Sign Kirk Cousins, or keep their defense together? Why the Vikings might be able to have it all
The Vikings remained publicly agnostic about their quarterbacking options at the NFL combine; coach Mike Zimmer laid out the strengths and weaknesses of all his in-house candidates, while general manager Rick Spielman batted away a report that the Vikings have decided not to use the franchise tag on Case Keenum and said the team had not made a decision on any of its options.
Privately, though, the team gave indications it was marshaling resources for a run at Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, assessing its salary cap situation for the lucrative contract Cousins would receive while grousing about the flurry of rumors that could serve to drive up the price of free-agent quarterbacks.
The Vikings' decision not to offer a restricted free agent tender to offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles _ a versatile backup whom the team would like to retain _ was driven at least in part by the fact that the lowest RFA tender this year is $1.9 million, which would only guarantee the Vikings the right to match any offers while stripping away their ability to design a contract with a cap figure to their liking. When you're trying to squirrel away money for a pricey QB contract, every dollar is important, and while the Vikings weren't sending quite the same signals they did last year _ when they effectively told free agents they'd get back to them after solving their offensive line issues first _ there's little doubt their quarterback situation tops their March to-do list.
Coach Mike Zimmer cautioned last week that a quarterback move shouldn't come at the expense of the rest of the roster, and deals affecting Zimmer's defense comprise an outsized portion of the Vikings' potential contract extensions in the next year. Defensive end Danielle Hunter, linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr (as well as wide receiver Stefon Diggs) will all be free agents after 2018, meaning the Vikings need to determine whether they'd be able to retain all of their core players with a big QB contract.
But the good news for Zimmer is, the Vikings might be able to do it all.
After talking to a number of NFL sources at the combine last week, I thought we'd go through a little exercise this morning, to take an educated guess at how the Vikings might be able to get a deal done with Cousins, retain a number of their own free agents and leave themselves enough money for other deals this year and extensions in the future.
The Vikings still have about $13.77 million in salary cap space in the 2017 league year, according to sources with access to NFLPA salary data, meaning they'll be able to add that amount to a 2018 cap that league sources project to be around $178 million. That would leave the Vikings with an adjusted cap of $191.77 million for next year, giving them close to $49 million in cap space before free agency. If the salary cap continues to rise at a rate of around $11-12 million a year, as it has in recent seasons, it would be around $189-190 million in 2019 and between $200 and $202 million in 2020 (before team-specific adjustments).
Cousins is believed to be seeking a shorter deal that would guarantee all or most of his money and allow him another shot at the open market in three or four years. In order to be the highest-paid QB in the league, he'd need to surpass the $27.5 million average annual value in Jimmy Garoppolo's deal with the 49ers.
Teams with veteran quarterbacks generally try to keep that player's cap figure around 10 percent of their available cap space, and in looking at the quarterbacks with the 10 highest three-year average salaries in the NFL, we can see that all of them, with the exception of Matt Ryan, were between 9 and 11 percent of their team's cap space in 2017 (we'll exclude Garopoolo's deal for now, since it didn't hit the salary cap during the 2017 league year).
Cousins is reportedly seeking a three-year, fully-guaranteed deal in the neighborhood of $90 million, though it remains to be seen what he'll actually receive and whether the Vikings would be willing to go that high. For now, we'll assume a three-year guaranteed deal for $84 million, which puts Cousins above Garoppolo's annual average (albeit in a not-quite-apples-to-apples comparison, since the contracts are different lengths).
The Vikings would need to give Cousins plenty of cash up front, likely through a modest signing bonus and a roster bonus that puts a large chunk of the cap hit in Year 1 of the deal. It inherently means the Vikings would eclipse the 10 percent cap space threshold in 2018, since Cousins would likely carry a cap figure well north of $30 million in the first year.
We'll give Cousins a $9 million signing bonus, as well as a $32 million roster bonus and $2 million base salary in Year 1. That puts plenty of cash in his pocket early (though roster bonuses of that magnitude are often paid out in a couple installments), and takes a $37.25 million bite out of the salary cap in Year 1 (counting an annual $250,000 workout bonus). In Years 2 and 3, though, when the Vikings need cap space for Diggs, Hunter, Kendricks and Barr, they'd only have $46.75 million in cap space left to devote to Cousins.
In 2019 and 2020, we'll give Cousins fully-guaranteed base salaries of $20 million and $20.25 million, respectively, as well as his workout bonus. Counting his signing bonus prorations, he's got cap numbers of $23.25 million and $23.5 million in Years 2 and 3. With a $190 million cap in 2019 and a $200 million cap in 2020, Cousins would occupy 12.2 percent and 11.75 percent of the Vikings' cap numbers in those years. The Vikings' cap ceiling would likely grow in those years, too, with cash they carried over from previous seasons.
Assuming a $37.25 million cap number in 2018 for Cousins, the Vikings still have $11.64 million in available cap space, and they could recoup a few million by restructuring deals for veterans like Brian Robison, Jarius Wright and Latavius Murray. They'd need a backup quarterback, possibly another tackle if they move Mike Remmers to guard, some cash for modest deals on their in-house free agents and money for draft picks. But with the Cousins deal we just outlined and moves that recoup, say, another $6 million in cap space, the Vikings would still have $17.64 million to spare for 2018. And by the time they need to pay some of their other young players, Cousins' cap figure, as a percentage of the Vikings' overall spending, would be roughly in line with what other teams spend on their passers. They would have nearly $50 million left for 2019, and $91 million for 2020 (with plenty of players to be signed between now and then, of course).
We're a long way from all of this being finalized, of course; with teams like the Broncos, Cardinals and Jets believed to be interested in Cousins, the Vikings would have to decide how far they're willing to go for a quarterback who's gone 26-30-1 in the regular season and 0-1 in the playoffs. But if the Vikings deem Cousins worthy of a lavish contract, there are ways for them to pay him and retain enough cash for their other needs. It would require a big bite out of their 2018 cap, but by the time the Vikings' other draft picks come to the table, there'd be money left for them, too.