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Three Lessons From the Record-Breaking Kirk Cousins Contract

NFL teams hate handing out guaranteed money, and the Vikings just gave a good-not-great quarterback a historic amount of sure-thing cash. What happens now?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

It is possible we look back on this week and see it as the start of a new era of NFL free agency. Kirk Cousins, who bet on himself, didn’t sign a below-market deal with Washington, played on the franchise tag twice, and generally spent the past three years putting on a master class on how to get to free agency, gain leverage, and get a historically large sum of money, was offered a fully guaranteed three-year deal worth around $86 million from the Minnesota Vikings. It’s a significant achievement: The NFL abhors giving out guaranteed deals, even to its biggest stars, and seeing as Cousins is not one of its biggest stars, this is huge. This could lead to the star passers of the game getting even bigger guaranteed sums—or it might not. Leaving aside the future of NFL contracts, this week’s signings will change the competitive landscape of the sport as well. So what have the Cousins deal and the moves that followed taught us already?

1. It Changed Everything—for Quarterbacks

Cousins found a way to acquire leverage over teams in a league that does everything it can to give its players none—and he did it all while not being a particularly great quarterback. As for the actual structure of the deal—three years, fully guaranteed—it will have major ramifications on a select group of players. It’s over $20 million guaranteed at signing more than any player in NFL history, according to Spotrac. When Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan, both of whom are expected to sign extensions soonish, sit back down at the negotiating table with their teams, there is no way the Cousins pact isn’t one of the first things they talk about. If Cousins can get a full deal guaranteed, what can Rodgers get? There’s a Simpsons gag where Moe sends away to NASA to figure out Barney’s obscenely large bar tab, and the punch line is that it turns out to be $70 billion. A number similar to that seems fitting for Rodgers given Cousins’s deal and how much better of a player Rodgers is.

Now, for quarterback contracts in general: NFL teams don’t want quarterbacks to realize that they usually become bargains as soon as they sign their deal. Since the cap has been rising by at least $10 million each year since 2013 and salaries are fixed as the cap rises (salaries have never been pegged to salary-cap growth), the rate for a good quarterback always spikes. That’s why Rodgers, perhaps the most talented quarterback in football, will have only the 13th-largest cap hit among quarterbacks in 2018, just a smidge higher than Miami’s Ryan Tannehill. Among players who signed before this week, the three biggest quarterback salaries this season will be Jimmy Garoppolo, Matthew Stafford, and Derek Carr, all of whom signed their deals within the past year. In quarterback contracts, talent does not matter as much as timing.

There’s an argument that Cousins’s deal isn’t as groundbreaking as it appears because nearly all big quarterback deals are guaranteed early in the deal, so the theory goes, this is essentially a regular contract without the unguaranteed years attached at the end. This misses the point. Cousins will be able to hit the open market again in three years at age 32, and teams will likely have even more money to spend, so he can then sign another deal and not be locked into those unguaranteed years like other passers have been. With this contract, Cousins is a winner from every angle.

Even though the Vikings dished out this kind of deal, the NFL does not want to abandon its business model, which includes being generally crappy to its players in contract negotiations. The league has built a system in which incentives based on playing time and statistics are accepted by not only fringe players, but the greats of the game, too.

So what happens now? There are three options. (1) Cousins’s deal is an isolated incident—the product of a player whose original team didn’t value him enough, who was fine being patient with the franchise tag system, and who struck the open market at the right time. (2) The Rodgerses and Ryans of the world use this to get either a fully guaranteed, long-term deal or a massive spike in guarantees overall in their next deals. (3) This starts a trickle-down effect that begins with the next wave of QB negotiations and continues when some of the sports’ biggest non-quarterbacks (like the Rams’ Aaron Donald) ask for a similar deal.

The third option will take longer to manifest than the second. Doug Baldwin tweeted that Cousins will be a “hero” to younger players and that more players need to “bet on themselves” until guaranteed contracts are normal. For a non-quarterback, this is much harder because the NFL has a habit of giving quarterbacks a hell of a lot more than the other positions. Teams will do anything to avoid losing a competent quarterback. For a defensive lineman like Donald to get a massive, game-changing guaranteed deal, he’d have to wait out the Rams tagging him at least twice and hope that he stays healthy and maintains his current level of performance. Since the NFL is obsessed with its quarterbacks, their actual performance and health are somehow inconsequential. Sam Bradford cannot stay healthy and is not even great when he is on the field, yet he plans to sign with Arizona for $20 million ($15 million guaranteed).

Cousins landed this deal, in part, because the sport does not think rationally about its quarterbacks. That’s great for the passers themselves, but less so for the other 21 players on a football field.

2. The Teddy Bridgewater Injury Is the Biggest What-If of This Decade

Every major development so far this week can in some way be traced back to Bridgewater destroying his knee during 2016 training camp. If Bridgewater had not been terribly injured, Minnesota likely wouldn’t have had a hole at quarterback and therefore wouldn’t have been in the market for Cousins. And Case Keenum wouldn’t have been given the keys to the Minnesota offense in 2017, which led to his expected signing with the Broncos on an $18 million–a-year deal (for which the guarantees are not yet known). The guy he replaced in Minnesota, the oft-injured Bradford, is also expected to depart the Vikings. Bradford, of course, came to Minnesota from Philadelphia after the Bridgewater injury, which opened up the quarterback depth chart for Carson Wentz, who led the Eagles to an NFC East title before tearing his ACL and getting replaced by eventual Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles, who was traded for Bradford from the Eagles in 2015 and replaced as Rams starter by Keenum, who … OK, you get it. Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman also pointed out that the cap space Philadelphia would’ve used on Bradford allowed the Eagles to sign their no. 1 receiver, Alshon Jeffery.

What would have happened had Bridgewater never damaged his knee? He likely would have stayed with Minnesota, and at the very least had his option picked up and would’ve started again for the Vikings in 2018. We’d never know how good Keenum can look with the Vikings offense, and so the Broncos would have looked for someone else. Bradford would’ve stayed with the Eagles, Jeffrey would’ve gone somewhere else, Wentz’s debut would’ve been delayed at least a little bit, who knows where Foles would be, Bridgewater wouldn’t be joining the Jets this year, and Kirk Cousins would be getting a possibly not-paradigm-shifting deal somewhere else.

3. The Quarterback Market Isn’t Close to Done

One of the strangest things about the modern quarterback market is that many of the big moves do not prevent teams from selecting quarterbacks high in the draft. The Jets plan to sign Josh McCown and Bridgewater, and apparently will still draft a quarterback in the first round. A similar idea is floating around about the Broncos (who, uh, by the way, still have Paxton Lynch). I’ve always said that NFL teams overreact to obvious themes of the team that won the Super Bowl, and since the Eagles won the Super Bowl with a backup quarterback, teams have apparently decided to stack quarterbacks. Plus, with the rising cap, teams can simply afford to carry more than one guy. Who cares whether Keenum gets supplanted by a rookie in November? The $18 million isn’t that much anymore. In 2018, it’s a new world. There are no guarantees. Well, maybe a few.