it leave the Vikings?

It turns out, Minnesota did about as well as it could have given the circumstance.

The Vikings got their best option by extending Cousins

First things first: the Cousins extension locked in an above-average starting quarterback at what will prove to be market price. If the salary cap explodes in 2021 and 2022 after the passage of the new CBA, it could be a relative underpay for Minnesota.

It also allowed the Vikings to clear more than $10 million from their cap sheet in advance of the 2020 free agent period. That was much-needed relief for a team that came into the offseason with a stunning negative-$12 million in salary cap space before releasing veterans like Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph. The club poured some of those savings into safety Anthony Harris’ franchise tag, which came less than an hour after reports of Cousins’ extension broke.

While that may create some short-term benefits across the roster, let’s focus on what Cousins brought to the Minnesota offense instead. Last year was the backdrop to the most efficient season of his career. He ranked among the league’s top 10 quarterbacks in touchdowns, passer rating, yards per attempt, touchdown rate, interception rate, and completion rate.

That all came after a lackluster start that had mired the Vikings at 2-2 and had star receiver Stefon Diggs grumbling on social media. Here’s how he turned things around after September:

Kirk Cousins’ start to 2019 vs. his finish

Kirk Cousins Record Cmp% Yds/gm Y/A AY/A TD% Int% Rate Sacks/gm Fmb FL
Kirk Cousins Record Cmp% Yds/gm Y/A AY/A TD% Int% Rate Sacks/gm Fmb FL
Weeks 1-4 2-2 64.7% 183.8 7.42 7.12 3.0% 2.0% 88.6 2 6 2
Weeks 5-17 8-3 70.4% 260.7 8.31 9.12 6.7% 1.2% 112.8 1.8 4 1

After Week 4, Cousins went from a league-average starting QB to one of the game’s best. His adjusted yards per pass — which factors in touchdowns and interceptions — rose by two full yards. His touchdown rate more than doubled. His INT rate fell by 40 percent. He got hit in the pocket nearly as often and managed to fumble less.

This was a good quarterback! In those 11 games — he sat out a meaningless Week 17 loss to the Bears — he had a higher passer rating than any of the four QBs slated to make a higher average salary in 2020 and beyond. More importantly, he shook off the red zone issues that had plagued him in Washington. Here’s what the change of venue has done to his passing game near the goal line:

Kirk Cousins in the red zone, 2015-17 vs. 2018-19

Kirk Cousins Cmp% Yds Y/A TD Int Rate Sk Rush Yds Y/A TD
Kirk Cousins Cmp% Yds Y/A TD Int Rate Sk Rush Yds Y/A TD
2015-17 54.8 839 3.8 52 5 93.7 8 23 81 3.52 13
2018-19 63 466 3.9 36 1 107 11 8 31 3.88 2

Cousins’ patience in the red zone — taking more sacks, pulling the ball down and running less — bleeds through those heightened passing stats. He threw five backbreaking interceptions near the goal line or in the end zone in his three seasons as Washington’s full-time starter. He’s thrown only one across two years with the Vikings.

That hasn’t stemmed his reputation as a good, but not great quarterback. The former fourth-round pick has always been more of the NFL’s goofy dad character (see: “you Vike that or his grilling habits for more) than an upper-crust QB.

Still, he answered a major question about his playoff seaworthiness in January to bolster his reputation as a winner. His clutch throws were instrumental in an upset road win against the Saints in the Wild Card Round, even if his overall numbers weren’t great. When the Vikings needed him to step up in overtime in a hostile environment, he made the decisions needed to gut out a win.

That momentum didn’t carry over into the Divisional Round, where the 49ers battered him (six sacks) en route to a blowout win. Still, it was an encouraging sign of progress from a quarterback who’d never won a playoff game in his seven seasons prior. Will that experience lead to more growth? It’s tough to say — especially when you’re dealing with a 31-year-old who’ll face the upcoming season without the man who helped push him to new heights.

How will Cousins fare without offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski?

Cousins overcame his slow start and put together the finest season of his career under a high-impact gameplan from then-OC Stefanski. This meant cutting back on intermediate routes and plying defenses with a stocked pantry of short passes and screens, then dialing up big completions downfield behind burner Stefon Diggs and, when healthy, All-Pro Adam Thielen.

With defenses creeping toward the line of scrimmage thanks to those short throws and the ground-game power of Dalvin Cook, Cousins saw his deep-ball catch rate rise to more than 42 percent — enough to rate him as SIS’s fifth-most impactful starting quarterback when it came to throws of 20+ yards.

While he’ll have Cook back to keep opponents from loading up their secondaries and guys like Thielen, tight end Kyle Rudolph, and, theoretically, Diggs (Update: nope, Diggs is now a Buffalo Bill, but the draft considerations he brought back should help the Vikings dig into a thick class of talented wideouts) under contract for 2020, Cousins may be missing the most important catalyst behind his explosion. Stefanski rode this momentum into a promotion guiding an even bigger boom-or-bust quarterback. He’s been tasked with figuring out Baker Mayfield as head coach of the Browns.

That leaves veteran assistant and new Vikings OC Gary Kubiak to harness Cousins’ 2019 energy and continue building from it. The good news is Kubiak has some solid performances on his resume. He directed the second-best regular season of Joe Flacco’s career (by rating) in 2014 and engineered a Broncos’ offense that ranked among the NFL’s top seven teams in yards gained in nine of his 11 years as the team’s OC. He’s also familiar with Cousins and the system Stefanski left behind after spending last season as Minnesota’s assistant head coach.

The bad news is he’s a veteran mind in an evolving game. Cousins is an old-school pocket passer who fits the mold of the QBs Kubiak has gotten the most from as a coordinator. Even so, there’s a chance his model struggles to keep up as the NFL embarks on a new decade — and if it does, that could make Cousins’ contract look like a bad investment.

Cousins is better than anything the Vikings would be able to replace him with had his contract ended after the 2020 season. Most of the players who will hit the market next spring will be downgrades compared to Cousins’ 2019. Minnesota is too talented to fail its way to the top of the draft in the near future, so drafting a surefire franchise QB in 2021 was also a long shot.

Instead, the Vikings decided to invest in what they had and re-up with Cousins, who remains a solid quarterback who thrived in their system through most of last year. Locking him in now keeps him away from headlining a sparse crop of free agent passers next offseason. It also keeps him out of former Washington offensive coordinator and current 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan’s grasp.

Cousins may not have been the most exciting option — and he was certainly an expensive one — but for a team in Minnesota’s situation, he was clearly the best man for the job.