Kirk Cousins is the answer in NFL free agency, if you like that

Kirk Cousins has always been an infuriating player to evaluate. There are times he looks and plays like a top-five quarterback, then others when you wonder how the heck he’s routinely one of the NFL’s top passers. Now, he’s set to hit free agency for the first time since 2018 — and he’s one of the most fascinating players to watch as the process unfolds.

There are no shortage of teams in need of a starting quarterback. On one end of the spectrum are the likes of the Bears, Commanders and Patriots — all of whom are expected to draft a passer in April that can be their long-term answer, but when it comes to Cousins it’s the other tier of teams that could try to make a splash. These are teams who are in dire need of an upgrade at the position, but who find themselves out of the draft’s Top 10 where they could find a quarterback. The shared DNA here is that these teams are all potential playoff teams, if they had more talent under center.

To complicate matters: The Vikings are one of these teams needing a quarterback. As it stands they’re poised to lose Cousins without any recourse, and they may be unwilling to meet their QB’s salary demands. We’re left with one of the most fascinating players hitting the market this season.

What makes Kirk Cousins’ situation so unusual?

When the Vikings originally signed Cousins in free agency of 2018 they made him the first fully-guaranteed quarterback in the NFL with a three-year, $84M deal. It was a lot at the time, showing the team had the utmost faith in him to be their quarterback moving forward.

This contract never came to maturity. Instead the Vikings re-signed Cousins in 2020, preventing him from leaving the following year, giving him a two-year, $66M full7 guaranteed deal. Then, in 2022, the Vikings kicked the can down the road again — re-upping Cousins until the end of the 2023 season, this time on a one-year, $35M deal. Then, to help the Vikings cap situation he restructured his deal to move around money and free up space, but at the cost of one very big caveat: Void years.

When Cousins restructured his deal it moved guaranteed money down the road to alleviate the Vikings cap situation, but importantly made his contract void as of March 13, 2024. That date is critical, because it comes a week after the NFL deadline to apply franchise tags.

This means that Cousins is still a member of the Vikings who is under contract when tags occur — so Minnesota can’t retain him if contract talks break down. There is literally nothing the Vikings can do in order to avoid a bidding war with other teams, unless they’re able to get a new contract done before free agency opens.

Now there’s another wrinkle to all this: Cousins wants his guaranteed money again. I mean, who can blame the guy? At this point he’s played with complete safety that his money would be intact while suiting up for the Vikings, and he’s enjoyed the security. However, a new front office in Minnesota hasn’t negotiated with Cousins before — and according to Albert Breer they’re balking at the idea of giving Cousins another guaranteed contract, which could be worth between $30-45 million per year in the current quarterback market.

Cousins is the best free agent QB in the 2024 class, and it’s not even close

If we look at the top quarterbacks poised to be available there’s absolutely no comparison between Cousins and the field. After Kirk you’re looking primarily at two guys, neither of whom hold a candle to Cousins.

First is Baker Mayfield, who is expected to either sign a long-term deal with the Buccaneers or play under the franchise tag. Even if he was on the market up against Cousins it’s a rough comparison. Mayfield thrived in Tampa Bay under offensive coordinator Dave Canales, but he’s gone to Carolina now. There’s little guarantee that 2023 was the rule, and not the exception when it comes to Baker.

Then there’s Gardner Minshew, who is fine — but he’s Gardner Minshew. At this point you know what you’re getting out of him. Minshew is destined to be on the Ryan Fitzpatrick path of the eternally reliable backup who can step in and win you games, but isn’t a guy you can lean on to be your 17 game starter with any reliability.

That makes Cousins the only safe, guaranteed, true franchise quarterback of the bunch — and even at the age of 35 he has enough in the tank to take a mid-tier team on a playoff run.

So, who makes a run at Cousins?

If we look at the conditions around the league there are two pretty strong candidates to try and sign Kirk Cousins, and two on the periphery depending on how other factors play out.

Will definitely make a run

Minnesota Vikings

This goes without saying, really. The Vikings are at a point where they need to plan for the future, but they’re not in a position to actually make that a reality. Even if they trade up and get a tier-two quarterback in the 2024 draft it’s dicey to imagine the team can start someone like J.J. McCarthy or Jayden Daniels (assuming either is a possibility) without a significant drop off.

This could lead to the Vikings overpaying on a one-year deal, but that causes some other problems for their cap situation.

Las Vegas Raiders

The Raiders letting Derek Carr go was questionable. Assuming Jimmy Garoppolo could be a good replacement was worse. Typically the team’s hands would be tied a year after inking Jimmy G to a long-term deal, but his suspension for violation of the NFL performance enhancing drug policy opens the door for the Raiders to void the remainder of his deal and move on.

This is a team that has good bones. Like Minnesota they need to find a long-term answer at QB, which could come in the draft with Las Vegas picking in the No. 13 spot — but that’s around the spot for a tier two QB as well, and the Raiders have other positions they need to upgrade.

With Davate Adams making big money there’s pressure to find a way to use him right now, and Cousins would be able to do that. Would it be enough to get past the Chiefs in the AFC West? No, but winning a single playoff game would work wonders at continuing to establish a fanbase in Vegas and left the Raiders’ status.

Could make a run depending on circumstance

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons are a weird team to evaluate, but there’s one very clear problem to be fixed: Desmond Ridder ain’t it. The achilles heel of the franchise is the quarterback spot, and while Cousins would be a short-term solution, it’s a hell of a solution.

Ultimately the NFC South is still wide open. The Buccaneers won last year with a strong defense and resurgent Baker Mayfield, but it’s a very iffy proposition they can run that back. The team’s coaching staff got raided in Dave Canales’ move to Carolina, and Mike Evans could be gone in free agency as well.

That opens the door for the Falcons. Atlanta drafts at No. 8, meaning they could get a Jayden Daniels or J.J. McCarthy if they want, but perhaps the better play to solidify the Raheem Morris era is to sign someone like Cousins, pair him with the team’s offensive weapons, and get 2-3 years of conference championships before a true rebuild need to happen.

Everything here depends on how patient the Falcons are willing to be.

Pittsburgh Steelers

This is a team believed to be all-in on Justin Fields in a potential trade scenario. However, if that falls through then the organization is in a weird position where they need to make a change if they want to win.

The Steelers draft at No. 20 thanks to their playoff berth. If they want to take a QB they’ll be reaching into tier three to take someone like Bo Nix or Michael Penix, neither is safe enough to take the risk. Futhermore, that might be a lateral move with Kenny Pickett already on the roster.

This team wants an upgrade at QB so they can hang with the Ravens, Bengals and Browns in the division moving forward — and that has to be predicated by a QB upgrade. Long-term this team needs answers, but right now, with the defense they have, they could win with Cousins under center.

If a potential trade for Fields breaks down then expect to see the Steelers active in the market.

Where does Cousins end up?

As it stands Minnesota is best positioned to re-sign Kirk, simply because they have no other options right now. The new front office is facing the reality of paying for the sins of the past, and there’s nothing they can do about it.

Unless they decided to make a mega splash and trade all the way up to get a QB, expect the Vikings to pay Kirk what he wants to stay and continue to kick the can down the road for another year or two. It’s not perfect, but it is what it is.

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