Minnesota Vikings NFL offseason preview: The Kirk Cousins question looms large

EAGAN, Minn. – The Minnesota Vikings underwent an overhaul after an 8-9 finish and back-to-back seasons out of the playoffs.

Kevin O’Connell was hired as the head coach Wednesday, three weeks after Kwesi Adofo-Mensah was hired as general manager. They will guide Minnesota through what could be a tumultuous offseason for a team with a tight salary cap.

O’Connell, who spent the last two seasons as the Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator, sold the Vikings on his vision to maximize an offense that ranked in the top 14 in scoring and yards. The concepts the Rams utilized in their offense will “absolutely” show up in what Minnesota does in 2022, according to O’Connell. Of course, it all begins with a decision on quarterback Kirk Cousins’ future, which is uncertain as he enters the final year of his contract. O’Connell said he anticipates Cousins “being a part of what we do” and has already thought about building systems to best support the QB, but the next month leading into free agency could determine whether Cousins is playing in Minnesota or elsewhere next season.

The Vikings will again need to invest heavily in their defense (which ranked 31st last year) but must figure out what to do with a handful of expensive veteran contracts -- potentially Danielle Hunter, Harrison Smith, Adam Thielen and even Dalvin Cook -- to create the salary-cap room needed to be active players in free agency.

Projected salary-cap space: $15,499,562 over the projected salary cap

Top free agents: LB Anthony Barr, CB Patrick Peterson, DT Sheldon Richardson, S Xavier Woods, LB Nick Vigil, CB Mackensie Alexander, TE Tyler Conklin, WR Dede Westbrook, QB Sean Mannion, OL Rashod Hill, P Jordan Berry

Potential cut candidates: Aside from Cousins, Hunter is the Vikings’ next biggest priority. The team reworked his deal ahead of the 2021 season, but after missing all of 2020 with a season-ending neck injury, Hunter was limited to seven games after tearing his pectoral muscle on Oct. 31. His restructured contract includes an $18 million roster bonus due on the fifth day of the league year. He could either sign an extension (likely far lower than his projected earnings pre-injuries) or become a free agent if the Vikings don’t pick that up, which would create $14.64 million in cap space. Another potential cap casualty could be DT Michael Pierce, who only played eight games due to injury in 2021 after opting out due to COVID-19 in 2020, and that would save the team $6.5 million. Given how Armon Watts and James Lynch filled in for Pierce, the team may consider it a viable cost-cutting move.

The big question: What to do with Cousins? The quarterback enters the final season of the two-year extension he signed in 2020, which comes with a $45 million cap hit (accounting for 20.2% of Minnesota’s total cap). His base salary of $35 million is fully guaranteed, so trading him outright could be difficult, given another team would undoubtedly have to extend him to spread out the cap hit. Minnesota has three options with its QB: Orchestrate a trade, extend Cousins on another short-term deal or let him play out the remainder of his contract before moving on in 2023. If they do the latter, they’ll have to get their cap healthy in other ways via cuts and restructures of other expensive veteran players.

Best-case offseason scenario: Cousins gets traded, and the Vikings land a quarterback in return who can carry out O’Connell’s scheme and keep the team competitive. Though Minnesota’s ownership would likely have to pay a sizable portion of what Cousins is owed, the team can go in a different direction and create the cap space needed to address other areas of need, like the pass rush, cornerback and an interior offensive lineman.

Worst-case offseason scenario: The Vikings extend Cousins solely to help their salary cap situation. Cousins isn’t inclined to give a discount after the statistically impressive season he had in 2021, so this creates further financial strain. It’s worse to go 8-9 again in 2022 than have a bad record while actually conceding to rebuilding major parts of the roster. Why? Because the Vikings will be in this exact same spot again next year asking themselves the same questions.

Early look at the NFL draft, from ESPN analyst Jordan Reid: Improving the defense is likely to be one of the main areas of focus for Adofo-Mensah. The Vikings ranked near the bottom in multiple categories, and they need depth at defensive end and cornerback. On offense, improving at center and right guard could also be two areas to address.

Top needs: CB, EDGE, IOL

Top pick: No. 12