NFL offseason power rankings: No. 22 Minnesota Vikings finally move on from Kirk Cousins

Preview focus: Can rookie QB J.J. McCarthy take advantage of a strong group of weapons?

Star wide receiver Justin Jefferson leads a talented group of offensive weapons for the Minnesota Vikings. (Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports)
Star wide receiver Justin Jefferson leads a talented group of offensive weapons for the Minnesota Vikings. (Taylor Wilhelm/Yahoo Sports)

It had to be scary for the Minnesota Vikings to break up with Kirk Cousins.

There was comfort in having Cousins. Minnesota always knew that they'd have solid, steady quarterback play. That was reassuring even if the Vikings had to realize that reaching a Super Bowl with Cousins was never going to happen. They had more losing seasons (three) in the six-year Cousins era than playoff appearances (two). That wasn't all Cousins' fault, and even if he wasn't taking the Vikings where they wanted to go, he was safe. That's why Minnesota kept reworking his contract.

The Vikings still tried to hold the relationship together when Cousins was set to hit free agency. The Vikings made an offer. But eventually they had to let go when the Atlanta Falcons offered a four-year, $180 million deal (Cousins reportedly also wanted to leave after the Vikings told him of their plans to draft a QB ... what a surprise Cousins would have weeks later with the Falcons). It was the right thing for the Vikings to do. It also meant the Vikings had to step out of a comfort zone and enter the uncertainty of not knowing who their quarterback would be in 2024. So many times NFL teams settle and pay average quarterbacks because they're worried about what comes next, even if they know that quarterback isn't really the answer. When you dump an average quarterback and spend a season losing with a bad quarterback, people get fired. When you wonder why front offices pay too much for this or that quarterback who clearly isn't worth the contract, that's the reason.

While those weeks before the NFL Draft must have been nervous for the Vikings, it all turned out OK. Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy was a player who seemed to go way up and down in mock drafts, but he eventually fell to No. 10 and the Vikings made a low-cost move to trade up one spot to draft him. And while we have no idea if McCarthy will ever be as good as Cousins, you'd have to say the Vikings are in a better place now. Let's compare the two situations from a salary cap standpoint, if the Vikings had mindlessly matched the Falcons' offer for the soon-to-be 36-year-old Cousins ...

Cousins: cap hits of $25 million in 2024, $40 million in 2025, and $57.5 million each in 2026 and 2027

McCarthy: estimated cap hits of approximately $21.5 million combined from 2024-27, starting with a cap hit of a little less than $4 million in 2024, with a fifth-year option

Can McCarthy be 1/9 of the quarterback of Cousins? Probably. He's also 14 1/2 years younger. And at some point the Vikings had to realize that paying Cousins $45 million a season wasn't getting them where they wanted to go, especially in a rapidly improving NFC North. It was just easing their anxiety a little bit.

McCarthy won't have the job handed to him. The Vikings have spent a lot of time this offseason getting out the message that Sam Darnold is the QB1 entering camp and they're excited to give him a shot while McCarthy waits and learns. Maybe Darnold holds the job well into the season. But No. 10 overall picks at quarterback rarely sit for long, especially if a team traded up to get them, and Darnold and his career 78.3 passer rating doesn't profile as the type who will play so well the Vikings won't be forced into trying the rookie. No matter the Vikings' media campaign, it seems likely we'll see McCarthy pretty early in the season.

If the Vikings' quarterback situation is settled, they might not be bad. The rest of the NFC North has gotten the hype, but Minnesota could be a sleeper. Kevin O'Connell showed last season that he's a top-end coach, after Cousins tore his Achilles and the Vikings stayed competitive with a subpar set of quarterbacks. Justin Jefferson is arguably the best receiver in the NFL and now paid as such. Aaron Jones, Jordan Addison (who could be suspended after a July 12 arrest for suspicion of drunk driving) and T.J. Hockenson (who is coming back from an ACL tear) are good supporting pieces on offense, and the defense was much better last season after Brian Flores took over as coordinator. Assuming McCarthy is the starting quarterback before long and he's reasonable at the job, the Vikings might not miss Cousins.

