Case Keenum is officially set to become a free agent next week.
The NFL’s franchise/transition tag window closed at 4 p.m. ET Tuesday, and the Minnesota Vikings elected not to use the one-year tender on the 30-year-old quarterback, which would have come with an approximate $23 million cap hit.
Keenum will join Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford on the open market as unrestricted free agents. The trio of Vikings quarterbacks can begin contract negotiations when the legal tampering period opens March 12.
What does this mean for the Vikings' quarterback situation? Well, a number of things.
Let’s start with the most obvious and pressing matter. Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins will also become a free agent next week after the Redskins chose not to apply the franchise tag for a third straight year. As ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported, the Vikings are one of four teams expected to compete to land Cousins’ talents, along with the Jets, Broncos and Cardinals.
The team's decision not to franchise Keenum only further tips the scale in favor of going after Cousins. With speculation that Cousins could command a deal with upwards of $90 million guaranteed, it’s fair to point out that the Vikings have the ninth-most cap space in the NFL and are in the best spot among Cousins’ potential suitors to win now.
It appears that the free-agency quarterback market will run through Minnesota. Whatever happens with Cousins -- and whether he signs with the Vikings -- will set a number of other wheels in motion.
If Cousins signs with the Vikings after free agency officially opens March 14, a new era will have officially begun in Minnesota. However, if he doesn’t, the Vikings have to go to Plan B or C.
Today’s news of Minnesota not placing the franchise or transition tag on Keenum doesn’t necessarily mean his time as a Viking is over. The Vikings could end up being outbid for Cousins and need to turn to their second option -- an option that might or might not include Keenum returning in 2018 after leading the Vikings to a 13-3 record and appearance in the NFC Championship.
The Vikings could still work out a long-term deal with Keenum in free agency. Denver and Arizona -- two teams also expected to go after Cousins -- are rumored to be among possible landing spots for a quarterback who could command anywhere north of $20 million. Whether the Vikings want to pay that price or grapple over bidding for a quarterback whose production they’re not necessarily sure is sustainable will be brought to light.
“Is he the guy when he was at Houston or the Rams, or is he the guy who played for us?” Zimmer said at the combine. “Is it because he had a good team around him? Bradford, his record wasn’t great, is it because he didn’t have a good team around him? Did he play with a good defense? All those things enter into it. All those factor into it. At the end of the day, it’s a guess and a hunch.”
Letting Keenum hit the open market might tips Minnesota's hand that the franchise isn’t sure he’s the answer for another run toward the Super Bowl. The quarterback reached career highs in 2017, completing 68 percent of his passes for 3,547 yards and a 22-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 15 games.
Still, despite all the good that came with Keenum’s season, the Vikings never fully embraced him as a starter and wouldn’t commit to him on more than a week-to-week basis during the regular season, despite leading the Vikings on an eight-game win streak and to their second NFC North title under Zimmer.
Minnesota still has time to work out a long-term deal with Keenum, Bridgewater or Bradford. That would happen only if a deal for Cousins doesn’t pan out, but the Vikings continuing their trend of not utilizing the franchise tag on a quarterback leaves the door open for a deal to be worked out in free agency.