In race for Kirk Cousins, Broncos appear to have head start

NFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

MINNEAPOLIS – On Tuesday afternoon, Kirk Cousins called his potential free agency “uncharted territory.” A few hours later, the Washington Redskins guaranteed Cousins would set sail for that unknown terrain.

With the pending acquisition of Alex Smith from the Kansas City Chiefs, the Redskins officially fired the starter’s pistol on Cousins’ race into free agency. And it is expected to be a fairly large market, even with as many as four quarterbacks expected to go in the first round of the NFL draft.

What will this derby look like? That’s the question that will take shape in the next six weeks. But Cousins gave at least part of the picture Tuesday when he was asked what a pending free agency might look like for him.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins will be on the move officially in March when free agency begins. (AP)
Quarterback Kirk Cousins will be on the move officially in March when free agency begins. (AP)

“Well that will be uncharted territory for me,” Cousins said, a few hours before learning that he would indeed be headed for free agency. “I haven’t been there before. So I don’t know what that process looks like at all to this point. That would be my first time going through it. But I want to win. I’ll make sure that any fact-gathering that I do, or business that I take, or coaches that I meet – it’ll all be centered on do I feel like this is a place where I can win, or we can win? That’s what it’ll all boil down to.”

That creates one fairly large box to check off. Cousins wants to go to a place where he can be part of a winner. In theory, that narrows the field when considering the quarterback needy teams on the market. Particularly when assessing which ones might draft a quarterback high in the coming selection process. Cousins has been there and done that with Robert Griffin III. If you’re drafting a quarterback in the first round, Cousins will not be an object of affection in free agency. But the timing of free agency – coming roughly six weeks before the draft – offers an interesting stage. It provides the opportunity that every quarterback-needy team should want: Two shots at securing a long-term solution at the position. With a game plan of pursuing Cousins as a primary target in free agency and then using the draft as a fallback option in the event of failure.

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A multitude of the NFL teams could field that plan. In no particular order: The Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars and Arizona Cardinals could all be in pursuit. But in terms of the fit and endorsement that makes deals happen, the Denver Broncos make more sense than most.

This kind of scenario has been brewing since last offseason, when the Broncos should have gone all-in after Tony Romo and given the 2017 season some chance at life. Instead, Romo went his own way and the Broncos settled on hoping Paxton Lynch would take a big step forward. What the franchise ended up getting was a player who was badly behind the curve when it came to eliminating repetitive mistakes and finding some level of consistency.

By the time it became clear that both Trevor Siemian and Brock Osweiler were in the mix to potentially be juggled as starters, the gamble had already failed massively. And that’s when it became clear that the Broncos would be buyers in the 2018 quarterback market. Whether it was free agency or the draft, some kind of plan was going to be set in place to dip back into the pool. And that decision was made long before it was known that Cousins would head to open waters in the offseason.

Here’s the thing about the Broncos right now: They’ve already spent time eyeing all the first-round quarterbacks in this draft – from USC’s Sam Darnold and UCLA’s Josh Rosen to Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Wyoming’s Josh Allen. Furthermore, the North roster of the Senior Bowl was essentially crafted specifically so the Denver coaching staff could spend a week with Mayfield and Allen.

A league source familiar with the Broncos’ front office told Yahoo Sports that general manager John Elway and personnel rover Gary Kubiak believe that UCLA’s Rosen has the purest passing stroke in this draft. An appreciation that is said to be so strong, Rosen would be a virtual lock at the fifth overall pick if he was still on the board. Of course, it’s also January and there are other phases of assessment ahead. Things can still change. And in effect, they did Tuesday when the Redskins bailed on Cousins.

This is where Elway and company are in luck. The Super Bowl window is already aging significantly in Denver. That alone suggests that spending the fifth overall pick on a quarterback who will require a few years of development could be a problem. In essence, even a Rosen selection could suggest that – at best – a micro rebuild was already beginning. Cousins, on the other hand, is a veteran who could step in and immediately bring his full presence to the equation.

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That matters for this Denver roster. Yes, he will cost money. Although Cousins has said in the past that he would be willing to put a salary blowout on the back burner if it was something that would aid in winning a Super Bowl. The message therein is that if you’re a bad team signing Cousins, you’re probably looking at having to set a new salary record at the position. But if you’re a good team, something in the range of $24 million to $25 million with serious guaranteed money gets a deal done.

Denver can afford that kind of hit heading into this offseason. The Broncos have virtually no dead money on the books in 2018 and are already looking at being in the range of $25 million to $30 million under the salary cap depending on some small roster tweaks. The franchise can also open an additional $10 million in space for 2018 if it chooses to trade or cut cornerback Aqib Talib.

The Broncos are in good enough shape financially to make a Cousins signing happen. And it would alleviate building pressure between a veteran core of defensive players who have increasingly felt let down by offensive failures the past two seasons. Not only is the money there, but the veteran backing for the deal is in place. It becomes a glimmer of hope that stabilizes the locker room and immediately puts Denver back into the AFC title contender conversation.

John Elway was in the QB market with his eyes fixed on UCLA’s Josh Rosen, but Kirk Cousins has entered the picture. (AP)
John Elway was in the QB market with his eyes fixed on UCLA’s Josh Rosen, but Kirk Cousins has entered the picture. (AP)

But there’s one other over-the-top element in all of this: Mike Shanahan.

In no uncertain terms, he has made it known to both Elway and Kubiak that he believes Cousins is a special player who has been undercut by a failing Redskins franchise. Whether it’s the defensive shortcomings or the problems in the running game or the inability to build all the right pieces around Cousins, Shanahan has been a Cousins champion where it concerns his relationship with the Broncos’ brain trust.

That endorsement means something in the equation. Elway and Kubiak will listen. And they’ll factor it into what has become a serendipitous development. If anything, we already know this kind of pursuit isn’t too big for Elway. One of his crowning achievements remains his recruitment of Peyton Manning. The next could be the recruitment of Cousins – resetting the Super Bowl window and side-stepping the disaster of failing to have Manning’s successor in place.

One way or another, this uncharted territory is coming for Cousins. The team that appears to be the right fit has been here before. If he lands on its map, these two sides will eventually find themselves at the free agency crossroads of opportunity and need, both looking for whatever road leads to winning.

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