Is now the Vikings' time to find Kirk Cousins' replacement?

Tennessee's Hendon Hooker could be an intriguing option in the draft for the Vikings. USA Today Sports

The draft industrial complex has caught on to an important fact: The Minnesota Vikings don't have a quarterback under contract beyond the 2023 season.

So as starter Kirk Cousins and backup Nick Mullens approach the expiration of their deals, it hasn't been surprising to see prominent NFL draft analysts connect the Vikings with a quarterback at No. 23 overall. During the past two weeks, ESPN's Todd McShay and the NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah have both mocked Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker to Minnesota at that spot.

The scenario makes sense in theory. By deciding against extending Cousins' contract this spring, the Vikings have started the clock on his presumed departure. Waiting until next year to identify a potential successor would further pressurize the environment and eliminate any grace period in the transition.

Hooker, meanwhile, suffered a torn ACL in his left knee last November and is still recovering, so the argument for giving him a "redshirt" 2023 season behind Cousins is more palatable than it would typically be for quarterbacks drafted in the first round.

In reality, this entire set of circumstances deserves closer inspection. Is Hooker a prospect worth building a future around? Or would he simply be the next-best quarterback available after the presumed selections of Ohio State's C.J. Stroud, Alabama's Bryce Young, Florida's Anthony Richardson and Kentucky's Will Levis? Is there anyone other than Hooker who could fit into this scenario? And have the Vikings truly crossed the Rubicon with Cousins? Or is there a path for extending his tenure into 2024 and beyond?

Future of Kirk Cousins

The Vikings have implemented tight messaging around Cousins this offseason, both before and after they decided on March 14 to lower his salary cap number -- providing $16 million in cap relief in 2023 -- via a simple contract restructure rather than extend it beyond 2023.

Speaking on March 13 on the NFL Network, co-owner Mark Wilf said: "We're looking for great things in 2023, and Kirk is going to be our leader on the offense."

Coach Kevin O'Connell used similar 2023-centric terms on March 28 when asked how he would deal with the pending expiration of Cousins' contract.

"Kirk and I have had a ton of dialogue throughout the offseason, just really in anticipation and excitement of his Year 2 in our offense," O'Connell said. "You think about Kirk Cousins, and really, he actually brought this up to me, the last time he had the same voice calling plays in the same system in his ear was Sean McVay in 2015 into 2016 [in Washington] before Sean took the job in Los Angeles. So this will be really cool for him to be in the same system, call the same formations, the same plays. Him and I got a great rapport as far as a lot of that goes.

"I'm just excited to see him in Year 2. My goal is that 2023 is one of the best seasons that Kirk Cousins has had playing quarterback in the NFL. When that happens, I think that's going to be a really good thing for the Vikings."

Within that messaging, however, lies a path for Cousins' possible return. If he produces one of his best-ever seasons in 2023, would O'Connell and general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah hand the position in 2024 to an untested player they had drafted the year before? They would be entering the third year of their tenures at that point, a time when their team-building process should be reaching its height. It would require extreme confidence in the process, not to mention a strong assumption of faith from ownership, to make that move at that time.

Hendon Hooker (and other options)

At the very least, the Vikings' draft spot at No. 23 would leave them to sift through the second wave of 2023 quarterback prospects. Stroud, Young and Richardson are all almost certain to go in the top 10. Projections for Levis are a little less certain, and you only have to go back one year to find an example of a wide gap in quarterback analysis between media draft analysts and NFL teams: Malik Willis was a consensus first-round pick in mock drafts but lasted until the third round (No. 86) overall.

Assuming Levis is gone by No. 23, however, Hooker might be the last available player a team could reasonably project as a future top-line starter.

McShay gives him a second-round grade, while ESPN draft analyst Jordan Reid projects him as a late-Day 2 pick. Neither has another quarterback rated higher than a fourth-round selection. (Reid's No. 6 quarterback is UCLA's Dorian Thompson-Robinson.) While it's not impossible to find a future starter that late in the draft, the numbers certainly work against it. Of the 24 NFL quarterbacks who can reasonably be called established starters at the moment, 21 were drafted in the first two rounds. Only three -- Cousins, Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson -- were drafted later.

Hooker had two eye-popping seasons at Tennessee after transferring from Virginia Tech, throwing 58 touchdowns and five interceptions over that span -- the best touchdown/interception ratio in the FBS since 2004. But in addition to his knee injury, Hooker's candidacy is also complicated by his age. He turned 25 in January and would be only the second quarterback selected in the first round at that age (or older) in the modern draft era. (The other was Brandon Weeden, who was 28 when the Cleveland Browns drafted him at No. 22 overall in 2012.)

To put his age in context, Hooker would be older than five of the Vikings' projected offensive starters in 2023 -- including running back Alexander Mattison, who is entering his fifth NFL season. He is a year older than receiver Justin Jefferson, who is entering his fourth season, and 17 months older than left tackle Christian Darrisaw, who is entering his third.

To be fair, quarterbacks can play at a high level well into their 30s. Last season, 13 primary starters at the position were 30 or older; five were 35 or older. Hooker's age is less problematic for him than it would be for, say, a running back.

The risk of waiting

Hooker's age is even less troubling when considering the larger arc of Vikings history. In their 61 years of existence, the Vikings have gotten longer than five full seasons from only two starting quarterbacks: Fran Tarkenton and Tommy Kramer. (Cousins will join that group this season.)

Worrying about whether Hooker will be limited to, say, an 8-10-year career seems quaint in that context. Of larger concern is an alternate scenario: Cousins moving on before the Vikings identify his replacement.

Drafting a quarterback with a high ceiling, after all, is not purely a matter of choice. The bottom third of the draft is ripe for trades, and it's not out of the question that five quarterbacks will be off the board by the time the Vikings are on the clock at No. 23. Their total of five picks this year limits their ability to trade up, and their lack of a second-round selection means a long wait for their next pick in the third round (No. 87 overall).

Failing to draft a presumptive replacement in 2023 does not rule out the possibility of a new starter in 2024, but it would ramp up the pressure, limit the Vikings' leverage and leave them no wiggle room if Cousins departs. Their choices would be to enter trade talks with whatever teams that hope to unload their own veteran starter, or else find a way to put themselves high enough in the 2024 draft to compete for the top quarterbacks of the class.

As with many of the Vikings' other decisions in this consequential offseason, the best path forward is not obvious. Last year, Adofo-Mensah and O'Connell elected not to address the future of the position. It would be a good idea this year, if not compulsory. In 2024, they would likely have no choice.