2018 NFL Free Agency: Kirk Cousins, Drew Brees headline a top-heavy QB class

There is no more important position in football than quarterback, and this year quarterbacks are going to be a critical piece of the offseason puzzle. It all starts and ends with Kirk Cousins, freed from the franchise tag shackles of Washington (we think) and set to potentially take the salary market to a new level. 

Things get a little dicey after that, with a bunch of players from the Vikings flooding the market, along with two potentially huge names who will not actually get a sniff anywhere else (we think). If Drew Brees somehow manages to find a market with other franchises, things would get real weird. 

One more name to watch who is not included below: AJ McCarron. He's a restricted free agent (maybe), and probably will not be hitting true free agency. But if he wins his grievance with the league, he could be a UFA. 

Dave Richard has a great breakdown how these guys will affect your Fantasy Football league during the offseason, but let's take a gander at what might happen with some of these guys in free agency. We're not going to make predictions for everyone because that would be absurd, but there are a few below, with the full list/contract info rolling in courtesy of the fine folks at Spotrac.com.

The golden goose

Kirk Cousins

It is widely believed Kirk Cousins is going to hit free agency, after Washington decided to trade for Alex Smith, but rumors have been circulating about the Redskins wanting to use the franchise tag on Cousins anyway. In that unlikely scenario, Washington would trade Cousins and control his next destination, removing him from free agency.

It feels deeply personal and more like a spite move than anything. If it happens -- and it probably won't, unless the Redskins really want to play chicken with about $35 million in salary cap space -- the quarterback landscape would be dramatically altered.

Cousins has been the subject of much skepticism over the years, with some questioning if his production was largely about empty stats. 2017 proved that narrative to be false: Cousins overcame the departure of his top two targets (DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon), myriad injuries on the offensive line and struggles/injuries to his current targets (Jamison Crowder, Terrelle Pryor and Jordan Reed namely) to produce his finest season to date. If he looked like a quarterback who needed his surrounding cast to elevate him prior to this year, Cousins looked like a quarterback capable of elevating those around him in 2017.

One of two things is going to happen with Cousins in free agency: he is either going to sign one of the largest deals we've ever seen and join a struggling franchise with tons of cap space (New York Jets, Cleveland) or he is going to sign a really big contract and join a contending club with a quarterback need (Jacksonville, Minnesota, Arizona).

Prediction: Jets (signs five-year, $140 million deal)

Franchise QBs who probably aren't available

Jimmy Garoppolo

Turns out Garoppolo wasn't available. News broke a few days after this story was originally published that Garoppolo had agreed to a massive extension with the 49ers. Here's what we said back on Monday prior to the deal:

Technically Jimmy G, who was acquired from the Patriots for a second-round pick in the middle of the 2017 season, is going to be a free agent. But the 49ers will not be allowing him to hit the market.

Garoppolo played in just five games this past season, but when he played he looked great. He drew rave reviews from his teammates/coaches/fans/GM and he looks and sounds a lot like Tom Brady when he's out on the field winning games. It sounds as if the 49ers and Garoppolo will work out a deal before this ever becomes a real issue, but it is entirely conceivable they have to use the franchise tag on him before proceeding with contract negotiations.

He is on this list, but it would take some kind of clerical error for him to actually become a free agent. At just 26 years old and having spent years learning behind Brady and under Bill Belichick/Josh McDaniels, Garoppolo would probably earn the largest contract in NFL history if he was allowed to negotiate with multiple teams in this market.

Prediction: 49ers (franchise tag; five-year, $125 million extension before July deadline)

Drew Brees

This is going to be a really fascinating situation to watch, because Brees is going to be a free agent. He cannot be franchise tagged again after negotiating that out of his last contract. He has said publicly multiple times he wants to be back with the Saints, and the Saints have said publicly they want Brees to stick with them.

Brees just turned 39 years old, but he had another impressive season in New Orleans -- we didn't talk about his production as much only because he failed to lead the league in passing. Brees is much more available than Garoppolo and was almost worth putting in the Cousins category. At this point of his career, it would just be stunning to see him play for anyone other than New Orleans. It's interesting that Brees and Cousins will be free agents in the same year; Brees is the last true, young potential franchise free agent quarterback. (Peyton Manning would qualify, but he was older and coming off multiple neck surgeries.) There is a chance someone like Arizona or Jacksonville could chase after Brees with a massive contract and the Saints declined to match, causing him to leave for greener pastures. But the likely scenario is him getting a short, stout contract from New Orleans to keep the current core intact.

