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Vikings emerge as favorites to land Kirk Cousins but Broncos reportedly ‘all-in’ for QB

Kirk Cousins enters free agency with three consecutive 4,000-yard passing seasons under his belt. (Bill Kostroun/AP, File)

INDIANAPOLIS — The Minnesota Vikings increasingly are viewed within the NFL as a top contender to sign quarterback Kirk Cousins when the league’s free agent market opens later this month.

Several agents who don’t represent Cousins but who have knowledge of the upcoming market for quarterbacks said they consider the Vikings the favorite to sign Cousins, who’s eligible for unrestricted free agency after three straight 4,000-yard passing seasons for the Washington Redskins.

An executive with one NFL team expected to be in the market for a quarterback said he also expects Cousins to pick the Vikings.

“We think he’ll end up in Minnesota,” that executive said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because Cousins technically is not available at this point.

There also remains some sentiment across the league that the Denver Broncos and New York Jets will make strong bids to sign Cousins. A report Thursday evening by Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports, citing “sources familiar with the Broncos’ free agency plans,” claimed that the quarterback “has become an ‘all-in target” for Denver.

To make room for the enormous annual salary that is expected to be required to land Cousins, the Broncos have “examined scenarios” in which they create as much as $50 million in salary-cap space, said Robinson. He added that, instead of a contract encompassing five to seven years, Cousins might seek something like a three-year deal, with almost fully guaranteed money, enabling him to hit the market again when he is in his early 30s and can command another lucrative pact.

At the NFL’s draft combine in Indianapolis Wednesday, Broncos president John Elway told reporters his aim is to “explore all options in free agency and see where that goes,” adding, “Believe me, I’m not done swinging and missing.” Elway noted that his team, which got mediocre quarterback play last season from  Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch, could also use its fifth overall pick in April’s draft on the position, either directly or in a trade.

The Redskins said this week they have no plans to franchise-tag Cousins with the intention of trading him. The Redskins already have lined up Cousins’s replacement by agreeing to trade cornerback Kendall Fuller and a third-round draft pick to the Kansas City Chiefs for quarterback Alex Smith, the NFL’s top-rated passer this past season. That trade cannot become official until March 14, also the day the free agent market formally opens.

The Vikings are looking for a new starter with quarterbacks Case Keenum, Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater all eligible for free agency.

Keenum took advantage of the injury-related absences of Bradford and Bridgewater last season to become the Vikings’ starter and emerge as a breakout NFL star. His standout play put him on the fringe of the league MVP conversation, and he took the Vikings to the NFC title game before a lopsided loss at Philadelphia.

The Vikings reportedly do not intend to use their franchise-player tag on Keenum. There has been some confusion about Bridgewater’s status because of the possibility that the league and the Vikings could contend that his limited availability last season could result in his contract being rolled over into next season. But the Vikings have called that a league matter, and the NFL reportedly will allow him to be a free agent.

Signing with the Vikings would enable Cousins to join a team with enough talent at other positions to be a clear Super Bowl contender. He widely is expected to sign a contract that will surpass the record five-year, $137.5 million deal that quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo just signed to remain with the San Francisco 49ers, although Robinson suggested that a shorter contract may be more to Cousins’s liking.

In February, ESPN reported that the Jets were “willing to pay whatever it takes” to get Cousins. However, the New York Daily News subsequently cited team sources in claiming that the Jets “aren’t going to hand Cousins a blank check,” or front-load a contract offer with a $60 million payout in the first year.

Other possible bidders for Cousins include the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills and Arizona Cardinals. The Jacksonville Jaguars removed themselves from the field of teams pursuing Cousins when they signed Blake Bortles to a new three-year contract.

Des Bieler reported from Washington.

Read more on the NFL:

NFL combine: Browns talk No. 1 pick, trade options; Niners aiming high with Garoppolo

‘It’s time to move on’: Jay Gruden ready to turn the page on Kirk Cousins era

At long last, we’re at the ‘no doubt’ stage of Andrew Luck’s recovery

Johnny Manziel offers to play in NFL ‘for FREE,’ shares tale of infamous Vegas trip