Although the fine print of the Jimmy Garoppolo deal did not make it as player-friendly as the initial optics suggested, the San Francisco 49ers — by authorizing that contract for a player of Garoppolo’s profile — will change this NFL offseason.
Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan can realistically push for $30 million per season, taking the quarterback market where it probably should go based on the position’s importance and the shortage of players who can perform the required tasks well. As a free agent, albeit one who has said countless times he intends to stay put, Drew Brees can gouge the Saints if he chooses.
However, Kirk Cousins is the biggest beneficiary of the Garoppolo deal.
He stands in a landscape-changing opportunity with a chance to enter free agency in the heart of his prime. He’ll command a deal that could approach or surpass $30M annually, based on the supply-and-demand situation, and have a chance to set the market despite not being especially close to the the Rodgers/Brees/Tom Brady performance tier.
Garoppolo signing for $27.5 million per season eclipsed Matthew Stafford’s $27M-AAV mark, and even though Stafford still owns the guaranteed-money standard, the Garoppolo deal will cause a bigger shakeup.
Unlike Stafford, Garoppolo has not established himself as a franchise quarterback. While he looks headed toward that place soon, having transformed the woeful 49ers via five straight wins as their starter, he has fewer starts than DeShone Kizer or Ryan Mallett. There don’t seem to be nearly as many Brock Osweiler-level buyer-beware warning signs here, but that’s in play.
With Garoppolo commanding that kind of contract, it’s nearly impossible to envision Cousins accepting a deal that doesn’t make him the NFL’s highest-paid player.
The former Redskin centerpiece said on multiple occasions he wants to land in a winning situation, but at what cost? The Garoppolo deal makes rumors Cousins would accept a $24-$25M-per-year agreement extremely hard to imagine, and even now the goals could be shifting. The new marketplace will affect how “winning-situation teams” place bids.
Unless the Jaguars can pull off a magic act with Blake Bortles’ wrist, they’re not going to be in the running. If the Vikings are, they’re keeping a pretty big secret. That would leave the Broncos as the most logical choice, if a winning environment (with realistic funding to support this transaction) is truly the deciding factor. The Bills are coming off a playoff berth but have proven little, and the Cardinals don’t stand to have much money. The Browns, despite their cap-space war chest, do not make sense as a Cousins destination.
Are the Denver Broncos really prepared to spend $30 million per season on Kirk Cousins?
Even ardent defenders wouldn’t tab the 29-year-old passer as having a chance to be a top-tier quarterback in his career, and he’d be in position to make $10-$11M more per year than Peyton Manning.
John Elway bent in his past two franchise-tag deadline impasses, handing out player-friendly deals to Demaryius Thomas and Von Miller. But past transactions showed his reputation as a hardline negotiator. Manning’s pay cut, the team-friendly extensions Chris Harris and Derek Wolfe signed, and the countless veteran free agents he has deemed expendable (or too expensive) have displayed this.
If Cousins is not willing to sacrifice to help the Broncos keep their wide receivers under contract and afford one or two supplementary free agents, this limits the franchise’s ability to round out a foundation for him.
Denver observed the results when a bottom-tier quarterback situation is trusted: the franchise tumbling from the NFL’s summit to a top-five pick in two years. But might this Cousins cost push the Broncos to seek lesser options? A scenario where a bridge passer is paired with a rookie taken at No. 5 is very much in play, Denver’s Las Vegas odds at landing Cousins notwithstanding.
While missing out on a once-in-a-decade get-rich-quick opportunity like this could be a tough sell for Bronco veterans who have done serious campaigning due to how much their careers depend on a quarterback rescuing the team, it’s a legitimate conversation. Even if Cousins’ deal is an Aqib Talib-style “three years, then we’ll see” pact, the Broncos would struggle to augment their core with near-future free agents.
Elway signed Manning for $19M per year in 2012. In a $123M-cap universe, that equated to nearly 16 percent of that Bronco team’s cap. With the cap having risen exponentially since, and being expected to approach $180M this year, Cousins at $30M per year is not that much more cumbersome than Manning’s contract was. There are accounting measures that can structure the bigger cap hits down the road, though the Elway-era Broncos haven’t made a habit of using those tactics.
However, those Broncos didn’t have as many core players signed to veteran deals. Cornerstone talents such as Thomas, Miller, Harris, Wolfe, Wesley Woodyard, Eric Decker and Ryan Clady were all on rookie deals. Though some of these were more onerous old-CBA rookie contracts, this still helped the Broncos afford Manning. Even after Talib is jettisoned, numerous current performers are inked to veteran accords.
The Broncos signing Cousins would place a greater premium on draft success in the coming years, because supplementing their team through free agency — a well they go to frequently — won’t be as easy an option.
The Garoppolo development could make the Jets real a real Cousins threat, their recent struggles aside.
New York could hold $90M in cap space once free agency opens and would be able to afford Cousins and plenty of help. The Jets’ and Broncos’ nuclei are not comparable, accomplishment-wise, but if Gang Green’s offer was significantly better, Cousins could take a chance on a younger team with money to burn to create a better supporting cast.
Cousins makes the most sense to complement the Broncos’ championship nucleus, but how much longer will that group be together? Three years seems like the most optimistic scenario.
The Broncos have gone all-in for a player before to historic success. While the last time featured the quarterback’s age narrowing the contention window, the position players’ primes would be keeping it slim this time around.
With Brady and Ben Roethlisberger near the ends of their careers, that gamble could be worth it in a wide-open AFC.
But the new math complicates this dream scenario. The Broncos need to consider if Cousins justifies this franchise-changing expense.