When the NFL free-agent market opened in March 2017, teams in search of quarterback help faced a dire reality. After Washington used its franchise tag on Kirk Cousins for the second straight offseason, the pool of available passers almost completely dried up. The list of options included unappealing one-time starters like Mike Glennon and Geno Smith, aging journeymen such as Brian Hoyer and Ryan Fitzpatrick, and little else. Faced with a glaring hole at the position, the Bears handed Glennon a three-year, $45 million contract with $18.5 million guaranteed. The 28-year-old started four games for Chicago, throwing five interceptions before being yanked in favor of rookie Mitchell Trubisky. The Bears cut Glennon earlier this month.
The outcome of the Glennon-Bears marriage was brutal, but it wasn’t an outlier in the history of free-agent quarterback signings. A year earlier, the Texans gave Brock Osweiler a four-year, $72 million deal (with $37 million guaranteed) to become their starting quarterback. Osweiler failed to complete 60 percent of his passes and threw 16 interceptions for a 2016 Houston unit that ranked 30th in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA. The Texans became so desperate to rid themselves of Osweiler’s contract that they gave the Browns a future second-round pick to take it off their hands.
Deals like the ones given to Glennon and Osweiler happen in most markets because the demand for quality (even competent) quarterback play far outpaces the supply. There simply aren’t enough adept passers to go around, forcing the teams searching for answers under center to overpay. That history of quarterback scarcity is what makes the 2018 free-agent class such a striking anomaly.
At the start of the legal tampering period on Monday, teams were allowed to negotiate with the representatives for unrestricted free agents Cousins, Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater, AJ McCarron, and Drew Brees. Even setting Brees (who has reportedly agreed to terms to return to the Saints) aside for a moment, that group comprises options more attractive than any passer on the market last spring. Since the league’s new collective bargaining agreement went into effect in 2011, there has never been a free-agent QB class this loaded. The quarterback supply this year is unprecedented—especially when paired with a draft class that could include as many as six first-round picks at the position—and the way everything shakes out should have wide-ranging effects.
When the regular season ended in December, it seemed as if eight teams (the Cardinals, Jets, Bills, Broncos, Jaguars, Redskins, Vikings, and Browns) might be in the hunt for new starting quarterbacks going into the 2018 campaign. That group has shrunk over the past couple of months, as Cleveland swung a trade for potential Buffalo cap casualty Tyrod Taylor, Washington snagged Alex Smith from the Chiefs (giving way to the Patrick Mahomes II era in Kansas City), and Jacksonville elected to re-sign Blake Bortles to an extension that provided immediate cap relief. Late Monday night, news broke that Keenum intends to sign with Denver, filling yet another team’s void.
As the quarterback carousel continues to turn with the official free-agency period set to begin on Wednesday, it’s a good time to explore how a spike in quarterback supply could impact the open market. What’s more, teams’ choices over the next few weeks should provide telling windows into their overarching approaches to roster construction.
Cousins will be the biggest domino to fall once the market opens this week. Washington’s miscalculation over the past two years left the organization with its hands tied. After sticking the quarterback with two consecutive franchise tags, the Redskins had little recourse to keep Cousins for another year, and the 29-year-old now becomes the most sought-after free-agent quarterback since Peyton Manning.
The debate about Cousins’s worth presents an ideal case study in quarterback value among this group of free-agent passers. Most reports suggest that Cousins will field offers somewhere in the realm of three years and $90 million, with most or all of that money guaranteed. If he does become the first player in NFL history to pull down a fully guaranteed contract, it will act as a paradigm-shifting moment for the league and inform every high-profile quarterback negotiation set to take place in the next year, including those of both Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan. With so many alternatives set to hit free agency, though, it’s worth examining how prudent it would be for a team to hand Cousins a massive deal.
Consider the Vikings, for example, who are considered by some to be the front-runner for his services. Minnesota is reportedly willing to offer Cousins a fully guaranteed deal similar to the one outlined above. It makes sense. Cousins would fit nicely on a Vikings team with a strong supporting cast and impressive top-to-bottom roster talent. General manager Rick Spielman has about $45 million in 2018 cap space with which to work, according to Spotrac, and may see Cousins as the final piece of the puzzle that lifts Minnesota from a first-round bye this winter to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy next February.
