Kirk Cousins could dramatically alter NFL free agency for elite players

NFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

For a handful of NFL teams, the push for Kirk Cousins has finally arrived. And what the free-agent quarterback does next has the potential to change free agency forever.

As the free-agent negotiating period opens in the NFL on Monday (sometimes referred to as the “legal tampering” window), Cousins’ contract negotiation has become the most anticipated event since Ndamukong Suh dramatically reshaped the league’s market for elite defensive players in 2015. From agents to coaches to front-office executives, there is overwhelming interest in the structure of Cousins’ next contract for two reasons: Not only is Cousins going to get paid, but the framework of his deal could be historic in nature, dramatically altering the future of top-end free-agent deals.

Kirk Cousins hopes to be a few days away from another huge payday as an NFL quarterback. (AP)
Kirk Cousins hopes to be a few days away from another huge payday as an NFL quarterback. (AP)

League executives and agents have told Yahoo Sports they believe Cousins will seek a short-term, fully guaranteed contract. It’s also believed that this pursuit will narrow his field of suitors, which last week stood at four teams: The New York Jets, Minnesota Vikings, Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals. When the legal tampering period opens Monday, that pack could see some immediate attrition – with one or more teams essentially refusing to do a deal that is so aggressively in favor of a player.

But it takes only one desperate team to drastically alter the league’s salary scale and contract structure. The Miami Dolphins did it with Suh’s deal in 2015, giving the defensive tackle what amounted to a franchise quarterback deal, guaranteeing the first three years of the contract and nearly $60 million. Cousins enters this week with similar leverage and multiple suitors. That has league powerbrokers forecasting something seismic, league-altering and bigger than Suh’s free-agent earthquake.

“Three-year deals are just not done unless they’re lower-tier players,” one league source said. “If someone can set the precedent of, ‘Hey, if you want this guy badly enough, let’s do a three-year fully guaranteed deal,’ then that changes a lot. If Kirk Cousins gets that deal, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan will ask for that deal. How can their teams say no? …

“Rodgers and Ryan are absolutely waiting for that Cousins deal. If Cousins establishes it, and then those two guys do it, guess what? The next guy up, that’s the standard in negotiations.”

In the NFL, it would be a landmark win in negotiations for a quarterback in his prime. Not only would it establish a guaranteed contract akin to those in Major League Baseball and the NBA, it would also put Cousins back on the free-agent market prior to the 2021 season, when he’ll be 32 years old. Such a reality could crystallize a common expectation for not only top-tier quarterbacks, but also elite free agents. One that has them going to the negotiating table looking for three or four-year deals with nearly full guarantees. That would be an immense change in the standard for franchise quarterbacks, essentially eliminating the latter years of long-term contracts that are often team-friendly and completely unguaranteed.

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Such a deal could also dramatically impact the league’s fiscal rules in free agency, which stipulate that any guaranteed money outside of the first year of a deal be kept in escrow for future disbursement. If Cousins lands a massive three-year deal, whichever teams signs him would have to be cash rich – to the point of putting tens of millions into escrow upon signing. If fully guaranteed deals were to become more common in the ensuing years, it would mean teams could potentially sock away massive sums of money to stay in compliance with league rules. In theory, that could put some cash-poor franchises (or frugal owners) at a disadvantage, as they avoid elite players seeking huge fully guaranteed paydays.

Of course, that’s a projection further down the road, coming after a number of dominoes have fallen in a perfect line, from Cousins to Rodgers to Ryan and perhaps even others. It remains to be seen if Cousins can even reel in the kind of deal that causes such a dramatic shift in league history. But entering Monday, a number of people believe he can. And that perception could be enough to recreate the contract structure for elite players forever.

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