By Greg Lehr
The NFL free agency period is just around the corner as teams can legally begin talking with players as early as March 12, two days before the new league year officially begins. One of the most significant names this offseason is, of course, Kirk Cousins, who is expected to become an unrestricted free agent following the trade that sent Alex Smith to the Redskins.
Although he is widely viewed as an average to slightly above-average starter in the league, Cousins represents a rarity in the NFL; a franchise quarterback in the prime of his career and soon to be on the open market. He has proven to be capable of playing at a high-level despite being part of a relatively dysfunctional organization. Cousins will (soon be free) to sign wherever he wants, assuming Washington does not franchise tag him and will have massive leverage thanks to Jimmy Garoppolo’s historic deal with the 49ers ($137.5 million/5 years). He will almost assuredly raise the bar even higher for new quarterback contracts around the league with expectations that he may get close to $30 million per year.
Many speculated the Jaguars may go after Cousins before putting an end to those rumors by giving Blake Bortles a 3-year extension over the weekend. With Jacksonville out of the picture, let’s take a look at five of the most likely suitors for Cousins this offseason.
The NFC runner-ups find themselves in one of the most intriguing scenarios this offseason. They have all the pieces in place to be a championship team but now face a dilemma with their top three quarterbacks each set to test free agency. Does Minnesota trust any of them enough to try to bring them back? Keenum is coming off a career year but can he build off it or have we seen his ceiling? Bradford and Bridgewater have major durability concerns. The best option may not be any of them and instead set their sights on the open market if Minnesota wants to get over the hump in their pursuit of the Lombardi trophy. Clearly, the Vikings’ front office is thinking of going this route by letting both Keenum and Bridgewater test free agency.
Yes, going after Cousins is the more expensive option, but the Vikings have the resources to do it and they would like to find a long-term solution instead of toying with a year-to-year strategy. They currently have $55 million in cap space and signing Cousins would likely take up at least $30 million of that in the first year alone. The structure of the contract is important when considering players such as Stefon Diggs, Danielle Hunter, Sharrif Floyd, Anthony Barr, and Eric Kendricks will all be free agents after next season. However, the offense with Cousins has truly explosive potential. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen have quietly become one of the more dynamic receiving duos in the league, Dalvin Cook looked like an early contender for offensive rookie of the year before tearing his ACL in week 4, and Kyle Rudolph is another solid option. Combining this offense with Mike Zimmer’s dominant defense gives Vikings fans legitimate Super Bowl expectations for the next few seasons.
John Elway, GM & President of Football Operations, knows more than anyone that the quarterback play in Denver has been a hindrance the last couple of seasons. The decision to draft Paxton Lynch in the first round in 2016 has not paid off, Brock Osweiler is a free agent, and Trevor Siemian is not the long-term answer. The frustrating part for Broncos fans is this roster is a lot better than the five wins they had in 2017. According to Football Outsiders, the defense ranked second in the league in yards allowed per drive, plays per drive, and 3-and-outs per drive. However, they still finished middle of the pack (14th) in points allowed per drive, in large part due to the team being an NFL worst in average starting field position for the opponent’s offense (thank you Siemian and Osweiler).
Kirk Cousins would be an immediate upgrade to the entire offense and give Denver a legitimate shot to compete in a division that has two teams going through significant transitions. Kansas City appears ready to hand the keys to the franchise to second-year QB Patrick Mahomes and Oakland will be in the first year of the Jon Gruden era. One key obstacle for Elway to maneuver will be cap space and where the money will come from in order for Denver’s offer to lure Cousins. The Broncos are currently looking at $25 million in cap space, but can easily create $15.5 million more by releasing veterans Aqib Talib ($11 million) and CJ Anderson ($4.5 million). Signing a franchise quarterback also allows the Broncos to use the #5 overall pick on perhaps DB Minkah Fitzpatrick or RB Saquon Barkley, as either could step in and replace one of these veterans if either is still on the board. Surely Cousins won’t mind if they go with Notre Dame G Quenton Nelson either, who might just be the best overall player in the draft. Expect the Broncos to go hard after Cousins given how much this position has held their team back the past couple of seasons.