Prediction: Saints (signs two-year, $50 million deal)

The Vikings quarterbacks

Case Keenum
Sam Bradford
Teddy Bridgewater

The Vikings have a strong defense in place and will get Dalvin Cook back to help the running game, but there should be concerns about offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur leaving and how it will effect the three primary quarterbacks for Minnesota in the 2017 season, all of whom are free agents after this year. 

Keenum, who provides the most stability of this group thanks to being healthy, is a total wild card in free agency. CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora sees a situation unfolding where Keenum gets hit with a transition tag from Minnesota, who currently has three free-agent-to-be quarterbacks under contract. But the all-time NCAA passing yards leader also does not have a long track record of success at the NFL level (even if some people saw it coming sooner than others), although this season and these playoffs should provide proof you don't necessarily need to have a blue-chip pedigree to help a team succeed. If Keenum isn't tagged, it's easy to imagine the Broncos chasing him, considering his potential fit with a Shanahan/Kubiak-style system. 

Bridgewater is the former first-round pick for this organization, but he was relegated to the third string for the playoffs in favor of Bradford. If his health checks out, he could see some action in free agency as a guy who will compete for a starting spot thanks to his high floor. But Bridgewater nearly had his career ended by a gruesome knee injury, basically hasn't played in two years and probably has a limited ceiling. 

Bradford looked like he finally found his landing spot in Minnesota after Week 1, but ultimately ended up not playing another game when his knee injury flared up again. Anything is on the table here, from Bradford walking away, to Bradford taking a backup job with Shurmur in New York to Bradford landing a prove-it deal with someone like the Cardinals.

Prediction: $19 million transition tag with Vikings for Keenum; two-year, $24 million deal with Cardinals for Bradford: two-year, $15 million deal with Bills for Bridgewater

Older guys who fit better as backups

Jay Cutler
Josh McCown
Ryan Fitzpatrick
Chase Daniel
Derek Anderson
Matt Moore
Drew Stanton
Chad Henne

A group of could-be starters who have seen significant starting snaps in the NFL the last two seasons, it's anyone's guess where these guys end up going. Cutler was retired and going to work for FOX last season when Ryan Tannehill suffered an injury, and he joined Miami at the last minute on a one-year, $10 million deal. He seems like a good bet to bounce back to retirement after a tough season with the Dolphins.

McCown was outstanding for the Jets last year relative to expectations and is one of the best locker-room presences in the NFL, a veteran leader and a de facto coach for younger players. Even if he doesn't necessarily have the chops to be a starting quarterback for a contender, McCown should still see some action thanks to his impressive play with New York. You could do much worse than him as a backup. 

Fitzpatrick backed up Jameis Winston last year and was pretty good for a couple of starts, but not anywhere close to "quality starting material." Fitz had a magic run with the Jets in 2015 but was a disaster for New York the following year. He's a backup moving forward, although one with some nice floor to him. You can feel safe knowing he'll see some, not all, snaps in 2018.

Anderson profiles as a guy who will sign back with the Panthers, having established a pretty nice little spot in Carolina over the past few years. It's hard to imagine him landing a spot where he competes to start.

Moore is another high-floor veteran who has played well in spots recently, including when he helped the Dolphins make their playoff push in 2016, but expecting him to take over a team and have it work out as an experiment is not an ideal situation.  

How on Earth is Stanton 34 years old at this point? It's hard to imagine him getting as much run as he has in years past without Bruce Arians around to champion for him, but teams can do worse as a backup. 

Henne nearly beat out Blake Bortles before the 2017 season. 

Guys with theoretical upside

Austin Davis 
Blaine Gabbert
Geno Smith
Tom Savage
Brandon Weeden
EJ Manuel
Brock Osweiler

Weeden was the toughest guy to pinpoint here, what with his status as a 34-year old. Mostly these are guys with high pedigrees or guys who were once drafted in high slots who have not panned out. It's unrealistic to expect Geno Smith or Blaine Gabbert to be a reasonable starter, even if Geno murdered Eli Manning's consecutive start streak last year and Gabbert drew praise from the Cardinals during the season. Do you want to be the team who takes the next chance on Osweiler or Manuel? 

Full-blown backups

Matt Barkley
Mark Sanchez
T.J. Yates
Kellen Clemens
David Fales
Tyler Bray
Joe Webb
Josh Johnson
Scott Tolzien
Ryan Mallett
 

None of these guys should be within range of the QB1 position on any depth chart at this point. Maybe I end up looking like an idiot for that, but it will be because something magical happens both from an opportunity and skillset standpoint. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Will Brinson joined CBS Sports in 2010 and enters his seventh season covering the NFL for CBS. He previously wrote for FanHouse along with myriad other Internet sites. A North Carolina native who lives... Full Bio

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