The Vikings' offseason might end up serving as a blueprint for teams in the future. Yes, there is some concern in being on a tightrope if you cut ties with a safe veteran quarterback, but it's rare that overpaying one works out well. Minnesota finally was forced into changing course. And if McCarthy is OK, they'll be better off.

Is it possible that Kirk Cousins has a great season with the Falcons and the Vikings have some regrets not paying him? Sure. But it was time to try something new, and J.J. McCarthy will give the Vikings the type of cap flexibility they haven't had in years. Other than quarterback, there were a lot of big offseason moves and changes. The Vikings traded a 2024 fifth-round pick and third- and fourth-round picks in 2025 to move up from No. 23 to No. 17 to draft defensive end Dallas Turner. They acquired that 23rd pick weeks before the draft for two second-round picks and a sixth-round pick (Minnesota also got a seventh rounder back in the deal). That made Turner ridiculously expensive. Any draft value chart ever made would count that as a loss but clearly the Vikings believe in Turner, who many thought could be the first defensive player off the board in the draft. In free agency, the big move was signing Jonathan Greenard (four years, $76 million) while letting Danielle Hunter walk, which is potentially an upgrade. The Vikings also spent on linebackers Blake Cashman and Andrew Van Ginkel, which helps the front seven as they replace departed Jordan Hicks. They spent $10 million on Sam Darnold, which is likely wasted money but helped calm the Vikings' nerves before they could draft McCarthy. Running back Aaron Jones could be a valuable signing (one year, $7 million) if he plays as well as he did late last season with the Packers.

Grade: B

Kevin O'Connell is pushing competition at training camp for the quarterback position, which means rookie J.J. McCarthy will have to beat out Sam Darnold. To this point, Darnold hasn't shown that he's a reliable NFL starting quarterback, though he is just 27 years old and the Vikings are going out of their way to praise him this offseason.

"At the quarterback position, look, we're really excited about Sam," O'Connell told "Mad Dog Sports Radio," via NFL.com. "I had a lot of the same feelings that you did about Sam coming out, really kept a close eye on his quarterback journey, and not all quarterback journeys are the same."

The Vikings seem determined to be patient with McCarthy, not wanting to rush him and set him back. But it will be difficult to wait if Darnold struggles, which he has for most of his NFL career. McCarthy was an intriguing prospect off a very good national championship season with Michigan, and top 10 picks at quarterback very rarely get a redshirt season anymore. If O'Connell could get Joshua Dobbs up to speed to play quarterback in a few days last season and win a game, he can get plenty out of McCarthy right away too.

The Vikings are expected to finish last in the NFC North. They have the lowest win total in the division at 6.5 at BetMGM. They also have the longest odds to win the division at +750. No other NFC North team is longer than +375. There's an uphill battle, but the Vikings did go 7-10 last season despite Kirk Cousins' injury limiting him to eight games. J.J. McCarthy was +900 to win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in June, but those odds moved to +1800 by the beginning of July due to the drumbeat that Sam Darnold is the Vikings' preferred choice to start the season. McCarthy could be a factor in the OROY race, but it depends on how quickly he earns the starting job.

From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "You have my permission to draft Justin Jefferson with confidence, let's start with that. Keep that thought in mind as we examine the Vikings offense in general.

"The Minnesota passing game was supposed to fall apart when Kirk Cousins got hurt last year, but the wounds weren't as bad as expected. Sure, efficiency was a problem, but the Vikings still made explosive plays. Nick Mullens went for 8.8 YPA in his three starts, and Jaren Hall managed 8.4 YPA. The moral of this story: head coach Kevin O'Connell knows how to design a downfield passing game.

"The hope is that Sam Darnold can be a short-term solution for the Vikings, with J.J. McCarthy a long-term solution. Both of them come with caveats — Darnold's six-year career has been checkered, and McCarthy operated a run-first offense at Michigan. But O'Connell has earned the benefit of the doubt, and so has Jefferson. The signature wideout racked up a juicy 30-476-2 line in his final four starts last year, despite Minnesota's motley crew of quarterbacks.

