Kirk Cousins free-agency sweepstakes will come down to the Jets and Vikings
Free-agent quarterback will take his time making his final decision
In the end, two teams, at most, will have a true opportunity to land Kirk Cousins.
And based on everything I heard last week at the combine I anticipate those teams being the New York Jets and the Minnesota Vikings. Cousins seems committed to wanting to step foot in his new team headquarters and get a feel for the place before making a six-year, $180M decision (or thereabouts) and given the nature of how this negotiation will transpire, that's going to eliminate some of his potential suitors really before the new league year and full blown free agency even begins.
We are talking about a franchise quarterback who is far and away the biggest fish in this free-agent pond hitting the market well before his 30th birthday. We are talking about the kind of financial commitment that will have enormous impact on whichever team lands him, as well as those that covet him but lose out. By its very nature, the reality of either spending roughly $30M per year on a quarterback will dictate myriad other potential transactions that follow, both for the team paying him and for those still in need of a veteran quarterback when he signs elsewhere, so let's just play this out.
I've talked to numerous people involved in this process on all sides, and while the Cardinals, Broncos, Vikings and Jets have all made it clear they want to be in this thing to the end, no one on any of those teams or close to Cousins believes it makes any sense that he actually makes three or four visits. This is all happening in real time, for the player and those teams, and this is not a negotiating vacuum. At the same time Cousins is making his tour, Case Keenum, who several of these teams also are very high on, will be making his decision and so will less-sought after quarterbacks like AJ McCarron and Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater – all who have the potential to be starting somewhere next season. To say nothing of Tyrod Taylor, who other teams still anticipate the Bills trading or releasing before his $6M roster bonus is due in a few weeks.
So while the concept of a four-team market for Cousins is fine in theory, it's not going to work in practice. It won't make sense for Cousins to spend a day-and-a-half at four different teams and then make a decision a week into free agency. The teams are going to need to know, ASAP, whether or not they are getting the first or second visit. If they do, then you hang in there and stay all-in on the best option available. If you don't land one of those two visits, you'd be fooling yourself into thinking Cousins is going to leave two teams that he seemingly prefers and who you know will be dangling massive money in front of him, and actually make it to your visit in the first place. And the risks of waiting that out, and then losing out on two other quarterbacks you might prefer to the rest of the field are far too great to risk it.
At most he jumps on two private planes and lands in two NFL cities before becoming the highest-paid player in NFL history (at least temporarily, until Matt Ryan or Aaron Rodgers signs a new deal). That's just the reality of how this is going to play out. In his heart Cousins has to know that, and, trust me, the power players with all four of these teams know it and understand it. No one has talked money with the quarterback yet – truly, not just because it's a tampering taboo to have done so – but he and his agent, Mike McCartney, are sharp cookies and his agent has been researching and preparing for this for a long time.
All four teams have various reasons why they make sense and that has been imparted to those who need to know and now Cousins has to sort through the factors and, in the next week, figure out which two teams he is going to visit. He has much to consider, and this won't be strictly dictated by money, but how much money you put in front of a player is the most direct way to express how exceptional you believe he can be, and it's the sincerest form of flattery in professional sports. Never underestimate it's impact. And the Jets have more money and cap space to play around with that any of the other suitors. No way, in my estimation, do McCartney and Cousins eliminate them from the process before having the opportunity to meet with them and see precisely how far they would go before letting him leave their building without a contract.
And the Vikings offer the best roster available, the team with the most recent playoff success and the clearest linear path to postseason glory. Never discredit the impact of that in a situation like this as well. Unless they end up landing Keenum previously at their price, I suspect the Vikings see this thing out and their presentation is attractive enough to want to see through from Cousins' standpoint as well. The Cardinals just hired a rookie head coach and face difficult roster decisions at other positions and don't have nearly the cap flexibility as other suitors, and the Broncos may be trending more to a rebuild than contention and came this close to firing their rookie head coach after last season.
If I'm making two visits, it's the Jets and Vikings. Probably in that order.
In the meantime, don't expect to hear much from Cousins's camp, and it doesn't really make sense for them to say all that much to the interested teams, either. By this time next week let the teams know who you want to visit with and let them prepare to roll out the red carpet. Keenum's people have to be pretty aware of how the Cousins derby will shake down, so the question becomes does he go ahead and do a deal with the Vikings or Broncos – the two teams I continue to hear him most closely linked to (Cleveland has some interest as well from what I gather) – or do you let this play out a bit with Cousins and see if he hits a grand slam and maybe increase your pot? The teams that lose out on Cousins will be under more pressure to land their veteran somewhat immediately.
The timing of all of this will be tricky, especially because it appears highly unlikely Cousins will have picked his team and contract until at least a day or two into the league year. It doesn't appear this will be like most big-money deals, where everything is more or less done during the "non-tampering window" or whatever they call it a few days before the league year officially begins.
If in the end the Jets put something like $50M in the first year of a new contract that will be difficult for anyone to walk away from. Money always talks. Keenum back to the Vikings (possibly along with Bridgewater) continues to make a lot of sense to me, as would Taylor to the Broncos and McCarron or Bradford to the Cardinals (who are very interested in drafting a quarterback high in this draft). Drew Brees back to the Saints have long seemed like a done deal.
Cousins, of course, if the biggest and most influential domino that will fall in the quarterback market. His next step will be deciding which two teams he's going to visit. A market of four will really be down to two, soon enough. I'd follow the money, and follow the roster, to get there.
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