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Jesse Pantuosco

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Everything Cousins

Tuesday, March 6, 2018


I’ll cut to the chase—Kirk Cousins will probably sign with Minnesota.

 

And it kind of feels like a let-down, doesn’t it? I’m not saying it’s the wrong choice. In fact, I think the Vikings are far and away the best fit for Cousins. On paper, Minnesota offers Cousins everything he could ever want. Strong pass-catchers? Check. No weather conditions to contend with indoors? Another check. The requisite cap space to offer a bloated salary? Book it. The chance to join a team with a real chance of competing for a Super Bowl next year and beyond? You bet.

 

If Cousins is serious about furthering his career and not just trying to squeeze every last nickel out of free agency, teaming up with Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs in ‘Sota makes all the sense in the world. But narratively speaking (remember I have my MFA in creative writing, so this is how I operate), it’s not the dramatic climax the sports world deserves. Even if we tasked Aaron Sorkin with punching up the dialogue, I doubt “Free Agency: The Kirk Cousins Story” would ever make it to the big screen. 

 

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Cousins to the Vikings seems like a match made in free agent heaven, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Because teams aren’t allowed to negotiate with free agents until the legal tampering period begins on March 12—though this rule is enforced about as strictly as traveling in the NBA—it will be at least another week until we know what uniform Cousins will be donning next season. There’s also reason to believe Cousins may not make his decision right away. While it’s become common practice for players to sign at the onset of free agency, Cousins is expected to make multiple visits before announcing his decision. That would seem to give teams like the Broncos and Jets a sliver of hope, even with Minnesota separating from the pack.

 

While Cousins isn’t in the same league as Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, it’s still somewhat rare for a player of his caliber to hit the market, particularly at the quarterback position. Teams usually hold on for dear life when it comes to franchise quarterbacks, but the Redskins were never enamored enough with Cousins to lock him into a long-term deal, preferring to go year-to-year with the franchise tag. That could be taken as a red flag by some, though most will perceive it as another failure on the part of Washington’s front office. Either way, the Redskins finally cut their losses by acquiring low-maintenance veteran Alex Smith in a trade with Kansas City, paving the way for Cousins’ exodus. There was speculation the Redskins might attempt to tag-and-trade Cousins but ultimately that idea was left on the cutting room floor.   

 

Again, the fact that Cousins will inevitably become the league’s highest-paid player, at least in terms of annual salary, is not indicative of where he stands in the hierarchy of NFL signal-callers. Derek Carr set the quarterback market with his landmark, five-year, $125 million contract last summer, which was quickly topped by Matthew Stafford and later by Jimmy Garoppolo. Soon it will be Cousins’ turn to carry the mantle and shortly after that, he’ll pass the baton to Aaron Rodgers. As with Carr and Stafford, timing has more to do with Cousins’ big payday than anything else. With that said, Cousins has certainly had a productive three-year stretch and at age 29, there’s reason to believe he hasn’t peaked yet. Only time will tell if Cousins, who is likely to command a three or four-year deal in the range of $30 million annually, is a good investment. But for quarterback-starved teams like the Vikings, Broncos and Jets, overpaying for Cousins is a risk worth taking.

 

We know Minnesota’s case for Cousins is air-tight, but what can his other suitors offer? The Browns have been loosely linked to Cousins, though most in the industry expect them to land A.J. McCarron. It’s not a bad hunch—Hue Jackson oversaw McCarron’s development in Cincinnati and divided the organization (pour one out for Sashi Brown) by trying to acquire him at last year’s trade deadline. McCarron, though largely unproven, would be an acceptable bridge to a future franchise quarterback (the Browns are said to be high on Baker Mayfield) and a cheaper alternative to Cousins, who likely has little interest in playing for a team coming off an 0-16 season.

 

But if Cousins wants to go where he can earn the most money, Cleveland is certainly worth considering. The Browns have a near-endless supply of cap space and, should a bidding war ensue, can offer Cousins far and away the most money. It would be patently ridiculous and probably not the best use of available funds, but if Cleveland really wanted to make a splash, they could conceivably offer Cousins $200 million over five years.

 

Think of it this way. The Browns own the first and fourth overall picks in the upcoming draft. If Cousins signs with Cleveland AND the Browns use one of those picks on uber-talented Penn State running back Saquon Barkley (given the momentum Barkley built at last week’s Combine, there’s little chance he’d make it back to Cleveland at No. 4), it’s not crazy to think the Browns could wind up as a fringe Wild Card team with eight or nine wins next season. Then again, with the inept Jackson and Gregg Williams running the show, they could just as easily go 3-13.