"It's reasonable that CeeDee Lamb, Tyreek Hill and Ja'Marr Chase have earlier ADPs than Jefferson this summer, and some will prefer Amon-Ra St. Brown to Jefferson, too. But Jefferson certainly belongs in the middle of the first round, and he has a fair chance to be the overall WR1 when the season is complete."

The Vikings cranked up the pressure last season with new coordinator Brian Flores taking over the defense, and it paid off. Minnesota had a blitz rate of 51.5%, according to Pro Football Reference, which easily led the NFL. Only two other teams, the New York Giants at 45.4% and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 40.1%, had a blitz rate above 35.2%. Practically speaking, Flores' Vikings blitzed about 15% more than almost any other team in the NFL. And the Vikings did pretty well with that approach, finishing 11th in defensive DVOA. A year before, the Vikings defense ranked 27th. Opponents will get an offseason to adjust to the Vikings' frenetic approach, but Flores is a proven defensive coach and he'll have counterpunches. If edge rushers Jonathan Greenard and first-round pick Dallas Turner are upgrades over departed Danielle Hunter and D.J. Wonnum (that's a big ask after the latter pair combined for 24.5 sacks last season), then the Vikings should be able to hold onto some of their defensive gains from last season. At very least, Minnesota's defense won't be boring.

There has been a lot of talk about the situation Caleb Williams steps into with the Bears, but McCarthy's situation (whenever he takes over as QB1) with the Vikings is comparable. It starts with Justin Jefferson, who became the highest paid non-quarterback in NFL history when he signed a four-year, $140 million deal in June. Jefferson has averaged 98.3 yards per game in his career, which is 12.2 more than any receiver in NFL history. He has a good running partner, too. Receiver Jordan Addison, a 2023 first-round pick, made a big splash right away with 911 yards and 10 touchdowns. Tight end T.J. Hockenson tore his ACL on a controversial hit by Lions safety Kerby Joseph in Week 15. That was late in the season, and as a result Hockenson might not be ready for Week 1. He could start the season on the PUP list and miss the first six weeks. But if he returns healthy, he is one of the NFL's best tight ends. The running game should be better with Aaron Jones, who had a strong finish to last season with the Packers and signed with Minnesota in the offseason. Minnesota's offensive line has improved and is now considered above average. Whether most of the starts go to McCarthy or Sam Darnold this season, either quarterback will have talent around him.

At a time when offseason narratives were set, the Vikings got buried and dismissed. The Lions were coming off an NFC championship game appearance. The Packers got hot late last season with Jordan Love. The Bears added players in anticipation of Caleb Williams' arrival. And in March, the Vikings lost Kirk Cousins without an immediate succession plan. But the Vikings did find a quarterback solution with J.J. McCarthy. We'll have to see if McCarthy can play well right away, but plenty of NFL evaluators liked him and he is coming off a great final college season. The Vikings have a good coach, a defense that made a big leap with a new coordinator last season and a good group of offensive players that can support a rookie quarterback. The Vikings were very lucky in their 2022 playoff season, but unlucky last season with eight losses in one-score games and a big injury to Kirk Cousins. If the luck is neutral this season and McCarthy or Sam Darnold play well in a good situation, the Vikings could be a big surprise to those who wrote them off when Cousins left.

There are many reasons to like J.J. McCarthy, but he was the QB5 in this draft class for a reason. In 2011, the Vikings reached on Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick because they needed a quarterback and that's who was available when they picked. Maybe we'll look back on the Vikings drafting McCarthy in a similar light. It's also possible the blitz-heavy Vikings' defense regresses a bit, injury concerns for players like Aaron Jones and T.J. Hockenson become an issue and Minnesota does finish in last place, which has been the expectation all offseason.

The Vikings could be much better than their ranking. It's hard to put too many rookie expectations on the fifth quarterback off the board in any NFL Draft class, or for Sam Darnold to suddenly be good. But J.J. McCarthy is set up well for success and he should start by the end of September, if not by Week 1 no matter what narrative the Vikings are pushing. Perhaps the overall talent of the NFC North does keep the Vikings in last place, but that says more about the state of the division. The Vikings could end up being one of the best last-place teams in the NFL, or maybe not in last place at all. Keep an eye on this interesting Vikings team early in the season.