Yet complications from that decision would arise moving beyond the 2018 season. If we project that Cousins would command a cap hit of approximately $30 million, that means the Vikings would have about $35 million in cap room for 2019. That total seems considerable—until taking into account that outside linebacker Anthony Barr, defensive end Danielle Hunter, wide receiver Stefon Diggs, and inside linebacker Eric Kendricks are all poised to become free agents next spring. Trying to retain four starters is difficult enough when those players aren’t in high demand. Barr and Diggs are among the two best young players in the league at their respective positions, while Hunter would be a 24-year-old free agent who already has 25.5 career sacks to his name. Player retention isn’t quite as simple as addition and subtraction from available cap space; salary-cap acrobatics allow teams to manipulate numbers from year to year to fit guys into the financial fold. Still, there’s no denying that a colossal number for Cousins would make it tougher for the Vikings to maintain the stacked roster that’s helped them reach the playoffs in two of the past three seasons.
Now that Keenum is off the table, an option like McCarron could come into play. If McCarron were to fetch a deal that carries a cap hit in the neighborhood of $15 million in 2019 (equal to Glennon’s deal in 2017), a team in Minnesota’s situation would have to weigh whether the $15 million pay gap between his deal and Cousins’s equates to a $15 million gap in performance. It’s possible that a team like the Vikings, with so many quality players under contract in 2018, could conclude that the tax to maximize their title chances this season is worth the asking price. But it’s likely this type of all in move would weaken other areas of Minnesota’s roster as early as 2018. After all, head coach Mike Zimmer’s critique of Keenum at the NFL combine this month centered on whether the quarterback’s career season in 2017 was a product of the excellent team surrounding him more than Keenum’s play itself. The same criticism could be levied against Cousins, who was flanked by an ultratalented collection of pass catchers during his best days in Washington.
Few quarterbacks on the planet can transcend their supporting cast and offensive infrastructure. The Vikings will have to decide if Cousins’s ability to do so is worth jeopardizing their future infrastructure. The same goes for every other team interested in the veteran quarterback market, and none of those clubs is nearly as close to title contention as Minnesota.
Of course, the Eagles won a Super Bowl last season by using their rookie quarterback’s modest salary to solidify every other area of their roster. This hints at another reason this QB market is endlessly fascinating: It could reveal whether that becomes the blueprint most teams follow moving forward.
The intrigue surrounding Cousins’s eventual deal is about more than fully guaranteed contracts or even setting the market for this year’s QBs. His decision will cause a ripple effect that extends from free agency to the top of April’s NFL draft. For the Cardinals, Jets, and Bills, his choice and the resulting flurry of movement may ultimately determine their mind-sets for picking in the first round. This year’s incoming QB class—headlined by Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson, and Josh Allen—is packed with potential franchise-changing talent. It only complicates an already knotty situation.
The Broncos’ case is particularly intriguing. If we estimate that Denver’s deal for Keenum falls somewhere in the ballpark of an $18 million cap hit, several additional questions emerge. Even after dealing corner Aqib Talib to the Rams, Denver had only $29 million or so remaining in 2018 cap room. No matter how its deal for Keenum is structured, that cost will likely consume more than half of the Broncos’ available space. When Denver fielded the league’s best defense and a fairly complete supporting cast, bumping up against the cap to find an effective quarterback may have seemed like a worthwhile risk. Those days are gone. Elway has been forced to make concessions at every level of his defense, running back remains a question mark, and the offensive line requires significant work. With Keenum on board, Denver probably still fails to move the needle in the AFC, and if spending more than 10 percent of the cap on a veteran quarterback isn’t a team’s final roster flourish, then signing that quarterback may not be prudent.
This point resonates even more when factoring in the Broncos’ draft position. Denver holds the fifth overall pick this spring, and the odds are that at least one top QB it likes will be available when it comes on the clock. In 2017, the fifth overall pick was Titans wide receiver Corey Davis. As a rookie, Davis carried a cap hit of $4.6 million. If Denver takes a quarterback for roughly the same price, that player should make about 25 percent of what the team will probably pay Keenum. (The Broncos could still draft a quarterback fifth overall, but doing so could bring them dangerously close to a Glennon-Trubisky situation, which would feel like a misuse of resources.) For the Vikings, certainty may be worth spending big on a veteran presence; for most of the teams in the QB market, that isn’t necessarily the case.
All of which brings us to the Browns. By trading with the Bills for Taylor, Cleveland has become the ultimate wild card. It simultaneously took a potential free-agent quarterback out of the mix without having to pay him a new salary and held onto its picks (no. 1 and no. 4) at the top of the draft, either of which could be used to take a QB. There’s also the possibility that the Browns could trade down, a notion that would further shed light on how teams view the value of a quarterback in the context of their respective competitive standing.
The 2018 quarterback carousel poses questions that didn’t exist before this modern era in the NFL. It’s also jump-started what should be one of the wildest offseasons in recent memory.