 

The Cleveland scenario is fun to day-dream about, but ultimately unrealistic. The Broncos are a different story. At one point, before the Vikings made their interest known, Denver looked like the early favorite to land Cousins. Obviously, Denver is coming off a down season—the Broncos’ five wins were their fewest since 2010—but Denver still boasts an upper-echelon defense as well as a pair of top-end receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. More importantly, the Broncos are desperate for a starting quarterback after letting Trevor Siemian and Brock Osweiler run their team into the ground last season. Paxton Lynch was injured for much of the year and has so far done little to justify the first-round pick Denver spent on him in 2016.

 

But unlike most of his other suitors, it would take some financial maneuvering for the Broncos to fit Cousins in under the salary cap. Cousins may also be weary of joining forces with Thomas and Sanders, who struggled in 2017. Denver’s subpar quarterback play did nothing to improve the situation, but with Sanders and Thomas both entering their age-30 seasons, it’s fair to wonder if their best years are already in the rearview mirror. With Minnesota now the heavy favorite to lure in Cousins, the Broncos have shown an increased interest in Case Keenum. Despite being somewhat undersized, Keenum has made a decent career for himself since going undrafted out of Houston and held his own last season while leading the Vikings to within a game of Super Bowl LII. He’d be a smart consolation prize for Cousins at a fraction of the cost.

 

Arizona is worth mentioning as a dark horse, though it would be a bit of a head-scratcher if Cousins actually went there. The Cardinals are in need of a quarterback after losing Carson Palmer to retirement and the offense boasts a couple of exciting weapons in David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald. In Arizona, Cousins would also have the added benefit of playing his games indoors at University of Phoenix Stadium. Those are all pluses but realistically, the Cardinals are a mediocre team with a new coach and Fitzgerald is likely entering the last year of his Hall of Fame career. If winning is a priority, Cousins probably won’t be interested in Arizona’s rebuilding movement. Drafting a quarterback early and adding a veteran stopgap in free agency remains the most likely outcome for Arizona.

 

While the Cardinals are probably just a blip on the radar for Cousins, the Jets are expected to make a real run at him. New York is in a favorable financial situation with over $89 million in available cap space, so paying Cousins his quota won’t be an issue. The bright lights of New York City aren’t for everyone but it would certainly increase Cousins’ profile and potentially lead to more endorsement opportunities if he’s able to succeed in the country’s biggest media market.

 

Of course, the Jets are no closer to competing than the Browns and Cardinals and offer a thin receiving corps highlighted by the talented but temperamental Robby Anderson. And I’m sure it’s not lost on Cousins that New York shares a division with the Patriots, who have won the AFC East 15 of the last 17 years. That may not be a huge deterrent, but if it comes down to the Jets and someone else, Cousins would probably opt for the team that doesn’t play New England twice a year. Luckily for the Jets, who own the sixth overall pick in April’s draft, this looks like a strong quarterback class with Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield and Josh Rosen all expected to go in the first round. It’s likely at least one of those quarterbacks will still be there at No. 6 and if they have a preference, the Jets can trade up to make that happen.

 

The Jets could take another avenue by signing Teddy Bridgewater. We haven’t seen much of him the last two years—in fact, he hasn’t completed a pass since 2015. There are obviously injury concerns with Bridgewater coming off major knee surgery, but the former first-round pick already has 28 starts on his NFL resume and is still just 25. Bridgewater certainly has upside, even if he’s more of a dink-and-dunker than a downfield passing threat. And if all else fails, the Jets can always bring back Josh McCown, who turned in a career year at age 38 with 18 touchdowns and a 67.3 completion percentage last season.

 

It seems like a foregone conclusion that Cousins will wind up in Minnesota, but it wasn’t that way a month ago. Back then, I would have handicapped Jacksonville as slight favorites to sign him. Looking back at it, the Jaguars were really just a competent quarterback away from knocking off New England in the AFC title game. Cousins could have been the answer but instead the Jaguars played it safe by signing Blake Bortles to a three-year, $54 million extension. The contract is structured in a way that the Jaguars could easily get out of it in a year, but it’s still disappointing they never made a serious run at Cousins.

 

Free agency starts on March 14. See you then.

 



Jesse Pantuosco is a football and baseball writer for Rotoworld. He has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JessePantuosco.
Email :Jesse Pantuosco



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