MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — For all Kirk Cousins has achieved entering his 12th season in the NFL, his sixth with the Minnesota Vikings, he has rarely escaped the very situation that defines this cutthroat league of short-lived careers.
Yes, Cousins is playing for his job once again. With no extension this year to his contract, his future with the Vikings has never been less clear.
“That’s kind of the life you live,” Cousins said this week. “I think when you take that seriously, it lends itself to having success more days than not.”
Since he became a full-time starter in 2015 with Washington, Cousins has played in more regular-season games (128) than any other NFL quarterback and accumulated the third-most passing yards (34,110). Tom Brady, who has retired, and Matt Ryan, who remains a free agent, are the only ones with more.
Given the market price at his position and a profile that hasn't matched the all-time greats, the Vikings defensibly decided to let 2023 play out before making another commitment even though there's no succession plan yet. At this point in his career, though, Cousins is hardly sweating it out.
“If there is entitlement in the NFL, that organization is probably doing it wrong,” Cousins said, crediting Brady, a sure-bet Hall of Fame selection, with perpetuating that mantra. “It’s going to bring out the best in all of us. If it ever isn’t that way here, I would be the first one to complain and say, ‘Hey, I sense some entitlement, so let’s change that.’”
If this is his last year wearing purple, Cousins is in position to make it count.
The Vikings, who host Tampa Bay to open the season on Sunday, boast the league's reigning receiving leader in Justin Jefferson, who's barely beginning his prime at age 24. Tight end T.J. Hockenson made an immediate impact after arriving in a trade with Detroit. The second year in coach Kevin O'Connell's offense ought to be smoother for everyone involved, coming off a 13-4 season during which the Vikings ranked seventh in yards and eighth in points.
“In just about every phase of quarterbacking, you’re going to feel more comfortable,” Cousins said.
On the flip side, Baker Mayfield's underwhelming start in the NFL since Cleveland made him the first overall pick in the 2018 draft has landed him with a fourth team in the last 15 months. He'll make his debut with the Bucs in a daunting environment behind a revamped offensive line at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“I act like I’ve been here, but I also still have the young mindset,” Mayfield said. “I always have room to grow and learn, but also take command of it — be a leader and just show that instead of just focusing on the game plan only. Yeah, I have to do my job, but also bring everybody else along at the same time.”
With Brady no longer around, the Buccaneers have transformed from one of the oldest teams in the league to one of the youngest with six undrafted free agents among their 13 rookies on the active roster. Left tackle Donovan Smith, wide receiver Julio Jones, running back Leonard Fournette, cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, safety Mike Edwards and kicker Ryan Succop are all gone, too, from the NFC South champion squad that finished 8-9 in 2022.
“It was challenging for us, but it was fun. It was exciting,” general manager Jason Licht said of the roster reconstruction. “Any time you challenge your staff to go find gems at the dollar store, there is kind of an excitement to it. That’s what we get paid to do.”
Tampa Bay safety Antoine Winfield Jr. will revisit the city where he starred in college for Minnesota — and where his dad led the Vikings' secondary from 2004-2012. Winfield had 11 tackles and a sack as a rookie against the Vikings in 2020, but he has never played them in Minnesota.
"It is going to be special going up there,” Winfield said.
The Bucs have moved All-Pro Tristan Wirfs from right tackle to left tackle to anchor an unproven offensive line, with Luke Goedeke stepping in at right tackle, free agent acquisition Matt Feiler taking over at left guard and rookie Cody Mauch slotted as the right guard. Center Ryan Jensen will miss another season with a knee injury, with Robert Hainsey again replacing him.
The front five will be tested in one of the league's loudest stadiums, where the Vikings have never lost a home opener with fans admitted since it opened in 2016. They were beaten in 2020 by Green Bay during the pandemic when the seats were empty.
The Vikings drafted wide receiver Jordan Addison in the first round, and his promising performance throughout training camp made clear he'll be play a meaningful role as a rookie behind Jefferson, Hockenson and K.J. Osborn as the primary targets for Cousins. The attention that Jefferson is sure to demand can only help Addison with his college-to-pro transition.
“All I’ve got to do is make sure I win my one-on-ones and catch the ball,” Addison said.
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Dave Campbell, The Associated Press