Kirk Cousins is going to be a free agent and will likely receive a record breaking contract in free agency. Pursuing Cousins I think brings up a lot of questions about good and bad use of money. Cousins is the best free agent QB that has been available in years and is a “franchise QB” by the way we define that these days, but I think most people would agree that there are at least 15 players who are better than Cousins at the position. Is that worth the extra money? Is it worth bypassing on a draft pick? I’ll take a quick look at some of the top contenders for Cousins and see the pros and cons of making the move.
Why it makes sense: The Browns have been one of the worst teams in the NFL since making their way back to the NFL and much of their futility has been tied to their inability to find a quarterback. Tim Couch, Johnny Manziel, Brady Quinn, Colt McCoy, Josh McCown, Jeff Garcia, Jason Campbell, Kelly Holcomb, and Derek Anderson are just some of the names that the team has trotted onto the field over the last 19 years as they have illustrated how not to build a winner. The Browns made big investments in the offensive line last year and have drafted a number of receivers that have some potential. Since the Browns had avoided free agency for a few years prior to 2017 they have been able to build a giant salary cap surplus of nearly $110 million that can be used to design a contract that may minimize risk even as it pushes the $30 million a year level. If they really wanted to think outside the box they have the tools to sign Cousins to a short term deal while trying to develop at QB at the same time perhaps getting the best of both worlds. If they slot in a professional QB like Cousins and utilize their draft picks well they may have the tools to make the leap to 0.500 in an aging division. With an ownership group that bails on the front office every other year having that ability to be 0.500 may outweigh the risk of drafting the next Couch or being fired while the younger guy goes through growing pains over his first two seasons.
Why it doesn’t make sense: With the first and fourth pick in the draft the Browns will have their pick of rookie quarterbacks. In theory the Browns could probably take two of the top three quarterbacks off the board to optimize their chances of a hit at the most important position in the field. While Cousins may be a safer bet you win in the NFL by hitting a home run and the home run potential exists in the draft not with Cousins. If the team drafts the great QB and pairs him with all these other draft picks they have they could have the makings of something special. Cousins would likely give them more of an Alex Smith in Kansas City upside. Not that this is a bad thing when right now 0.500 is a giant success, but down the line it may be something that disappoints.
New York Jets
Why it makes sense: The Jets have the 6th pick in the draft which puts them outside of the range needed to guarantee landing one of the top rookie quarterbacks. While there are trade possibilities to move up, the Jets have so many holes on the offensive line, at the rush linebacker positions, and in the secondary that trading away any additional draft choices, especially a future number 1, won’t give them the resources to build a winner, putting them back in the 2015 mode where you are just throwing darts in free agency to fill voids. Signing Cousins gives them more draft assets to try to build around him. If you don’t think the Jets can draft a QB at 6 it also provides a better solution for the Jets than signing the journeyman of the year to band aid the position for a season. The team should have close to $90 million in cap room to sign Cousins in a manner that won’t do any long term damage if they can hold firm on contract structure. While the Jets roster is not very good there is not a lot that separates it from the Redskins roster and Cousins has been a playoff contender in Washington. The Jets are looking to be relevant and this is the quickest way possible to be relevant again.
Why it doesn’t make sense: The signing of Cousins would scream Neil O’Donnell for those of you old enough to remember the Jets signing him. Expectations with Cousins would be giant for the Jets and probably bigger than they realistically should be. The Jets fanbase is great but when things go bad they turn quickly and that can rapidly turn a nice marriage into a disaster. Cousins isn’t a savior and the Jets have so many holes that I don’t think the playoffs are a given with him unless the team significantly improves. Since the end of the Tannebaum regime the Jets have been much tighter with money, generally spending one year and then being more frugal the next one or two years. With Cousins they have to go all in to try to build a winner and if they are not going to be willing to do that they should just pass on the opportunity.
Why it makes sense: The poor QB play in Denver has really let a great defensive unit go to waste. If there is one team that really needs to slot in a veteran QB it is the Broncos. Cousins will come with the highest recommendations from John Elway’s former coach Mike Shanahan and it would be a great fit. With two very good receivers, a strong defense and a top pick to use on an offensive lineman or running back this is a ready made situation for someone like Cousins. Given the age of the team it makes far more sense for Denver to be making a move for a QB in free agency than hoping to develop one with the 5th pick. The AFC conference is weak and they would have a good chance to make a Super Bowl if they could gain home field even with whatever deficiencies Cousins may have.
Why it doesn’t make sense: I’m not going to call the Broncos cheap by any means but they are much more difficult than others to deal with. If Cousins price tag is going to be in the $30 million range it is hard to see the Broncos being comfortable with that when options at half that price may exist. The Broncos don’t have the cap space of teams like the Jets and Browns and will likely wind up with more salary cap issues down the line if they try to fit Cousins in. It is also possible that the window for this particular group is closed and they run the risk of being the Arizona Cardinals if they try to extend it. If that is the thought internally they should pass on Cousins for a cheaper option or drafting whomever is the third QB off the board.
