Halfway through his contract, Vikings QB Cousins is trending up

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The Vikings are now officially halfway through the three-year, $84 million contract they gave Kirk Cousins in March 2018, when they turned the football world on its ear by making him the first quarterback to receive a fully guaranteed multiyear deal.

The pact between Cousins — who had been a lightning rod for hot takes during his two years playing on the franchise tag in Washington — and a team that had just come off an NFC Championship Game appearance was always going to invite scrutiny, especially in a market where the home team’s attempts to solve its QB problems through free agency had usually been limited to one- or two-year deals for veterans.

But as we make the turn, both on the Vikings’ season and on Cousins’ deal, two things have happened: First, the fully guaranteed nature of the contract is the only thing that makes it unique at this point. And second, Cousins is suddenly playing in a manner worthy of the money.

His designation as the NFL’s highest-paid QB — by dint of his $28 million average annual salary — lasted less than two months, until Matt Ryan passed him with a deal worth $30 million per season. New contracts for Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz since then have dropped Cousins to seventh in average salary. And while he remains second in the amount of money he’s got fully guaranteed, he’s also seventh in total guarantees — which is worth pointing out because of how much more likely franchise QBs are to play into the later years of their contracts than other players.

And while Cousins was the first to validate some of the skepticism about his contract, with a series of candid self-assessments this summer about what he had and hadn’t done, he’s turned in a four-week stretch of play that’s quickly dulled the criticism he faced for his play in a pair of division road losses in September.

Over the past four weeks, Cousins has completed 78.4% of his passes for 1,262 yards, with 10 touchdowns and one interception, good for a passer rating of 137.1 in that time (albeit against some middling defenses). According to Football Outsiders’ Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average metric, Cousins has been the fifth-best QB in the NFL this season, having been 23.5% better than an average quarterback in the same game situations.

After Thursday’s win, NFL Research floated a comparison between the first halves of Cousins in 2019 and NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes in 2018 that might have seemed farcical a month ago: Cousins has the better completion percentage and yards-per-attempt average, with an identical touchdown-to-interception ratio (4.33) to Mahomes’ first half last year and a passer rating (115.2) only a 10th of a point behind.

“He’s playing great right now,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s in a good place. This is kind of what we envisioned when we signed him. I think it’s all been good. Hopefully we can continue to do that, we can continue to help him with the plays. Everything is clicking right now offensively.”

Signing Cousins is the kind of choice on which NFL decisionmakers stake their livelihoods, and the true outcome of the deal will be based on the kinds of tasks Cousins hasn’t frequently (or ever) accomplished to this point: winning second-half road games against three teams currently above .500, leading a team to the playoffs and performing well enough once there to engineer deep postseason runs.

“It’s going to be right there for us, and we got to go out and do it,” Cousins said Thursday night. “6-2 doesn’t mean a whole lot if you don’t turn the last eight games into something special. And we got some big-time games up ahead. These aren’t going to be easy opponents. We’re going to be playing in tough environments against really good football teams, so the work doesn’t get any easier from here.”

With Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman on deals that expire after the 2020 season, though, Cousins can deliver an awful lot of job security to the Vikings’ sprawling headquarters in Eagan by the way he plays over the next three months. He can also set himself up well for another round of contract negotiations that aren’t that far into the future.

Cousins’ deal, which expires in 16 months, contains a provision that prohibits the Vikings from using the transition tag on him after the 2020 season, but not one that bars them from using the franchise tag. His agent, Mike McCartney, didn’t prohibit the Vikings from using the tag for a third time in Cousins’ career because of a rule change that would require a 44% bump in his salary for 2021. That’d push Cousins to $42.5 million in the first year of a new NFL collective bargaining agreement, all but guaranteeing the Vikings would want to work out a new multiyear deal on their terms before then if they deem Cousins to be their long-term QB.

He will be 32 years old when his current contract expires, and could drop further down the list of the NFL’s highest-paid QBs if teams like the Chiefs and Texans opt to lock up Mahomes and DeShaun Watson with multiyear deals before they hit their fifth-year options in 2022. If Cousins is talking about a second deal with the Vikings by next spring or summer, the thinking goes he will have played well enough to ensure some security for those on both sides of the bargaining table. It wouldn’t be far-fetched at that point for him to pursue a longer-term deal worth more than $30 million a year, or another short pact with full guarantees.

That decision, for the Vikings, is closer than you’d think. And at least for the first half of this season, Cousins’ numbers suggested his future in Minnesota is going to be a front-burner topic awfully soon.

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