With Jimmy Garoppolo already signed and Drew Brees making it clear he only wants to dance with the Saints, and Alex Smith already traded, Kirk Cousins and Case Keenum are now the most interesting quarterbacks in the world. At least their future will create the most intrigue between now and February 20, when franchise and transition tags can be placed on players.
I am going to assume for the purposes of this column that Washington doesn't truly go rogue and place a tag on Cousins. Therefore, I am assuming -- as is everyone in the football world I've talked to about this over the last week -- that Cousins is an unrestricted free agent. And I am going to assume that the Minnesota Vikings, with no quarterback under contract for 2018 who has ever thrown an NFL pass, will decide between now and March 6 (the deadline to tag a player) to place a tag of some sort on Keenum and, at worst, rent him for $21 million next season, rather than get into the $30 million-per-season stratosphere that it will require to secure Cousins' services long-term.
Should the Vikings end up not getting something secured with Keenum prior to the start of free agency, to say nothing of Teddy Bridgewater, then obviously the Cousins market could change drastically. But under these parameters, I would anticipate Cousins opting between the Jets and Broncos in the end. And if that is the case, assuming the money being offered is relatively similar, then which is the better gig? Where would a quarterback be better off going? Which situation might feel the most like home? What are the pros and the cons?
Ultimately, the money could render this a moot point (it's never about the money ... only its always about the money). But if it doesn't, would you rather be making around $30 million a year the next five-to-six years for the Jets or the Broncos? Personally, I'd lean hard to the Jets. Let me explain why.
We'll start with ownership. From everything I have heard, life has been more pleasant and productive around Florham Park since Chris Johnson took over as acting owner in New York, with Woody Johnson serving as an ambassador abroad. Of course, you never know how long that gig will last given the problems facing the current presidential regime, but Woody's brother has earned high marks for his stewardship and leadership, and his commitment to the team within that building and around the league. As for the Broncos, Joe Ellis has done good work serving as the acting owner, though it remains to be seen which of Pat Bowlen's heirs eventually takes over as the acting owner of the Broncos with that franchise placed in a trust. The timeline for any transition remains murky.
As for the coach, Vance Joseph was clearly under heavy consideration to being fired after just one year on the job. The Broncos fell well below expectations, and the defense started showing signs of slipping. In the end, his job was spared, but the coaching staff was overhauled below him, and he enters 2018 as someone who will be on most hot seat lists. That's where Jets coach Todd Bowles found himself going into 2017, when many were predicting the Jets would flirt with 0-16. Instead they exceeded expectations and Bowles was rewarded with a contract extension a few months ago.
Then one must evaluate the rosters and the course of the franchise over the next few years. The Jets went through their purge in the last 15 months or so, making difficult decisions, paring down the roster, creating a ton of cash as well as cap and roster flexibility for the next two offseasons. They already dealt with the PR fallout and consternation about parting with recent legends like Darrelle Revis, Nick Mangold and David Harris, and cut the cord with guys like Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brandon Marshall and Sheldon Richardson, who created a stir in their final year with the team. It's only a matter of time before they part with Muhammad Wilkerson, their highest-paid player who was a healthy scratch under duress late last season, and create more room to add talent.
The Broncos are trying to trade their top corner, Aqib Talib, who has worn out his welcome with on- and off-field issues. Chris Harris might not be around there more than another year or so, and their recent drafts have been light on replacements. Offensive line has been a bit of a blindspot for John Elway, and protection is an issue. You could make the case they a descending team more in line for a purge coming off their Super Bowl cycle, while the Jets are more of a blank slate prepared right now to build around a capable quarterback.
On paper, Denver would have a big advantage given the talent of receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, but are they what they once were? There were rumblings about some tumult in that receiver room last season and guys looking lethargic, being not as motivated as they once were, running sloppy routes and hanging young QBs out to try at times. Both will likely be gone within two years anyway.
One could make the argument that having to toggle between Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch and Brock Osweiler would be more than enough to suck the life out of any veteran receiver, but its worth noting that Cousins shares an agent with Siemian, so he'd probably have the scoop on that situation. Oh, and he also shares an agent with Josh McCown, who was having a career year prior to getting injured in New York, so he'd have fairly intimate knowledge of that locker room and the direction of the team as well.
As for a scheme fit, both of these teams have been churning through offensive coordinators. The Broncos are run by Elway, who has Gary Kubiak on his personnel staff, and they know and love the Mike Shanahan version of the West Coast offense that Cousins was drafted into and thrived under in Washington. Bill Musgrave is currently running their offense.
The Jets are building in the same mold. Their offensive coordinator, Jeremy Bates, was also promoted from within like Musgrave. Bates is a Shanahan disciple as well who knows how the passing game functions, while the Jets I'm told are bringing in Rick Dennison to operate the run game. Guess what? He's a Shanahan disciple as well and part of his and Kubiak's old staffs. So the Jets, too, have the pieces in place to run the offense Cousins has already mastered, and with $80 million in cap space they can add offensive talent through trades and free agency (keeping blossoming tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins would be a boost, too, and I wouldn't bet against it).
Then there is the prospect of expectations. The last time the Broncos added a big-money, veteran free-agent quarterback he was named Peyton Manning, he quickly took them to two Super Bowls and won one Lombardi Trophy there. This is a team that has a very recent pedigree of playoff success -- though one that's now seemingly in decline -- with a fanbase that believes it should be deep in the postseason more years than not. In Denver, can you ever really escape the ghosts of Manning and Elway?
The Jets, um, notsomuch. They haven't had a competent quarterback for multiple seasons in forever. Chad Pennington was the best they've had in decades, and there were always concerns about his arms. He's been gone for a decade. Before that, they got some good late years from Vinny Testaverde and, like, Richard Todd before that in the 1980s. That's where the bar is set. Cousins coming in and duplicating what he did in Washington would go down by far as the most prolific passing seasons in franchise history. Period. Just keep being himself, and he's set up to be a legend. Add in the fact that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady can't stick around forever (right?), and the AFC East might actually -- finally -- open up in a year or two (Andy Reid and Jon Gruden being in the AFC West isn't great new for the Broncos).
Size it all up, and I'm going to the Jets, who played over their heads last season and seem like a young, energetic team. Yeah, they went 5-11, but were competitive all season until McCown got hurt, while the Broncos were prone to blowout losses and sideline tempests. New York managed to beat Kansas City, Jacksonville and Buffalo -- all AFC playoff teams -- and have multiple high picks and tons of money to spend.
I anticipate they come at Cousins hyper-aggressively with a holistic approach to how they plan to build around him. He'll be the center of it all in a way Washington never displayed. Strip away whatever the nicknames of the teams connotes -- forget their past glories, or ignominies, which really don't have anything to do with this exercise -- and you could make a very strong argument for Cousins launching he next phase of his career in The Big Apple.