Cousins dilemma just one of the issues Vikings face this offseason

Cousins will turn 36 next summer and is coming off the first major injury of his pro career, a torn right Achilles that ended his season after eight games. AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn

EAGAN, Minn. -- The only reason to launch a full roster rebuild, Minnesota Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah was saying last week, is if you don't think you're close to competing for a Super Bowl title.

His comment sparked an important follow-up: Do you think the Vikings are close?

"At different times this year, you would say that 'Yeah, we've shown it,'" Adofo-Mensah said. "And, last year in fact. But I think you want to get to that place in your program that it is consistent year in and year out and you can overcome adversity. We are not there to that standard yet, no. But we have made the playoffs. We have been in playoff contention for a lot of this year through a lot of things, so I think we're pointed in the right direction. It is going to take a big offseason for me to answer that question a little bit more and shorter next time."

And with that, Adofo-Mensah set up the most important leverage point of his tenure with the team, one for which he'll weigh how many resources to apply to the short term amid a list of long-term needs that have gone largely unfulfilled since he was hired in January 2022.

He and coach Kevin O'Connell have compiled a 20-14 record over the ensuing two seasons, with one playoff appearance. But two of their three best players, quarterback Kirk Cousins and pass-rusher Danielle Hunter, are pending free agents with a clear path to market after the Vikings negotiated away their right to use the franchise tag on either. The third, receiver Justin Jefferson, did not accept an offer to extend his contract last summer and would play in 2024 under his fifth-year option if no agreement can be reached.

Adofo-Mensah has drafted one impact player -- receiver Jordan Addison -- among 16 picks over two years, and his 2024 position at No. 11 probably isn't high enough to select a top-tier successor to Cousins.

When you layer those circumstances on a unique set of expectations from the Wilf family ownership group, which in the words of president/owner Mark Wilf means the Vikings must "consistently contend" rather than go into a "full rebuild," you start to get a sense for why Adofo-Mensah knows he needs a "big offseason." And nowhere is his difficult path forward manifested more intensely than at quarterback.

Cousins will turn 36 this summer and is coming off the first major injury of his pro career, a torn right Achilles that ended his season after eight games. He has said repeatedly that he wants to finish his career in Minnesota, and both Adofo-Mensah and O'Connell have said they hope to reach an agreement with him as well. But the breadcrumbs Cousins has left about the terms of that presumed return suggest he will seek multiple guaranteed years in order to re-sign before his deal voids on March 13.

Last week, in fact, Cousins relayed advice he received long ago about evaluating contract offers: "It's not about the dollars, but it is about what the dollars represent." Cousins declined to further explain but left the clear impression that he wants the Vikings' offer to represent a similar desire for him to finish his career in Minnesota.

Adofo-Mensah said last week one of his primary goals after taking the Vikings job was to regain "financial flexibility," and that approach led him to allow Cousins to enter 2023 in the final non-voidable year of his contract. If he wasn't willing to guarantee Cousins multiple seasons in 2023, is there any reason to believe he has changed his mind about flexibility one year -- and a significant injury -- later?

So goes the argument for believing the Vikings will ultimately allow Cousins to enter the market, where he would be the top quarterback available. But if that happens, would the Vikings be able to "consistently contend" in 2024 with either a rookie starter or a replacement-level veteran?

Adofo-Mensah said last week the Wilfs have never explicitly told him they would veto a plan to open a season with a rookie starter. "We just talk about, 'What are the time horizons, what are the goals and where [do] we think best to do that,'" he said.

Those "time horizons" are in essence a projection of when decisions will make their impact. Common sense suggests the third year of a general manager/coach tenure is not the time to sacrifice the short term for a long-term result. That's the primary argument for giving Cousins what he wants to return. While there are always examples of rookie quarterbacks taking their teams to the playoffs -- C.J. Stroud did it for the Houston Texans this season -- they are generally more the exception than the rule.

That leads to a third option: re-signing Cousins and drafting a high-end quarterback, a scenario that former NFL general manager Mike Tannenbaum, now an ESPN analyst, endorsed this fall. While few would argue the wisdom of pushing so many resources to the quarterback position, that decision would not only minimize the salary-cap benefit of having a starting quarterback on a rookie contract, but it would further limit the Vikings' opportunities to make up for the apparent draft misses they produced in 2022 and 2023, especially on defense.

The Vikings drafted five defensive players among the top 165 picks in 2022, and one, fourth-round cornerback Akayleb Evans, has seen notable playing time outside of special teams. First-round safety Lewis Cine was inactive for 11 games, and second-round cornerback Andrew Booth Jr. spent the season buried on the depth chart.

Adofo-Mensah said the "path is not always linear" for player development and added that both players "have shown us nothing but reason to believe they are going to keep on their upward path." No matter how you look at it, however, the Vikings have added only two defensive rookies in the past two seasons -- cornerback Mekhi Blackmon and linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. -- whom they trusted enough to use with any frequency. With the potential of losing Hunter and with fellow outside linebacker D.J. Wonnum also a pending free agent, the Vikings' "big offseason" will be as much about finding defensive reinforcements as deciding the path at quarterback.

"It's an important offseason," Adofo-Mensah said, changing the adjective but reiterating the message. "I can't really run from that in any kind of way."