Marta Lavandier/Associated Press
You don’t select a prospect 66th overall in the NFL Draft with the intention of that player serving as a backup.
The Minnesota Vikings used that selection on Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond because they believe the four-year college starter with superb arm talent and mobility can eventually start for them, and that’s a fair evaluation of a talented and intriguing signal-caller like Mond.
According to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, some scouts thought Mond could sneak into Round 1. And Chris Simms of NBC Sports had him rated as the fourth-best quarterback in the entire 2021 class.
“He’s a machine throwing the ball, as pure and consistent a thrower as anyone in this class,” tweeted Simms. “Explosive arm.”
Meanwhile, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman told the media Friday night that Mond was “one of the top players on our board.”
“Mond has the tool set to become an NFL starter,” tweeted Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus. “He’s got everything you need except a bit more aggression down the field.”
So yeah, exciting pick and one that represents value. Hooray, right?
The problem is the Vikings have over-invested in current starter Kirk Cousins to such a significant degree that it might be hard for them to get a proper feel for Mond before it’s too late.
The two-year, $66 million extension they gave Cousins last offseason means the organization is handcuffed to the 32-year-old for two more seasons. Barring a trade, they owe him $76 million between now and the conclusion of the 2022 campaign, according to Spotrac, and a trade next offseason is pretty damn unlikely. Who would acquire a 10-year veteran potentially coming off a disappointing campaign ahead of his age-34 season at a one-year cost of $35 million?
Of course, it’s possible Cousins will shine in 2021 and somebody will be willing to pay that, but the Vikings would have little incentive to trade him under those circumstances.
The most likely scenario? Cousins continues to be good, not great, and frustratingly streaky—as has been the case ever since he became a full-time starter in Washington six years ago—and the Vikings are forced to remain on that rollercoaster for each of the next two seasons without getting an in-depth live look at Mond.
Matthew Hinton/Associated Press
Years ago, that wouldn’t have been a problem. Previous generations of entry-level quarterbacks routinely held clipboards for multiple seasons, but that’s practically unheard of now. Patrick Mahomes sat one year, and a decade and a half ago, Aaron Rodgers sat three. But he was really the last successful case of a quarterback remaining on the sideline for several campaigns.
Another important caveat: Rodgers’ rookie contract was a five-year deal, while Mahomes’ rookie deal contained a fifth-year team option. Mond is locked in for just four years.
Unlike in Rodgers’ era, entry-level quarterback contracts these days are extremely discounted relative to veteran deals because of the rookie wage scale. That’s a big reason teams no longer want to wait for quarterbacks. Oftentimes, they can’t afford to.
Nowadays, teams ideally need to know if they have something special in a quarterback within a year or two. They need that quarterback to become a reliable starter before they have to decide whether to give him a huge raise after his third or fourth season.
Year 5 is never going to be cheap, because by then you’re either into a fifth-year option, a franchise tag or a lucrative new deal. That is unless the quarterback hasn’t earned any of that and returns on a backup-level contract or prove-it deal, in which case you’ve likely squandered the last four seasons anyway.
Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press
Regardless, there’s plenty of evidence that veteran starting quarterbacks are often too much of a burden on the payroll for teams to continue to compete.
When the Packers won their only Super Bowl in the last two decades, Rodgers made just $6.5 million. He’s since taken up a lot more cap space and the Packers haven’t been back. When the Seattle Seahawks went to back-to-back Super Bowls in 2013 and 2014, Russell Wilson made a combined $1.2 million in those two campaigns. He’s since become one of the highest-paid players in the sport and the Seahawks haven’t been back.
Mahomes was inexpensive when the Kansas City Chiefs won in 2019, Carson Wentz and Nick Foles were cheap when the Philadelphia Eagles won in 2017, the Baltimore Ravens won in 2012 before Joe Flacco got paid, and most of Tom Brady’s seven titles have come when the most accomplished quarterback in NFL history cost below market rate.
Per Over the Cap, it’s been more than 25 years since a team won the Super Bowl with a quarterback who possessed one of the league’s three highest cap hits at that position.
You need to find out if a quarterback is good early on, and you need to win before that quarterback becomes too costly to keep without sacrificing the rest of the roster.
Only one quarterback drafted in the last 15 years has been a backup for multiple seasons and then gone on to start at least 64 NFL games (the equivalent of four full seasons). His name? Kirk Cousins.
In Washington, Cousins also entered the league on a four-year deal as a middle-round pick, and he was also forced to wait several years because a more highly-paid and highly-touted player held down the QB1 spot there.
By the time he got a proper chance to show he could be a legit starter, his rookie contract was expiring. Washington didn’t have much of a sample to work with during extension talks and the two sides fell into an expensive franchise-tag war that ruined the relationship between team and player and ended badly for the organization.
The case of Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t any more promising considering that the New England Patriots were forced to give up on him without much of a feel for his potential. Garoppolo, Cousins and Tyrod Taylor are the only quarterbacks in the last 15 years to experience sustained success after serving as backups for multiple years to start their careers, and none experienced much or any of that success with the teams that drafted them.
So while I don’t fault the Vikings for taking a shot at Mond, the reality is their decision to put so many eggs in Cousins’ basket will make it incredibly difficult to find out if the new guy could be the real deal.
Al Goldis/Associated Press
They can’t sit or cut the high-priced Cousins after back-to-back triple-digit-rated seasons, and it’s possible they won’t feel the need to. Maybe we haven’t seen the best of Cousins. Maybe he’ll win multiple playoff games (something he’s yet to do in his career) this and/or next year, and maybe the Vikings will gladly extend him again.
In that scenario, they’ll likely never discover what Mond could have been but will gladly accept the wasted third-round pick as an L while basking in their success.
But the more likely scenario looks like this: The Vikings, who are 25-22-1 with one playoff appearance since signing the talented, but physically limited, Cousins in 2018, continue to be a borderline playoff team for the next two years without threatening to do any serious January damage. They finally get Cousins off the books and give Mond a chance, but by then, Adam Thielen, Dalvin Cook, Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith and Eric Kendricks are expensive and in decline. The Vikes are forced to make a decision on Mond based on a year or two of work, and if they invest in him they risk losing other key players like Justin Jefferson, Danielle Hunter, Christian Darrisaw and Irv Smith Jr.
It’s only a third-round pick in this particular case, and one of a league-high 11 players the Vikings drafted in the first six rounds. It’s just a shame that because of Minnesota’s decision to double down on Cousins, we might never get a decent feel for Kellen Mond’s potential there.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.