The Cardinals are heading to Minnesota this weekend, to face the Vikings and quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Seven months ago, he was the object of the Cardinals’ affection, as the team reportedly made a push to sign the veteran in free agency. Cousins instead chose the Vikings’ contract offer of three years and $84 million.
Through five games, he has been worth the investment, throwing for 337.6 yards per game with 11 touchdowns, two interceptions, a 71.2 completion percentage and a quarterback rating of 105.1.
“I don’t think you get many opportunities to get a quarterback like Cousins on the open market,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said this week. “So we just felt like we needed to pull the trigger.”
The Cardinals, meanwhile, went to Plan B in free agency, signing Sam Bradford, one of three quarterbacks the Vikings jettisoned to chase Cousins. That didn’t work out for the Cards, as Bradford lasted less than three games before getting benched.
Sunday, then, seems like it will be a classic case of quarterback envy. The jilted Cardinals will look across the field longingly, knowing their situation could have been better with Cousins in the fold.
That may indeed be true for 2018, but moving forward, Cousins’ decision may have been a blessing in disguise.
When Cousins signed with Minnesota, it pushed into overdrive the Cardinals’ search for a young, franchise quarterback. General Manager Steve Keim was aggressive in the draft, moving up five spots to nab Josh Rosen with the No. 10 overall selection.
Rosen will make his third career start against the Vikings, and while the pure numbers aren’t excellent, the anticipation is building because of the promise he has displayed.
“I can’t remember, in my 20 years here, that I have been this excited about a rookie quarterback,” Keim said. “This guy has the mental makeup, the confidence, the physical tools and all the necessary things to be a really good one.”
If Rosen lives up to the hype, it opens a world of possibilities. Since the new rookie wage scale was implemented in 2011, successful quarterbacks on rookie contracts have been the most valuable commodity in the NFL.
The Seahawks built a dominant team during Russell Wilson’s first four years, winning a Super Bowl and advancing to another. The Eagles won last year’s Super Bowl in part because they didn’t have a huge quarterback contract on the books. The two undefeated teams remaining in the NFL, the Rams and Chiefs, each have quarterbacks on rookie deals.
The Vikings are built to win now, which is why the addition of Cousins was so important, but the future in Arizona could be bright if Keim plays his cards right.
“Kirk went almost to an ideal situation, so he had the best of both worlds – he got a mega-contract and went to a team that is theoretically set to challenge,” said Louis Riddick, a former front office executive with the Redskins and Eagles who is now an analyst for ESPN. “So I get it. But I also get why Steve Keim and the rest of those guys in Arizona said, ‘We’re going to go the rookie quarterback route, who we can develop as our own. That’s who we want to be and we’ll build it up around him and continue to develop him.’ Quite honestly, if I had my choice, it would be that way. That’s how I would love to build a football team.”
Cousins is set to make $29 million in 2019 and $31 million in 2020, according to OverTheCap.com. Rosen, meanwhile, will earn a combined total of $14.4 million over the next three seasons. The Cardinals have some holes offensively that need addressed, and the heavy savings at the quarterback position will allow Keim maneuverability.
“Oh, gosh, all you have to do is look at the going rate for quarterbacks,” Keim said. “Probably at the low end it’s $22 million or $23 million, and the high end now of $33 million with Aaron Rodgers, and somewhere in between, even if you are $28 million, to be safe, you’re looking at in excess of $25 million to spend at other positions. I can’t tell you how valuable that is.”
Cap space is important, but it’s not the magic cure. The Browns boasted oodles of it for years and continually struggled. The most important factor is Rosen making the jump from enticing prospect to efficient NFL quarterback.
His first start against the Seahawks in Week 4 was encouraging, as Pro Football Focus called it the best rookie quarterback debut since they began grading in 2006. Rosen wasn’t as sharp in last week’s win over the 49ers.
Coach Steve Wilks cautioned that there will be hiccups throughout Rosen’s rookie campaign, and it’s something Riddick hopes Cardinals fans will take in stride.
“We live in such a microwave society,” Riddick said. “Like, ‘If he’s not good right now he must suck. Let’s send him to Canada.’ Josh is going to break out, where everybody can exhale in Arizona and say, ‘OK, that’s our guy.’ It’s coming. There are so many quarterbacks having so much damn success right now, it’s almost like, ‘Hey, that’s what our guy better start doing.’ It’s coming for him. I have nothing but confidence in that kid.”
Riddick calls Rosen a “fantastic prospect,” lauding his pre-snap ability to dissect a defense, which in turn results in post-snap success. Riddick said the mental prowess is paired with impressive tools.
“There’s nothing that limits him physically,” Riddick said, “as far as moving in the pocket, completing passes at all three levels of the field and getting outside the pocket, if necessary, to buy time – although no one’s ever going to confuse him with Pat Mahomes or Deshaun Watson.”
Rosen may not have Mahomes’ mobility, but mirroring his situation would be an ideal outcome for the Cardinals. The Chiefs have been able to flank Mahomes with elite playmakers. They already had wide receiver Tyreek Hill, tight end Travis Kelce and running back Kareem Hunt and then added high-priced wide receiver Sammy Watkins in free agency.
The key for teams with cap space, Riddick said, is continuing to build through the draft while using free agency for complementary additions.
“It comes with some risk when you start taking that approach of, ‘Well, now we’ve got all this extra cap space and it’s like money burning a hole in my pocket. I’ve got to do something with it,’” Riddick said. “Be careful. Sometimes just let it sit in there and just keep doing it fundamentally the way you know will usually pay the most dividends, which is get some young kids in there who are talented and fit your scheme, who are going to be very much accountable to one another.”
Keim has long preached building through the draft, referring to it as the lifeblood of the organization. Now, though, he can add veteran infusions easier than in the cap-strapped past.
The start of 2018 has not been easy for the Cardinals, and an alternate reality with Cousins under center likely would have boosted the offense. However, when it comes to a long-term outlook, it doesn’t take Rosen-colored glasses to believe in the rookie quarterback path.
“I do feel like we have identified the right guy, and the franchise guy, moving forward,” Keim said. “It really does give you the flexibility and a tremendous amount of benefit. We get to build around this kid for several years.”
Images of past matchups between the Cardinals and this week's opponent, the Minnesota Vikings