Why it makes sense: Many aren’t considering the Vikings but this is a team that does not have a QB under contract for next season and has around $50 million in cap room to spend. This is a win now team that caught lightning in a bottle with Case Keenum who is expected to return, but if your option is Keenum on a $20M transition tag and either Teddy Bridgewater or Sam Bradford backing up for like $7 million doesn’t it make more sense to sign Cousins for close to that same number? The Vikings already showed how aggressive they will be when they wasted a first round pick on Bradford when they got fleeced by the Eagles so why not be aggressive with Cousins in free agency? They have a good defense and their skill players of Diggs, Thielen, and Cook are a nice combo.
Why it doesn’t make sense: The Vikings need someone that can win a big game in a competitive NFC, especially if the other squads remain healthy. Cousins hasn’t exactly distinguished himself in big situations so while he probably brings more certainty to the regular season he might not make a big difference in the playoffs. If the Vikings don’t intend to spend $27 million on two of their three free agents this year is all that extra money on Cousins worth the improved chance of a wildcard/division title and high chance of a one game exit? Probably not.
Why it makes sense: It seemed pretty clear last season that the team had already decided to move on from Tyrod Taylor despite the fact that they don’t really have anyone on the roster ready to step in and replace him. Coming off a playoff season it is hard to see them next year with Nathan Peterman or Josh McCown at QB, but those are the type of options they will have if they cut Taylor and pass on Cousins. Buffalo has been struggling for years to make an impact and it would just seem like such a step down to move on from Taylor unless they have a better option on the table.
Why it doesn’t make sense: Is anyone really excited about the Bills roster? Plenty of teams hit with the rookie head coach and then just hit a wall the next year. They have a lot of turnover to deal with and outside of LeSean McCoy (who will be 30 this year) don’t really have any skill positions in place. They do have two first rounders to work with, but often a receiver in the 20s takes some time to develop. Buffalo has struggled with their contracts in recent years and would likely sign something that would be incredibly player friendly locking them in much longer than some of the other teams.
Why it makes sense: Arizona finished the year 8-8 despite having next to nothing at the QB position. They have the most dangerous back, if healthy, in the NFL in David Johnson which would be a perfect pairing for Cousins. The Cardinals finished the year pretty strong defensively and they have a good system in place to consistently do well on that side of the ball. The NFC West looks to be one of the toughest divisions in football and they can’t get by with Drew Stanton. Cousins would provide a long term solution rather than going the Stanton, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Josh McCown route while hoping to luck into a draft pick.
Why it doesn’t make sense: Realistically the window has closed on this group and its only the Cardinals that seem oblivious to this. Even if you are going to chase it with this group its probably better to take a risk on a Sam Bradford for a year than going 5 years on Cousins. The team’s salary cap is an issue. They have around $22 million in cap room and the most free agent snaps to replace in the entire league. To fit Cousins into their situation really means kicking the can down the road. Not sure they are good enough to be doing that.
Why it makes sense: No team budgeted more for QBs last season than Miami who desperately had to convince Jay Cutler to come out of retirement to try to salvage the season when their starter, Ryan Tannehill, was injured for the second year in a row. The Dolphins love to make a splash and their chase after Ndamukong Suh a few years back should prove that no price will completely scare them away if they think the player deserves it. Miami has some good skill players on the team, far better than the Redskins, and they would probably be a playoff team if they bring in Cousins and keep receiver Jarvis Landry.
Why it doesn’t make sense: The salary cap. Even if they cut Tannehill they will only have around $22 million in cap space. To fit Cousins and Landry in that small of a number is not really a responsible use of cap room. Sure they can slice money elsewhere through cuts and restructures but is that going to make Miami better long term? If Tannehill’s knee can hold up the gap between he and Cousins isn’t big enough to cut ties with Tannehill. Miami may still be in a position to draft a decent QB at 11.
Why it makes sense: The Jaguars were the most complete team in the AFC if you take QB out of the equation. They have a solid offensive line, a nice core of young receivers, a terrific running back, a great secondary and a great pass rush. Unfortunately they have Blake Bortles at QB and he is probably the worst QB since Mark Sanchez to block a great team from moving forward. While we can argue about Cousins upside and play in a big spot I don’t think there is any argument that he is an upgrade over Bortles. The Jaguars love to spend money and certainly won’t haggle over a contract.
Why it doesn’t make sense: The Jaguars inexplicably used the option year on Bortles last year which guarantees Bortles $19 million if he is injured, which he currently is. The team simply cant cut Bortles and spending that kind of money on Bortles combined with what it would cost to sign Cousins would even make the free spending Jaguars take a step back.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.