The biggest 2018 NFL free agency domino has fallen.
Kirk Cousins plans to sign a three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter, making him the highest-paid quarterback in the league.
The news moved Minnesota’s Super Bowl LIII odds from 16-1 to 12-1 — tied with the Green Bay Packers for fourth best — at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. How else will the Cousins news impact the Vikings and the NFC landscape?
Our panel of ESPN NFL Insiders predict Minnesota’s 2018 record, weigh in on which team is the NFC favorite and what’s next for the Vikings:
What will be the Vikings’ 2018 record?
Matt Bowen, NFL writer: 11-5. Adding Cousins to pair with one of the NFL’s top defenses pushes the Vikings to the top of the NFC North standings at season’s end. But the road won’t be easy with Aaron Rodgers back on the field in Green Bay and a tough slate of non-divisional games. An 11-5 record seems like a reasonable expectation heading into the postseason dance.
Mike Clay, NFL writer: 10-6. (Disclaimer that I’m pretty conservative.) With Cousins in-house, a terrific running game, a trio of targets, a serviceable offensive line and one of the league’s best defenses, Minnesota sports one of the NFL’s top rosters. The Vikings are the current favorites to win the NFC North and a strong contender to get back to the NFC Championship Game.
Courtney Cronin, ESPN Vikings reporter: 11-5. The Vikings believe Cousins is the answer to getting over the proverbial hump toward a Super Bowl. Unfortunately, their road schedule doesn’t do them any favors. Trips to Philadelphia, Los Angeles (Rams), New England, Seattle and the usual NFC North spots make for an uphill battle.
Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: 10-6. The Packers come roaring back to make this a close race, and road games against the Rams, Seahawks, Patriots and Eagles make for a tough schedule. Minnesota can still be a playoff team, but I don’t think a 13-3 repeat is in the cards, even though I love the Cousins signing.
KC Joyner, NFL writer: 10-6. Minnesota should be able to go 4-2 in the NFC North, 2-2 against the NFC West and 3-1 against the AFC East. Add in a 1-1 split against the Saints and Eagles and it’s a 10-6 mark.
Mike Sando, senior NFL writer: 11-5. Cousins should be a nice get for the Vikings, but their overall QB play has been pretty good for the past three seasons, despite all the uncertainty. If Cousins plays about as well as he has played the past three seasons, the Vikings will be upgrading, but not dramatically. The numbers say the difference could be less than one additional victory per season on the whole, and the team could lose more than one victory off its surprisingly strong QB production from 2017.
Aaron Schatz, editor-in-chief of Football Outsiders: 11-5. Cousins should be an upgrade over what we might expect from Case Keenum in 2018. But I don’t know if Cousins can really be much of an upgrade from what the Vikings got from Keenum in 2017. Add in typical regression faced by 13-3 teams, and this seems like a pretty good forecast.
Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: 11-5. The Vikings will have a first-place schedule and, as exciting as the Cousins acquisition is, they’re still breaking in a new quarterback with a new offensive coordinator. To expect completely smooth sailing from Week 1, and then meet or exceed last year’s 13-3 record, might be unrealistic.
Field Yates, NFL Insider: 11-5. Is it possible that Minnesota could emerge as the top team in the NFC? Of course. But keep in mind, the Vikings’ schedule includes games against the other division winners from last year, as well as four games against the Packers and Lions, who will both be quality teams in 2018.
Who’s the NFC favorite in 2018?
Bowen: Saints. The Eagles, Vikings and Rams are in the mix here. And don’t forget about Green Bay with Rodgers back and a new defensive identity under coordinator Mike Pettine. But I’m looking at Drew Brees, the NFL’s most dynamic running back combo and an aggressive defense that can cover in the back end. This Saints squad is built to win in January.
Clay: Eagles. No question. It’s easy to simply pick the defending Super Bowl champions, but this team is absolutely stacked on paper, especially after adding Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata to the defensive line. They also have Jordan Hicks, Jason Peters and that Carson Wentz guy due back from injury.
Cronin: Eagles. The rich keep getting richer, don’t they? Philadelphia’s additions on the defensive line of Ngata and Bennett make the Eagles the most star-studded group in the NFL. They just won a Super Bowl with backup quarterback Nick Foles, who apparently isn’t going anywhere, and will get Wentz back this fall. The Vikings, Rams, Saints and Packers all will contend, but it’s hard to see the Eagles not contending to win another Super Bowl.
