Virtual interviews for the Vikings' general manager position are continuing this week. There is an elephant in those Zooms, a conundrum that hovers over the organization and cannot be pushed aside to a later date.
It might not be the first question posed to candidates, but somewhere in the first half-hour of those conversations between the search committee and GM hopefuls, the topic must be broached.
The Kirk Cousins Conundrum.
What do you do?
Door 1: Trade him.
Door 2: Let him play out his final season with a $45 million cap hit.
Door 3: Extend his contract to lower his cap number.
Each option brings risk. Each option carries the weight of dictating the team's path forward. Each option will be unpopular with a segment of the fan base because Cousins has supplanted Joe Mauer as the most polarizing athlete in this sports market over the past 25 years.
My approach in tackling this situation would be in the order listed above: Trade Cousins if possible, knowing that would weaken the team at its most important position in the short term. If a trade doesn't materialize, let him play out his final season in 2022, despite his burdensome cap hit and with the team already projected to be $11 million over the salary cap.
Cousins' contract has become an albatross on a roster that features a handful of individual stars but also positional flaws that will require financial flexibility to fix. A cheaper alternative at quarterback should be the direction for the new regime. And yes, the Vikings might take a step backward initially in doing so.
That is the conundrum.
Cousins' salary and the high-stakes nature of that position make this incredibly complicated. Organizations fail all the time in trying to find and develop a franchise quarterback. Rick Spielman's tenure is a testament to that. Plus, we don't know ownership's true priorities in private.
In dismissing Spielman and Mike Zimmer, co-owner Mark Wilf said that his family has no interest in a rebuild, with a stated goal of being "super-competitive" in 2022.
OK, but what constitutes super-competitive? Is being a fringe playoff team super-competitive? Do they expect their team to be a legitimate contender in the playoffs?
Do the Wilfs see a roster that features Cousins, Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith and conclude that Zimmer held the team back? Or can they also see the obvious personnel flaws that helped propel the organization into a state of mediocrity?
Internal expectations could influence how the new GM and head coach proceed. The Wilfs are fans at heart. They want to enjoy success.
The Vikings would not be as strong with Kellen Mond or a rookie at quarterback if the team traded Cousins. The team likely would sign a veteran "bridge" quarterback in that scenario until they identified their franchise quarterback, but it's hard to envision a new quarterback being able to immediately match Cousins' performance.
If given a choice, any new coach likely would pick Cousins over an unproven quarterback because Cousins would give him the best chance to win right away. Will the new coach and new GM try to convince the Wilfs that they can get more out of Cousins and the offense now that Zimmer's restrictive leadership and Klint Kubiak's inexperience are out of the equation? Maybe.
The concern is that Cousins does not have more to give, that we've seen his ceiling and it's not enough to lift the Vikings beyond a middle-of-the-road team that occasionally makes the playoffs. He is a good quarterback who puts up impressive statistics, but what evidence have we seen that he can ascend beyond that?
Even if Cousins signs a multi-year extension to provide cap relief, he still will command a hefty salary, likely $30-plus million. That will remain constraining for a new regime that inherits an expensive to-do list in addressing one of the NFL's worst defenses, an overmatched interior offensive line and a gigantic payday for Jefferson looming on the horizon.
The Vikings must take the long view with the Cousins Conundrum. Show some patience. The Wilfs initiated an organizational reset in removing Spielman and Zimmer. They have one more complicated step to complete that process.