New York Jets
Rumor has it that the J-E-T-S are ready to give serious C-A-S-H to Cousins, reportedly an upwards of $50–60 million in the first year. The craziest part about it? It would actually make a lot of sense. The Jets have about $94 million to work with this offseason after the recent release DE Muhammad Wilkerson. They can be in a situation almost opposite of what the Seahawks had with Russell Wilson for a few years. When Wilson was on his rookie contract, Seattle had the luxury of spending more on the Legion of Boom and other areas of their roster because they were getting exceptional quarterback play from Wilson, who was still playing on his rookie deal at the time. In most cases, established franchise QB’s are one of the largest cap hits and often times the team has to sacrifice some talent in other areas. The Jets can use a similar strategy, just from the opposite perspective.
Let’s say the Jets land Cousins with a 5 year/$150 million deal (about $30 million/year) which are some commonly speculated numbers after Jimmy Garoppolo’s $137.5 million contract. Looking at the breakdown of Garoppolo’s deal, he will carry a cap hit of $37 million in the first year, but down to $20 million in 2019 and roughly $27 million for the remaining three years of the contract. If the Jets frontloaded the deal with $55 and $35 million in the first two years, respectively, Cousins gets his money and then is positioned to have a much more manageable cap hit for the remaining 3 years of the deal. This will give the Jets more cap flexibility down the road to resign some of their younger players who are currently on their rookie contracts.
Although the two have yet to work together, it’s been rumored that Cousins is a fan of new OC Jeremy Bates and that they would make a nice pairing in New York. It’s a tougher sell than a team better set up for immediate success like Minnesota or Denver, but there should be enough to get Cousins in the door to listen to the vision of the franchise from the coaches and front office. There is a growing sense that the Jets are a true dark horse in the Cousins sweepstakes.
New GM John Dorsey certainly has his work cut out for him if he is going to be the one to turn around the losing culture of this franchise. With 7 picks inside the top 100 of this year’s draft, plus an estimated $110 million in cap space, Dorsey has the tools at his disposal to immediately put his imprint on the roster. Adding the top free agent quarterback would be a dream start.
In addition to stabilizing the quarterback position (which effectively ends one of the longest-running punchlines in sports), signing Cousins allows the organization to use their draft resources to bring an influx of talent at multiple positions. RB Saquon Barkley at #1 and DB Minkah Fitzpatrick/DE Bradley Chubb at #4 would be ideal. Wide receiver and cornerback would shore up some major areas of need with their five selections on day two. The combination of Cousins and Barkley would certainly give new OC Todd Haley a good starting point to build his offense around. With a respectable offensive line, a dynamic back, and a quarterback willing to throw the ball down the field, Haley should find reasons to believe he can emulate his Pittsburgh success to some degree.
At the end of the day, offering the most money is the easy part for the Browns. The hard part is convincing Cousins that it would be better for his legacy to turn around a perennially losing franchise than to go to a team like Minnesota and be set up with Super Bowl expectations right out of the gate. Joe Thomas has already weighed in, helping Cleveland kick off their unofficial recruiting efforts.
The Cardinals have a roster that is too talented for a full rebuild, but with the retirements of franchise QB Carson Palmer and HC Bruce Arians, it will be a pivotal offseason if they hope to compete in a suddenly loaded NFC West. Adding Cousins would give the offense someone to build around going forward alongside stud RB David Johnson and future HOF receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who is reportedly back for at least one more year. However, GM Steve Keim faces a challenge in terms of creating room under the cap in order for the Cardinals to compete with the offers Cousins will be receiving on the open market.
As of right now, Arizona is sitting at $23 million in cap space and would need to make several moves to create enough space to sign Cousins before even thinking about other possible additions. Potential cuts/releases could come by way of Adrian Peterson ($3.5 million), Mike Lupati ($6.3 million or $8 million post-June 1st), and/or Phil Dawson ($3 million). It doesn’t help that Palmer will carry a $6.6 million dead cap figure in 2018. Without a single quarterback on the roster, Arizona’s more realistic option is to go after a less expensive free agent option (see: Vikings QB depth chart, 2017) and then draft another QB (or two) for competition and depth.
Kirk Cousins signs with the Denver Broncos.
While the Vikings are a close second, their front office ultimately knows they have three potential plan-B’s in Keenum, Bradford, and Bridgewater — all of whom can be signed for considerably less money and still give them a chance to contend in the NFC. This approach gives the Vikings a ceiling in their offer that they aren’t willing to raise, particularly in guarantees, which is where Denver’s offer sets them apart. Their dire quarterback situation leads them to hand Cousins a 5-year deal worth $145 million with a whopping $80 million fully guaranteed. He also recognizes the opportunity to win in Denver amid the muddled AFC West and is refreshed to join a stable, winning culture. John Elway does it again.
*All contract figures provided by Spotrac.com