Graziano: Saints. It’d be easy to sit here and say the Eagles are the favorites to repeat, but for goodness’ sake, there hasn’t even been a repeat NFC East champion since 2004. It’s hard to go to the Super Bowl two years in a row. New Orleans still has the best QB among the top contenders and lost its playoff game on a miracle.
Joyner: Eagles. Howie Roseman’s personnel wizardry has taken a Super Bowl winner and made it even stronger. Minnesota will challenge the Eagles, but as we saw in the playoffs, the Vikings’ defense is nowhere near as strong as its reputation suggests, so Philadelphia should once again top them for the conference crown.
Sando: Eagles. Philadelphia is the favorite for obvious reasons, but I won’t be surprised if the Cowboys challenge the Eagles in the NFC East and another team emerges from the conference — the Vikings could be that team if they secure home-field advantage. It’s just tough to come off Philly right now, before the official start of free agency.
Schatz: Rams. They were No. 1 in the Football Outsiders DVOA ratings until they sat all their starters in Week 17. All their young players have an additional year of experience, and the combo of Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib is a significant upgrade at the very important cornerback position. Plus, a weaker AFC West should give the Rams (and 49ers!) a small schedule advantage over the Vikings, Eagles and Saints.
Seifert: Eagles. They won the Super Bowl with their backup quarterback in 2017, and their starting MVP contender will return. The Vikings have splashed, but let’s not forget about the defending champions.
Yates: Eagles. This team, fresh off of a Super Bowl run, already has acquired a premium pass-rusher in Bennett, a young, affordable cornerback in Daryl Worley and a sizable run-stuffer in Ngata. With the return of Wentz, an endlessly-deep pass rush and a formidable offensive line, Philly is primed to make a deep run again next season.
What should be the Vikings’ next move?
Bowen: Offensive line. With Cousins now linked to new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo in a modern West Coast system — a mix of play-action pass, run-pass options and movement — adding competition on the interior of the offensive line is the next step. And Minnesota can find value there in free agency. The Vikings also can look for a slot cornerback in free agency with veteran Terence Newman set to hit the market.
Clay: Offensive line and the defensive interior. They’re the weakest links on the roster, so I expect them to address both in the coming months. Re-signing or upgrading from guard Joe Berger and defensive tackles Shamar Stephen and Tom Johnson should be the next priority. Minnesota also should be looking to add a No. 2 or 3 cornerback behind Xavier Rhodes. Patrick Robinson, Aaron Colvin, Nickell Robey-Coleman and TJ Carrie can play the slot and make a lot of sense.
Cronin: Find a defensive tackle in free agency. The vaunted pass rush struggled mightily toward the end of last season, and Minnesota really needs to find someone who can hold down the spot next to Linval Joseph. Then draft an offensive lineman. Selecting someone like Billy Price from Ohio State would be a great way to add depth and allow for Mike Remmers to move back to right tackle.
Graziano: Extensions for some of their defensive stalwarts. I’d expect Eric Kendricks to get a deal in training camp, if not before, and at some point they’ll need to secure players such as Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr and Trae Waynes. With the QB in place, do what the Eagles do and lock up your core.
Joyner: Improve their offensive line. Last year, Minnesota ranked 20th in my good blocking rate metric that measures run-blocking consistency, and 24th in pass pressure rate allowed. The Vikings will need to get much better in both areas in order to maximize the value of the Cousins acquisition.
Sando: They could use a tweak on the offensive line, but they should avoid throwing big money at mediocre blockers just to feel good about having addressed the position. I’d want to add a downfield scoring threat and wouldn’t argue with them if they looked for a defensive lineman, based on how heavily Mike Zimmer relies on a four-man rush. That area of the team must remain strong at all times.
Schatz: Improvement on the offensive line. Even if it is just for depth. They can’t allow themselves to fall into the injury hole that destroyed their 2016 season. This would be a good position to address with multiple later-round draft picks.
Seifert: Reinforcing the offensive line. Don’t forget the personnel juggling this team was forced to do at the end of last season, really because of only one injury to guard Nick Easton. They need another starting guard and better depth to protect the Cousins investment.
Yates: A decision on Latavius Murray. Let’s look with a particularly near lens, as Murray’s base salary for 2018 of $5.15 million becomes guaranteed on the third day of the NFL league year. Deciding whether to keep him, move on from him or angle for a restructured deal will have salary-cap implications and perhaps reflect where the team feels Dalvin Cook is in his recovery from an ACL tear.