The only quarterback the Minnesota Vikings have under contract is 24-year-old Kyle Sloter out of Northern Colorado. Case Keenum is a free agent. Sam Bradford is a free agent. Teddy Bridgewater is a free agent. And Kirk Cousins is a free agent. Here’s the case for the Vikings to sign Kirk Cousins.
The numbers from this season aren’t on Cousins’ side, but he is the better quarterback. Keenum had a better touchdown-to-interception ratio this season (3.14 to 2.07). Keenum completed more of his passes (67.6 to 64.3 percent), and while Cousins threw for more yards starting two more games (4,093 to 3,547), he took almost twice as many sacks behind an injury-plagued offensive line, leading the league with 342 yards lost due to sacks. That wouldn’t happen behind the offensive line of the Vikings, if healthy. Similarly, Keenum wouldn’t be the same behind the offensive line of say, Arizona.
While Keenum excelled more than any other quarterback against the blitz this season, his decision-making deficiencies were on display in the playoffs. Cian Fahey of Pre-snap Reads wrote about this. Keenum had a fantastic regular season, but fell apart in the biggest game of the year and turned the ball over in both playoff games. Even his walk-off, touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs to lift the Vikings over the New Orleans Saints was the result of his inaccuracy. That pass was supposed to be on the sideline so Diggs could get out of bounds, and Saints’ safety Marcus Williams defended the play assuming Keenum threw an accurate ball. Sure, he should have played the ball instead of going for a game-ending tackle, but the Vikings went on to the NFC Championship Game thanks to their own quarterback’s mistake.
Cousins’ 94 total touchdowns to 47 turnovers is sixth amongst all quarterbacks over the past three seasons. His yards-per-play average over those same three seasons is fourth overall, and he’s fourth in total yardage. Cousins knows what to do with the football in dire situations. He knows taking a sack is better than throwing an interception. Keenum displayed that he didn’t realize that in both playoff games, throwing an ill-advised pass into double coverage when hurried against the Saints that was picked off by the same young safety who blew the tackle of Diggs on the play that decided the game.
When brushed by Philadelphia’s Chris Long up 7-0, he threw this pick-six instead of holding the ball and taking a sack on 3rd-and-8.
Keenum’s big-game mistakes aren’t the only reason the Vikings shouldn’t retain him. The reason they shouldn’t retain him is the market for quarterbacks. There are at least five teams who would love Keenum’s services: the Cleveland Browns, the New York Jets, the Arizona Cardinals, the Buffalo Bills and the Denver Broncos.
The Jets have more than $79 million to spend, and are the most likely suitor for Cousins. They are paying less than $3 million to the three quarterbacks on their roster (27th in the league), and neither Bryce Petty nor Christian Hackenberg is the answer at quarterback for the Jets. But McShay also has the Jets drafting a quarterback -- Wyoming’s Josh Allen -- at number six overall.
The Cardinals are in the same boat as the Vikings. They have no one captaining their ship. They also have only $23 million to offer a quarterback in free agency. That’s more than half as much as the Vikings have in cap space, and won’t be enough to land Cousins, but could be enough to sign Keenum.
Buffalo and Denver are working with over $29 million and $26 million, respectively, which makes a Cousins signing improbable. The Vikings are the logical landing spot, and Cousins has said the Vikings are at the top of his list.
Sam Bradford is a fine quarterback when he’s available and well-protected. But he hasn’t played a full season since 2012, has two bum knees and is an injury waiting to happen. Despite all that, Bradford will be overpaid by some team desperate for a competent quarterback. But you can’t just put him behind any offensive line. Bradford needs protection similar to that provided by the Vikings much of the year, and even that wasn’t good enough to keep him upright.
The Vikings could sign Kirk Cousins and retain Teddy Bridgewater at a reasonable rate. Bridgewater threw the ball once this season for an interception after recovering from a career-threatening knee injury. No team knows Bridgewater’s body and readiness better than the Vikings, and teams will be sceptical, for good reason. But Bridgewater is beloved in Minnesota, and many would like to see him get an opportunity to return to his All-Pro form as the Vikings starter. Playing behind the veteran Cousins for a few years could be a good learning experience for Bridgewater, and he will inevitably get a chance to step in given how often quarterbacks are injured in the league (although, Cousins has started every game for the last three seasons).
Bridgewater is just 25, so even playing three seasons behind Cousins, who will be 30 in August, would have him in his theoretical prime. But Bridgewater is unlikely to settle for a backup role given the need for quarterbacks.
The Vikings are a quarterback away from winning a Super Bowl, and Case Keenum is not that quarterback. Sure, Nick Foles did it, but he did it behind the best offensive line in football. Minnesota now has a competent offensive line, but it wasn’t the most healthy offensive line entering the playoffs, and Keenum didn’t change his game to accommodate the changes on said offensive line. He still played like a wild gunslinger even though he had even less time to throw the football, which resulted in more turnovers.
Sam Bradford could be that quarterback, but again, the Minnesota offensive line is good -- not great. Whoever quarterbacks the Vikings needs to be able to take some hits, of which Keenum is capable. He just doesn’t make great decisions in those moments. Kirk Cousins does.
