No matter where quarterback Kirk Cousins signs, and given the attention his contract situation has received, there’s a clear directive: He’d better win. He knows that as well as anyone. And in every interview, Cousins has repeated that as his main desire.
If that’s the case, then some teams make a lot of sense and a handful of teams do not.
Minnesota tops the list of the teams that makes the most sense -- if it decides not to keep any of the three unrestricted free agents from their 2017 roster at the position. Thing is, the Vikings just reached the NFC Championship Game (with a much less expensive Case Keenum), so the expectations would be set awfully high for Cousins. Still, if it’s about long-term success and the Vikings are interested, then they’re the easy choice -- even if it means rejecting bigger deals elsewhere.
The Redskins didn’t want to pay Cousins a certain amount because they believed it would be harder to build around him. Minnesota's roster is already built. The Vikings could afford to overpay a guy if they view him as the final piece, one who could help them now and for a few years while in that Super Bowl window.
Jacksonville makes sense, too, depending on what the Jaguars decide to do with Blake Bortles.
But there are some teams for which, even if he signs, he’ll be back in a spot needing help and hoping the organization can provide what’s necessary.
Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals have a new coach in Steve Wilks. But they also need a lot of help and don’t have much cap room (approximately $23 million). There’s another potential problem: They play in the NFC West, the same division as two of Cousins’ former coaches – the Los Angeles Rams’ Sean McVay and San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan. That doesn’t mean Cousins couldn’t play in Arizona and win, but he’d also enter four games each year facing two coaches who know him as well as anyone, especially what makes him uncomfortable. Cousins did play well enough in a victory over the Rams last season and he threw for 330 yards in beating the 49ers (winless at the time). But it makes winning harder.
New York Jets: With approximately $75 million in cap space, they can pay quite a bit for Cousins if they want; they can free up another $15 million or so with cuts. But signing Cousins doesn’t solve all their issues. Quarterback Josh McCown wasn’t the problem in the 13 games he played last season, throwing 18 touchdowns to nine interceptions with a passer rating of 94.5. He wasn’t a Pro Bowl player, but he played well and the Jets were 5-8 in games he started. New York lacks offensive playmakers; finding one with the sixth overall pick won’t be enough. They need a running back and a tight end and offensive line help. They need to fix their defense, which ranked 22nd in points allowed and 25th in yards allowed.
Money alone has never solved problems in the NFL. Still, the Jets could always structure Cousins’ contract so it’s front-loaded, allowing them to build for the next several years. Then the question becomes: Can they do so? If Cousins signs here, it will definitely test the belief that he just wants to win. Sometimes a team offers so much money, it convinces players to believe that, yeah, they can win here (see: Redskins, 2000s). Having a coordinator in Jeremy Bates who has a reputation for being highly detailed -- and who coached with Mike Shanahan, Cousins’ first coach -- helps. Cousins met him once and he knows the system he runs. Winning in New York could make Cousins a king; losing there after signing a huge deal would do the opposite. Cousins would be betting on himself again, this time that he could elevate a franchise. He’d also be betting on the Jets to get him what he needs. Those are big bets. Cousins might end up here; that doesn’t mean it would make the most sense.
Denver Broncos: If the Vikings and Jaguars don’t bid, then it could come down to the Broncos or the Jets. Denver has shown it can build a winner. The Broncos also have a good running game, ranking 12th in yards per game last season. They have a defense that ranked third in yards (but 22nd in points allowed). There’s a base to build around, plus they have the fifth overall pick. The problem for Denver will be creating necessary cap space. The Broncos not only don’t have a lot of room now -- $25 million – they’re also in tough shape for 2019 (currently 29th in available space). Denver could release or trade some players to create more room, but one of them would be receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Also, coach Vance Joseph ended his first season with rumors about getting fired. It’s a storied franchise, but it’s another gamble. And both sides will have to wonder the same thing: Given their cap situation, would signing Cousins prevent them from building for long-term success?
Cleveland Browns: This has never made sense for either side and there’s a good chance the Browns won’t even bid on Cousins. They have a chance to grab the best quarterback in a draft with several good prospects who, in a couple years, could surpass Cousins. And they’d be much cheaper. From Cousins’ perspective: The Browns are a combined 1-31 and have the same head coach. End of story.