Justin Jefferson Viewed Contract Situation Impacting Kirk Cousins’ Free Agency

Kirk Cousins has said he viewed the Vikings as using a year-by-year approach at quarterback during the latter part of his Minnesota run. The Vikings passed on extending Cousins in 2023 and then did not come especially close to the Falcons’ offer in March.

A move to Sam Darnold or J.J. McCarthy come Week 1 will mark a change for Minnesota, which has used Cousins as its starting quarterback to open each of the past six seasons. Cousins had said on many occasions he wanted to stay with the Vikings, but those comments died down this offseason. Falcons rumors emerged in early March and did not slow down, leading to the 13th-year QB’s four-year, $180MM deal — one that features a $100MM practical guarantee.

[RELATED: Offseason In Review: Minnesota Vikings]

The Vikings soon gave Darnold a one-year, $10MM deal and focused on a landmark Justin Jefferson extension. Given the money Cousins commanded from the Falcons, the Vikes — after already handing T.J. Hockenson a market-setting extension — would have experienced a difficult time extending Jefferson after re-signing their six-year passer. Jefferson knew this would factor into the Cousins conversation.

I always knew that Kirk was going to do whatever he needs to do for his businesses-wise,” Jefferson said during an appearance on the Rich Eisen Show (video link), “and I just knew that everything just wasn’t the way he wanted it to be here, especially just with having to pay me and having to pay so many other different guys.

“I feel like he just wanted a new start, a new opportunity to start with Atlanta and a clean slate, and I’m not mad at him at all for that. I’m grateful for what he has brought to me and the things that we have accomplished together.”

Via his practical guarantee, Cousins is on track to move his career earnings past $330MM. The former Washington fourth-rounder is certainly one of the shrewdest NFLers of his era and probably any era. Cousins maximized his value six years ago, maneuvering out of Washington after two franchise tags en route to a fully guaranteed $84MM Vikings contract. That three-year deal gave Cousins the upper hand in his ensuing negotiations with the team, leading to player-friendly extensions in 2020 and 2022. Guarantees held up the parties in 2023, and the Kwesi Adofo-Mensah-led front office let the veteran starter walk this year.

Jefferson signed a monster extension in June, committing to the Vikings on a four-year, $140MM deal that includes a whopping $110MM guaranteed. Both Jefferson’s guarantee and guarantee at signing ($88.7MM) shattered wide receiver records. Although the Vikings paid Jefferson despite a $28.5MM Cousins dead money hit due to void years, rivaling the Falcons’ offer and paying Jefferson would have been difficult. Jefferson’s $35MM-per-year extension will overlap with McCarthy’s rookie contract.

At the end of the day, it’s a business and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do for yourself and for your family, and I clearly understand that. But it’s on to the next,” Jefferson said. “It doesn’t really matter what quarterback it is in my eyes. I’m always going to try to make the best of the opportunity. I’m always going to try to be the quarterback’s friend and make his job a lot easier. It doesn’t matter if it was Kirk or if it’s Sam or if it’s J.J. I’m going to make it as easy as possible for him.”

Darnold will work with the starters to begin training camp, but the seventh-year veteran will eventually face a challenge from the No. 10 overall draftee. Cousins, 36 in August, now teams with two former top-10 skill-position draftees on rookie deals (Drake London, Kyle Pitts), and the Falcons brought in Darnell Mooney on a midlevel pact (three years, $39MM). Though, it is certainly possible that the Falcons pivot to first-rounder Michael Penix Jr. by the time those two are on veteran deals — if those extensions come to fruition in Atlanta.

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