The Minnesota Vikings are 1-5, off to their worst start since 2013, when a 5-10-1 finish resulted in the dismissal of coach Leslie Frazier. Their current coach's specialty, defense, is more like a liability. Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers await after this week's bye. And perhaps most distressing of all, Kirk Cousins -- the quarterback who this March earned a two-year, $66 million extension to become one of the seven highest-paid players at his position -- is playing the worst football of his last half-decade.
After the Vikings cut bait on Yannick Ngakoue this week, parting ways with their prized trade acquisition of fewer than two months ago, general manager Rick Spielman addressed growing speculation about Cousins' own future with the team. He was optimistic.
"You just kind of have to go back and look at the big picture," Spielman said, per Andrew Krammer of the Star Tribune. "But I don't think anyone has lost any faith in Kirk Cousins. I expect him to come back after the bye week and play well for us ... I don't have any doubt that he's going to be able to rally."
Truth be told, Cousins hasn't been totally bad in 2020, averaging more yards per attempt than all but three QBs and helping unlock rookie wide receiver Justin Jefferson behind a patchwork offensive line (again). But he hasn't been good when they've needed him most, leading the NFL with 10 interceptions despite a reputation for on-script efficiency. If anything, he's one of the main reasons they're 1-5 rather than, say, 3-3.
And because plenty have questioned Cousins' ceiling even before he devolved into a turnover machine, the real issue is much bigger: Do Spielman and the Vikings only believe Kirk will rebound because they have to?
Obviously, Minnesota would not have committed another $66 million to Cousins if they didn't believe he could shake off a six-game slump. (Here's where you could have a separate conversation about whether they should've done that in the first place.) But it's probably safe to say they didn't anticipate Cousins entering the bye on pace for 27 picks. But even if the Vikings wanted to consider moving on from Kirk, especially after a 2020 season that could shake up the whole leadership structure, is there a feasible path to doing that? Is it even possible they could get out of his deal?
Here's the short answer: Yes, but it'd be pretty tough.
The Vikings are already projected to be on the brink of the 2021 salary cap, which is set to be significantly reduced following 2020's pandemic-influenced profits, so there's no conceivable way they could outright release Cousins following this season. (That would incur a massive $41 million cap hit, plus increase the Vikings' 2021 deficit by $10 million, per Over The Cap. Not happening.) Cutting or trading Cousins the following year, after the 2021 season, would be an easier pill to swallow -- a $10 million cap hit but a big savings of $35 million.
If another year and a half of Cousins sounds too unbearable to whoever is ultimately controlling the Vikings' roster, there's also at least a glimmer of light for a possible trade before the 2021 season. Trading Cousins before June 1 would incur a sizable $20 million hit, but it would also save the team $11 million. That would still require some serious cap maneuvering and, likely, some additional cuts or trades to clear cash (Kyle Rudolph? Riley Reiff? Adam Thielen? Anthony Barr?), but it's not necessarily impossible.
Even better: If the Vikings were to trade Cousins after June 1, 2021, they'd still take a $10 million cap hit but ultimately save a total of $21 million. If that sounds far-fetched, just imagine where the Vikings might be at that point. Let's say they struggle for much of the remainder of 2020, finishing with a top-10 pick and perhaps welcoming wholesale staff changes. Is it that crazy to think they could have drafted a new QB by then, with the intention of dealing Cousins to a team with an inevitable QB injury/need during the summer? Spielman once gave up premium picks for Sam Bradford in September because of a sudden QB need, so if Minnesota is already financially tied to Cousins through at least part of the 2021 offseason, who's to say the team couldn't wait out an offer and, worst-case scenario, if nothing comes along, retain Cousins as a backup and/or stopgap starter before moving on for good in 2022?
As you can see, there's a decent amount of legwork just to financially justify Cousins' departure. But if Minnesota is actually headed for a rebuild, all of a sudden that kind of legwork isn't so much impossible as it is a necessary hurdle.