If the New York Jets cannot lure Kirk Cousins to the Big Apple with an unprecedented cash commitment, they can simply shift focus to signing a bridge quarterback and drafting their hopeful future centerpiece at No. 6 to go with some young pieces and cap space.
Cousins not choosing the Minnesota Vikings wouldn’t be a catastrophic event for that organization, either. The Vikings boast one of the NFL’s best cores and could probably make a sales pitch to coax Case Keenum into staying in the Twin Cities if they don’t use the franchise tag on him.
Should John Elway not be able to convince Cousins to join the Denver Broncos, the fallout would be much more significant.
Cousins taking the money and going to New York, a scenario sports books now tab as the most likely, would represent a vastly different reality than if Cousins entrusts Elway and the supporting cast he has acquired to form a reborn contender.
The soon-to-be 30-year-old quarterback — by picking the Broncos — would pull them back to relevance, giving the group still left from the Super Bowl 50 team a chance to make more playoff runs after the 2017 season drained a year from their primes. It would fix the issue that has overshadowed the team for the past two years and allow the Broncos to draft a player with high-end starter potential at No. 5. Or it could allow Elway to green-light a trade-down sequence to stockpile picks that would be used to supply vital depth at cheap rates — necessary in a future that would feature a quarterback making $30 million per year or close to it.
If Elway decides Cousins will cost too much, or Cousins determines the Broncos don’t present the best long-term destination, the result would leave the Broncos scrambling, especially if the Vikings franchise Keenum or bring him back as a free agent.
Would Elway then be forced to be the GM who pays Brock Osweiler money to A.J. McCarron? The executive’s past doesn’t indicate that would be a move he’d make, but with the Cardinals, Browns and Bills possibly going after the longtime Bengal backup/overvalued commodity, he’d have to win a bidding war to bring the Cousins consolation prize to Denver.
Or will he gamble that Sam Bradford is capable of staying healthy? For the most part, Bradford did during the 2015 and ’16 seasons, but his brutal history of knee trouble provides no assurances. Some team will have to bite.
In all likelihood, neither of these players can give the Broncos the near-future contention assurances Cousins would.
The difference between the fallout between what takes place if the Jets or Vikings miss on Cousins and if the Broncos do is the age of these teams’ key players. The Jets have a few potential cornerstones and cap room. The Vikings made the NFC Championship Game with Keenum and a younger nucleus than the Broncos.
Von Miller, Chris Harris, Brandon Marshall and Ron Leary will be 29 next season. Demaryius Thomas and Darian Stewart will be 30. Emmanuel Sanders turns 31 in March. None of these players are facing imminent retirement, but most of the Broncos’ best talent doesn’t have time to wait for another rookie to possibly develop into a viable passer while a bridge signal-caller with less upside than Cousins steers the team back to the middle of the pack.
This should have been Tony Romo’s team a year ago, but Elway was understandably keen on seeing if Paxton Lynch could show he wasn’t overrated as a prospect. That backfired, leaving the Broncos in a desperate position.
The Broncos not landing Cousins would place immense pressure on the franchise to select the right quarterback at No. 5.
While depriving the team of the chance to draft Notre Dame blockers Quenton Nelson or Mike McGlinchey, or Alabama spork defender Minkah Fitzpatrick, it would put the Broncos back in an area they’ve struggled with.
Elway missed on Brock Osweiler and has a flailing prospect in Lynch. Prior to this, the Josh McDaniels-era Broncos made one of the weirdest first-round picks in history in Tim Tebow. Mike Shanahan’s draft investments performed the best, with Jay Cutler being a perennial starter and the best QB in the 2006 draft. He fell short of expectations. Brian Griese (Round 3, 1998) showed intermittent promise but topped out as an average passer. The Broncos’ 1992 Tommy Maddox pick oddly benefited the 2002 Steelers and contributed to trivia-question lore because of Maddox’s XFL season.
Denver being thrust into a position where it likely has to take the third quarterback in the draft is a tough sell for a fan base that has seen this franchise fail at doing this for decades.
Additionally, the Broncos not having the chance to take a certain starter at No. 5 would force them to make the right choices on Day 2 of the draft. That has been a problem for several years, as Montee Ball, Cody Latimer and Ty Sambrailo showed. (The 2017 contingent of DeMarcus Walker and Carlos Henderson is off to a slow start.)
Conversely, not having a historic expense on the payroll would help the Broncos financially.
More room would exist for Bradley Roby and Matt Paradis extensions. The Broncos could make a better push for Colorado native Nate Solder (and other higher-priced starters at need areas) in free agency and could get by without cutting Derek Wolfe or C.J. Anderson.
But how much did having extra money from the lack of a franchise-QB salary help the Broncos the past two years?
They were able to re-sign Marshall, Sanders and Stewart but went 5-11 last season, explaining why they’re going to be willing to make the Cousins salary sacrifice.
The highest-ceiling option for this Broncos’ offseason would be bypassing Cousins and hitting on what turns out to be a franchise quarterback at No. 5. However, that’s an incredibly dicey proposition. By the time said quarterback is ready to deliver consistently, the bulk of the nucleus the Broncos currently have will probably be gone.
Cousins might not ever be a top-10 quarterback. He isn’t yet and will soon be 30. But once Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers retire in the next couple of years, suddenly what Cousins offers could look better.
Cousins not signing in Denver may doom the Super Bowl nucleus to spending more prime years in relative anonymity.
A McCarron- or Bradford-quarterbacked team just looks like a low-ceiling offense. The Broncos don’t quite have the defensive muscle to compensate the way they did in 2015.
More than any other team in this derby, the Broncos need to hope Cousins says yes.