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You could say the Minnesota Vikings had no business playing in the NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia after needing a Minneapolis Miracle to get there. But they entered play as the NFL’s best defense in points and yardage allowed and were three-point favorites on the road. They left Philly 31-point losers.
Eagles’ offensive coordinator Frank Reich picked apart the best third-down defense in football -- getting first downs on 10 of 14 third-down tries. Shutdown cornerback Xavier Rhodes summed it up succinctly, saying the Vikings’ defense played like “trash.”
The defense wasn’t the only problem on Sunday, though. Quarterback Case Keenum finally turned into the pumpkin everyone expected this Cinderella season, and Vikings’ general manager Rick Spielman should not ignore the result when addressing the Vikings’ roster at quarterback -- or lack thereof.
With 23-year-old Kyle Sloter out of Northern Colorado the only quarterback on the roster going into next season, the Vikings will once again have to answer the quarterback question this offseason. Some would say Keenum has earned the starting job, but given his latest performance, the Vikings should let him test the free agent market.
Upon throwing a pick-six after his arm was hit by Cameron Graham, who beat right tackle Rashod Hill on just about every play, Keenum fell apart. Before the pick-six, Keenum completed four of six passes for 60 yards and a touchdown. Afterward, he completed just 57.1 percent of his 42 passes, gaining just five yards per attempt on average, with no more touchdowns and another interception. That is not the performance of a quarterback worth $21.3 million per year. That was the franchise tag salary for quarterbacks in 2017, and the least the Vikings could pay Keenum to return next season.
With Sam Bradford’s $18 million coming off the books along with 13 other players entering free agency, the Vikings have a little over $60 million in cap space next season. That’s enough to do more than just retain two of their three quarterbacks, and with Kirk Cousins and Drew Brees potentially available in free agency, the answer to the quarterback question is even more difficult.
The Vikings should be pretty confident in allowing Keenum, Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater to test free agency. Bradford and Bridgewater haven’t proven they can stay healthy as starters, and while there are plenty of NFL teams who would love to have either, Bradford and Bridgwater couldn’t be entering free agency at a worse time for them.
Keenum, on the other hand, will be considerably over-valued on the free agent market, and will likely be overpaid by a desperate team. The Vikings would be smart to let him go elsewhere and pay the undervalued Bradford and Bridgewater to return. But if Spielman does intend to bring back Bradford to start and Bridgewater to back him up, he best protect his injury-prone investments.
The additions of tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers vastly improved the offensive line play of the Vikings. As of Week 5, Pro Football Focus ranked the healthy Vikings’ O-line 20th overall and 15th in pass-blocking, after finishing last season ranked 23rd in pass-blocking. But the Vikings’ offensive line wasn’t healthy going into the NFC Championship Game, and the Eagles showed the value of having the league’s top offensive line, keeping Nick Foles upright and, at times, allowing him seven seconds to throw the football against the Vikings’ four-man, pass rush.
While the Vikings offensive line improved in pass protection, run blocking was still an issue, which isn’t something Spielman must address with running back Dalvin Cook coming back from injury. But if Bradford and Bridgewater are his quarterbacks, he’ll want to add some depth to the offensive line if he hopes to keep either of them healthy. Playing Remmers out of position at left guard in the NFC Championship Game and forcing backup Sharod Hill to take on the Eagles’ sacks leader probably wasn’t how Spielman drew it up prior to the season.
Spielman will likely have another hole to fill on the offensive line, too. Right guard Joe Berger has hinted that he intends to retire. With a lack of interior, offensive lineman available through free agency, it’s likely Spielman and the Vikings will address the offensive line through the draft. R.J. White and Chris Trapasso of CBS Sports think Spielman will target the former college teammate of Pat Elflein, Billy Price. But if Spielman can save some money by retaining the undervalued Bradford and Bridgewater, he could potentially sign the best guard in football.
Carolina’s Andrew Norwell, 26, is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and lining him up next to the second-year center Elflein and the veteran Reiff (or Remmers) would certainly increase the chances of Bradford and Bridgewater staying healthy and effective. Spielman could then address the issue of depth through the draft, even selecting Price and easing him into a starting role so he’s ready when Nick Easton becomes an unrestricted free agent after next season.
It’s time to let the soon-to-be-40 Terrance Newman ride off into the sunset, while 33-year-old run-stuffer Tom Johnson should probably be retained given the lack of availability at his position in free agency. There’s no one on the depth chart behind him at left defensive tackle, and he could be retained at a reasonable price.
Marcus Sherels made $2 million to catch kicks this season, and at 30, averaged just 9.5 yards per punt return -- down from a career high of 13.9 yards per return last season. That position is better filled by a young draftee and likely will be.
Jerick McKinnon wants a bigger role running the ball and has likely played his last game in purple and gold, while kicker Kai Forbath probably earned a raise with his play in the Divisional Playoff Game against New Orleans.
The Vikings are so close to contending for a championship, and adding a guy like Norwell should put their offensive line in the top third of the league and protect the brittle Bradford and Bridgewater. Depth is the biggest concern, and given Spielman's success using the draft to add talent, the Vikings should enter next season even better than this season.
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