Kirk Cousins, the prized catch of this year’s NFL free agent class after three straight 4,000-yard passing seasons as quarterback of the Washington Redskins, made his record-setting guaranteed deal with the Minnesota Vikings official Thursday.
He becomes the league’s highest-paid player, with his contract surpassing the $27.5 million average annual value of the recent five-year, $137.5 million deal signed by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo with the San Francisco 49ers. But Cousins is unlikely to hold that distinction for long, with quarterback Aaron Rodgers negotiating a new deal with the Green Bay Packers. Cousins’s guaranteed contract is unique in a sport in which players usually receive only a portion of their contracts in the form of guaranteed money.
Cousins’s departure from the Redskins was made certain weeks ago, and many within the sport had become increasingly convinced by the time of the NFL scouting combine that Minnesota would be his landing spot in free agency. He joins a Vikings team that reached last season’s NFC championship game and had all three of its quarterbacks, including most recent starter Case Keenum, eligible for unrestricted free agency.
The deal between Cousins and the Vikings, negotiated by agent Mike McCartney, was essentially done by Tuesday, during the so-called legal tampering period in which agents for prospective free agents could speak to interested teams. All that remained was for Cousins to make his visit without any last-minute snags arising. Cousins’s move to Minnesota is part of a league-wide quarterback reshuffling that also has seen Keenum land in Denver, Sam Bradford go to Arizona, Teddy Bridgewater join the New York Jets and AJ McCarron end up in Buffalo.
Cousins’s availability marked the rare NFL occurrence of a productive quarterback being on the open market in the prime of his career. The Redskins used their franchise-player tag the previous two years to keep Cousins from entering free agency, and the two sides were not able to agree to a long-term deal to ensure that Cousins’s stay in Washington would be more permanent.
A third straight franchise tag this year would have been very costly, at about $34.5 million on a one-year deal, and unwieldly for the Redskins’ salary cap. It also would have marked the last time, under NFL rules, that the Redskins could have used their franchise player tag on Cousins. The team decided to move on, agreeing during Super Bowl week to a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs that brought Alex Smith, the league’s top-rated passer last season, to D.C. as Cousins’s replacement.
There was speculation about the Redskins perhaps contemplating franchise-tagging Cousins to try to trade him. But that would have been problematic, given that Cousins probably could have held up the process by refusing to negotiate a new contract with his next team. So the Redskins allowed Cousins to hit the market, and they likely will receive a compensatory third-round pick in the 2019 NFL draft as a result of his exit via free agency.
A group of quarterback-needy teams that included the Broncos, Jets, Cardinals and others lined up as potential Cousins suitors. But by the combine in Indianapolis, other agents familiar with the quarterback market and executives with other quarterback-starved franchises were convinced that Cousins would end up with the Vikings.
He joins a team with Super Bowl aspirations for next season and beyond, and Cousins will have to deal with the expectations that accompany those hopes. He comes with a hefty price tag and he is expected to be the final piece of a Super Bowl puzzle in Minnesota after Keenum had a breakthrough 2017 season, playing at a near-league-MVP level, but could not get the Vikings past the Eagles in the NFC title game.
Fellow Vikings quarterbacks Bradford and Bridgewater also were free agents. The Vikings chose to seek their quarterback solution from outside the organization and quickly turned to Cousins, the former fourth-round draft choice by the Redskins in the 2012 NFL draft who joined the team the same year as Robert Griffin III. Griffin, a Heisman Trophy winner at Baylor, was selected second overall in that draft and won the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year award with the Redskins. But his career was derailed by injuries and engulfed by controversy, and Cousins eventually emerged as the Redskins’ starter.
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