After making a splash a couple of weeks ago by trading rental defensive end Yannick Ngakoue to Baltimore, there was genuine intrigue to see if the Vikings would jettison more big-name players before Tuesday’s trade deadline.
Much of the discussion focused on likely suspects like Riley Reiff, Anthony Harris and Kyle Rudolph.
As it turned out, of course, nothing else happened. But in retrospect, I wanted to discuss one name that I didn’t see brought up in a meaningful way: QB Kirk Cousins.
There are good reasons for that, of course, but there was also enough material for a thought exercise of sorts on how it wouldn’t have been that bonkers — especially if some peripheral conditions had been different.
So as the headline suggests, here is a set of circumstances in a parallel universe that could have led to a Cousins deal on Tuesday:
*The Vikings didn’t beat the Packers on Sunday. I know the Vikings publicly said that victory wouldn’t influence how they approached the deadline, but there is a significant difference between being 2-5 (which they are) and 1-6 (which they would have been with a loss).
As of now, FiveThirtyEight gives the Vikings a 19% chance of making the playoffs (hold your sarcasm for the fate of their political forecasting). Football Outsiders is less bullish at 8%, but neither of those are negligible chances (as we all know).
That chance is aided, surely, by the addition of a seventh playoff team this year in each conference. And the chance would improve even more if the NFL ends up adding an 8th team — per Chris Mortensen’s reporting — if games are lost to the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s not hard to squint and see the Vikings finding a path to .500 at some point this season given their schedule.
Moreover, trading your starting quarterback 48 hours after a road win over your biggest rival — even if his main job was handing the ball to Dalvin Cook on Sunday — is not a great look. If the Vikings had lost (particularly if it was convincingly) it would have been much easier to bail on this season and say all options are on the table for a rebuild in 2021 and beyond.
*San Francisco had a little more cap space and a better record. The thing that really piqued my interest about a possible Cousins trade was an injury to 49ers starter Jimmy Garoppolo that figures to sideline him for most (and possibly all) of the rest of the season.
San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan is a big Cousins fan and has talked openly about wanting him in the past. It would have been an intriguing fit, even as a rare mid-year starting QB trade, because of their familiarity with each other.
The 49ers are cap-strapped. Though that might not be as much of an obstacle as you might think because Cousins’ base salary this season is only $9.5 million and only the pro-rated part of that would have gone to San Francisco — while the rest, plus his signing bonus, was mostly heaped on the Vikings’ 2021 cap — it does make more sense for San Francisco to pursue Cousins in the offseason (if they are really interested and the Vikings are willing to listen) when they can clear a bunch of space by releasing Garoppolo.
On the Vikings’ side, it would have meant a big cap ding in 2021, with the rest of his owed signing bonus after this year ($20 million) counting on next year’s cap as dead money. But Cousins was already slated to count $31 million against next year’s Vikings cap. If they were to absorb that $20 million and draft a first-round QB at about a $5-6 million initial cap hit in 2021, it suddenly doesn’t sound so bad — a cap wash, and maybe a bit of savings. (Remember that in a few months).
The big problem is San Francisco is struggling beyond just Garoppolo’s injury and performance this season. After coming within a quarter of winning the Super Bowl nine months ago, the 49ers are 4-4 and facing a mountain of other injuries. Figuring out how to add Cousins to an already swollen cap probably wasn’t worth it for a season that doesn’t seem destined to be special.
But if they were, say, 6-2 and otherwise healthy while Garoppolo was likely to miss all this time? It might have made a lot more sense.
*The Vikings had a more viable or interesting backup QB option. Trading Cousins would have meant handing the keys to Sean Mannion for the final nine games of the season. He could have gotten them to the finish line, and maybe enhanced their draft position along the way, but there would have been more incentive to make such a deal if there was a young QB waiting in line.
If Minnesota had invested, say, a second- or third-round pick in a QB in any of the last two drafts as a backup, it would have been a fine time for an audition. Without a QB of the future — sorry, Jake Browning fans, but I don’t think he qualifies — worthy of such an extended look, trading Cousins made even less sense.
Ultimately, the most likely outcome for this season is the Vikings regroup to some degree, win 6-7 games and convince themselves that defensive tweaks can get them back on the right path.
Given that, thinking about an alternative reality proved to be a particularly pleasant diversion on a day when a lot of us could probably use it.