If the Washington quarterback wants to play for a franchise built to win now, his best opportunity, arguably, is in Minneapolis.
If the 29-year-old wants a fat payday, the Vikings can oblige -- to a degree. It might not be the back-up-the-Brinks-truck, whatever it takes mentality the Jets are reportedly taking, but Minnesota has money to spend on its quarterback of the future and can do so without sacrificing too many of the pieces it wants like to keep around Cousins (and on defense) in the coming years.
Free agency doesn't start for another three weeks, but the Cousins sweepstakes is already heating up. It's not often that a healthy, potential franchise quarterback who hasn't turned 30 becomes available for teams willing to negotiate a top-dollar contract.
The likelihood of Cousins becoming an unrestricted free agent feels likely to happen, unless it doesn't. Tuesday marks the first day for NFL clubs to designate their franchise (or transition) tag, something the Redskins have done for Cousins in each of the past two offseasons. After paying $20 million to apply the franchise tag a first time in 2016 and $24 million to retain him last season, a third tag would cost Washington $34.5 million for a player they'd attempt to trade, a risky move that could end up backfiring for a number of reasons.
As the Vikings deliberate their own quarterback situation, it's fair to assume that the top expected free-agent quarterback will at least be in the discussion, and for good reason. He's shown consistency over the past three seasons while performing at a pretty high level and doesn't have injury issues.
Last week, new Minnesota offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was asked about Cousins, someone he's had a chance to see up close the past few years.
"I know a pretty good deal about him because we're in the same division the last two seasons," DeFilippo told KFAN's Paul Allen. "And I've had to compete against Kirk at some other places I've been. So obviously Kirk's a heck of a football player. He's got a lot of skills. He's accurate. He's got plenty of arm strength, and does some really nice things. I mean, Kirk's a very good quarterback."
If Minnesota is going to go all-in for Cousins, it will need to determine just how much better it feels the franchise is in his hands versus someone like Case Keenum (or another of the Vikings' pending free-agent quarterbacks), and whether it believes he's worth signing for a mega-contract.
So, what kind of money could Cousins command and where does that put the Vikings? Again, Minnesota has money to spend. With the eighth-most cap space (about $50 million) and another $6.7 million to become available with the expected release of injured defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, the Vikings could very well give Cousins a five-year deal for $120 million, as ESPN's Bill Barnwell suggested.
He'll likely command quite a bit more than that figure ($24 million a year), so let's bump that number up to the $26-28 million range. Should be doable for Minnesota under its current cap circumstances.
But will the Vikings still be in the running if Cousins is commanding a five-year, $150 million contract? A number of reports have the guaranteed figure as high as $75 million with a $60 million signing bonus. Could the Vikings afford that?
Minnesota potentially has five extensions coming due in 2019 -- Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Stefon Diggs, Danielle Hunter and Trae Waynes. General manager Rick Spielman could choose to knock out a few of those extensions a year ahead of schedule to create more space (like signing Barr now), but that money will quickly disappear once deals begin being made.
The Vikings might be able to afford the higher salary for Cousins even when cap issues potentially come into play in 2019 (the Vikings are estimated to have about $78 million available), but will have to rely on restructuring deals and releasing players with minimal penalty to avoid sacrificing key parts of their roster.
Sounds like a headache, yeah? The numbers game is something Spielman said the Vikings began planning two years back knowing they would face these questions at quarterback in 2018.
"We don't just start planning for this year on our cap," Spielman said. "There is a process in place, like everything we do, that's done very thoroughly and it is also looking out into the future. Knowing, as these players develop and knowing as those players become good players that you don't want to lose, we're targeting guys -- OK, two years from now we're probably going to have to pay this guy. So, as we cap plan, I never want to get into the mode of all in this year because I don't want to start back over again. It's always looking, not only to put the best team on the field this year, but also can we keep these players for year after year after year."
The jury will have spoken if the Vikings decide to apply the franchise or transition tag on Keenum. If that happens, speculation about Cousins goes away. But if it doesn't, free agency gets a lot more interesting.
If Cousins wants to win now, the Vikings could be ready to contend for the Super Bowl and stay intact -- at least for the short term. The talent he'd have at the skill positions is far more than he's ever had in Washington.
Might he need to leave some money on the table versus what he could get elsewhere? Yes. Do the Vikings think he's worth the deal they might have to make to land his talents? That will be decided in the next few weeks.