With Kirk Cousins’ future uncertain, Vikings might use No. 12 pick in draft on a quarterback

Jan. 14—The Vikings just might try a quarterback do-over with the No. 12 pick in this year’s NFL draft.

In 2011, the Vikings were desperate for a quarterback when they surprised many by selecting Florida State’s Christian Ponder at No. 12 in the draft. Rick Spielman was running that draft as vice president of player personnel, but would be promoted to general manager in January 2012.

Ponder never panned out, and that didn’t help Spielman’s early years in his new job. But Spielman did manage to last a decade until being fired last Monday along with head coach Mike Zimmer after the Vikings had losing records in each of the past two seasons.

Soon, the Vikings will have a new general manager, and once again they will be pick No. 12 in the draft. And once again they might take a quarterback.

Kirk Cousins has one year left on his contract for a guaranteed $35 million with a whopping salary-cap number of $45 million, and it’s uncertain if he will be back in 2022. But even if Cousins does return, and barring him signing an extension, the Vikings still might want to look for a quarterback early in the April 28-30 draft in Las Vegas.

“It’s hard to see a new general manager tying his early regime to Kirk Cousins, especially with him having that $45 million cap number next year,” ESPN draft analyst Jordan Reid said. “Kirk is good but he hasn’t proved to be worth that type of price tag. … We don’t know who the next GM and head coach are going to be but (addressing the quarterback situation) will be one of the big decisions they will have to make early on.”

The Vikings might need to pay part of Cousins’ salary in a possible trade, and they might want to get a veteran quarterback back in return. But they might not be able to land a quarterback good enough to bypass putting a priority on taking one in the draft.

One issue, though, is that 2022 is not considered to be a deep draft for quarterbacks. Not like it was last year, when Trevor Lawrence went No. 1 to Jacksonville, Zach Wilson No. 2 to the New York Jets, Trey Lance No. 3 to San Francisco, Justin Fields No. 11 to Chicago and Mac Jones No. 15 to New England.

“It’s a class of quarterbacks that is very unsettled, and in some ways it’s the opposite of last year when you had five quarterbacks where you felt good that all five could be starters in the league and could potentially lead us to the playoffs,” said Dane Brugler, a draft analyst for The Athletic. “This year you’ve got five or six quarterbacks at the top where it’s hard to have the conviction that, ‘Hey, this is a guy that can help lead us to the playoffs.’ … That makes it tough. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

If the Vikings do want to take a quarterback at No. 12, they likely would have more of choice among the top candidates available than in 2021 when four quarterbacks were gone after pick No. 11.

While it’s early in the process, Reid foresees three quarterbacks being locks to go in the first round — Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, North Carolina’s Sam Howell and Mississippi’s Matt Corral. Reid said it’s wide open what the order will be. He said any of the three could end up being available to the Vikings at No. 12, if they stay at that spot.

Reid said Malik Willis of Liberty could play his way into the first round, and so could Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder. He said Nevada’s Carson Strong could be regarded as having first-round talent but there are medical issues since he has had three knee operations.

Five of those six quarterbacks will be on display at Senior Bowl practices in the coming week in Mobile, Ala., and Reid said a better idea will emerge of which players stand out. Corral is ineligible to participate since he is a redshirt junior who has not graduated. He suffered a high ankle sprain in Mississippi’s 21-7 loss to Baylor in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1 but is expected to eventually be healthy enough to show his stuff to scouts during workouts leading up to the draft.

The Vikings did start thinking about a future at quarterback when they took Kellen Mond with the No. 66 overall pick in the third round last year, their highest-drafted quarterback since Teddy Bridgewater went No. 32 in 2014. But Mond struggled in the preseason and was inactive for 15 of 17 regular-season games as the third-stringer behind Cousins and veteran backup Sean Mannion. When Cousins sat out the Jan. 2 game at Green Bay while on the COVID-19 reserve list and Mannion left briefly in the fourth quarter with an injury in the 37-10 loss, Mond came in for three plays but did not look good.

“I think the guys at the top are much better prospects than what Kellen was coming out a year ago,” Reid said of the potential first-round prospects in this year’s draft. “I think he would be a tier below those guys.”

After the Packers game, Zimmer was asked if he wanted to see more of Mond in the meaningless season finale the following week against Chicago. He said “not particularly” because “I see him every day (in practice).”

Mond’s confidence apparently has not been shaken. A source close to Mond said Zimmer’s comments “didn’t bother him at all” because “Kellen’s got thick skin.”

Mond does have one big supporter moving forward in former Vikings quarterback Tommy Kramer. He and Mond are both natives of San Antonio, and Kramer watched Mond closely at Texas A&M.

“They didn’t give him a chance,” Kramer said of Mond’s rookie season. “You just need a chance. I think the Mond kid can play.”

Still, if the Vikings move on from Cousins or if 2022 remains the final year on his contract, Kramer said now could be a good the time to take a quarterback in the draft.

“Number 12, that’s not bad,” Kramer said of the Vikings’ position in the draft. “But that’s what the scouts are for.”

While the Vikings won’t have a general manager or coach in place during Senior Bowl week, they will have multiple scouts there. Then after the hires are made, there will be opportunities to evaluate quarterbacks at the combine and pro days.

Many analysts regard Pickett as the top prospect at this point. As a redshirt senior, he was third in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2021, a season in which he threw for 4,319 yards with 42 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

“Maybe he doesn’t have the elite physical skills, the big-time arm, but Kenny Pickett has the accuracy and the mobility,” Brugler said. “Maybe a team feels like he can be their starter.”

Howell played a role in current Vikings linebacker Chazz Surratt switching positions at North Carolina in 2019 for his final two seasons. Surratt was a quarterback there until Howell arrived, and it became apparent he wouldn’t be able to beat him out.

Howell was an immediate success with the Tar Heels, throwing for 7,227 yards and 68 touchdowns with 14 interceptions in his first two years. But he slumped a bit in his final season of 2021, throwing for 3,056 yards with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

“They lost so much on offense,” Reid said of the Tar Heels losing a number of top offensive players in 2021. “And he had to take over a lot of the running responsibilities (he rushed for 828 yards after running for 146 in 2020). But I think he’s one of the most gifted passers of this quarterback class.”

Corral threw for 3,337 yards with 29 touchdowns in 10 games in 2020, then 3,343 yards with 20 touchdowns in 13 games in 2021. But he cut down significantly on his interceptions, going from 14 in 2020 to five in 2021.

“I think he took a big leap,” Reid said. “The biggest thing was just the turnovers and the bad decisions were down. He has a lightning-quick throwing motion, and he can really make quick decisions.”

The athletic Willis could end up being the most difficult of the potential first-round quarterbacks to evaluate. He threw just 14 passes in his first two seasons at Auburn before transferring to Liberty, where he threw 47 touchdowns in his final two seasons. But he competed against lower-level competition.

Ridder led Cincinnati to an undefeated regular season and took the Bearcats to the College Football Playoff. But after averaging 245.4 yards passing per game and throwing for 30 touchdowns, he didn’t help himself in a 27-6 loss to Alabama in the semifinals, completing just 17 of 32 passes for 144 yards and failing to lead his team to a touchdown.

For what it might be worth, Pro Football Focus gave Pickett its highest 2021 rating of any quarterback in the draft and the analytics site has him in a mock draft going to Minnesota at No. 12. That sound better than in 2011, when many mock drafts had Ponder being selected late in the first round or in the second round before he went to the Vikings at No. 12.