Kirk Cousins is probably going to be a free agent next offseason. After not reaching a long-term deal with Washington before the July 17 deadline, Cousins is on a one-year deal with the team that pays $23.94 million.
Washington will have a last chance to keep Cousins after the 2017 season, but franchise-tagging Cousins again would mean owing him more than $34 million in 2018, and giving him the transition tag would cost more than $28 million.
The most realistic way Washington keeps him is if the team manages to negotiate a long-term deal before Cousins reaches free agency. Based on the negotiations of the last two offseasons, that seems like a long shot.
So which team is going to swoop in and steal away Cousins?
His 29th birthday is a month away, so any interested team may feel like it can sign a franchise quarterback. After all, he earned a spot in the Pro Bowl in 2016 with 4,917 passing yards, 25 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.
Cousins may not rank among the top five quarterbacks in the league, but a legitimate starter at the position absolutely never hits the free agency market, and it could mean a huge sweepstakes is on the way.
Here are the teams we think should make a run at Cousins and the ones that should definitely steer clear:
Best: Jacksonville Jaguars
It’d be a whole lot easier to pick the Jaguars to win the AFC South if Blake Bortles weren’t their quarterback. The team has a legitimately exciting young defense and some dangerous receivers and just added Leonard Fournette at running back. But Bortles makes it hard to believe in Jacksonville.
If the Jaguars fail to take a step forward again in 2017, Cousins could make sense as an option.
Worst: Buffalo Bills
It’s not that crazy to imagine a scenario where the Bills struggle to do much of anything and decide to move on from Tyrod Taylor to avoid giving him a $6 million roster bonus next spring. It’s also not that hard to imagine the Bills ponying up the money necessary to go after Cousins.
But Cousins has been blessed with a pretty strong supporting cast in Washington. If he signed with the Bills, he’d go to a team that could very quickly have little else to work with on offense.
Sammy Watkins has never managed to stay healthy and is scheduled to become a free agent after the team declined his fifth-year option. LeSean McCoy is the most dangerous man on offense, but he’d be 30 when Cousins joined the team in 2018. The other interesting option is Zay Jones, but it’s way too early to know if the East Carolina product is a worthwhile option.
Getting more help would be much easier if Buffalo doesn’t commit $28 million or so per year to a quarterback.
— Adam Stites
Best: Pittsburgh Steelers
So let’s say that Ben Roethlisberger, the guy who turns a two-month injury into a one-game absence, surprises everyone and actually retires instead of just teasing it. That would leave the Steelers with a Super Bowl-winning coach, one of the league’s top wide receivers, maaaaybe the best offensive weapon (depending on what happens with Le’Veon Bell’s contract next offseason), and a defense on the rise. And no real option under center (sorry, Landry Jones).
Kirk Cousins, made of nothing but gritty aw-shucks Midwestern marrow, would be a perfect fit in Pittsburgh. There’s debate about whether Pennsylvania itself is part of the Midwest, but Pittsburgh — once booming, then declining, and now charmingly underrated — is definitely Midwestern, if not geographically, then in spirit. And that’s the kind of place Cousins belongs, both professionally and personally.
He could easily lead the league in passing any given Sunday, go get fries and coleslaw on a sandwich at Primanti Bros., and then go home and be asleep by 9 p.m. It’s the life he was meant to have.
Forget about Bruce Allen not even knowing Cousins’ first name (and the team blaming it on Allen’s accent). If they liked it, then they should have put a ring on it.
— Sarah Hardy
Best: New York Jets
The New York Jets are in full rebuild mode right now. They’ve released tons of veterans this offseason and have cleared up $56 million in cap space. A debate as to whether they are tanking has even opened up.
They may very well be the worst team in the NFL next season, but if they execute their rebuild right, it could be a nice landing spot for Cousins. There’s a good chance they’ll make a better offer for him than anyone else will. If the defense can perform at 2009-10 Mark Sanchez-era levels while giving him adequate weapons on offense, maybe the Jets could be saved after all.
Worst: Atlanta Falcons
Cousins would be on the short list of quarterbacks who could blow a 28-3 lead. So in a strange world where somehow the Falcons lost Matt Ryan and could add Cousins, he’d probably only add to the heartbreak Falcons fans have suffered since 1966. I can’t say the fan base needs more of that.
— Harry Lyles Jr.
Best: San Francisco 49ers
It’s such a logical move. Cousins and new Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan have an existing relationship. Shanahan was Cousins’ offensive coordinator in Washington in 2012 and 2013, and the 49ers need a quarterback.
More importantly, San Francisco should have plenty of cap space to work with in 2018, which would make it easier for the Niners to win the bidding war that’s likely to ensue once Cousins hits free agency.
Worst: Los Angeles Rams
Yes, Cousins also has a relationship with new Rams coach Sean McVay, but this will really come down to whether 2016 first overall pick Jared Goff can play competently in year two. And if he doesn’t, Cousins would be walking into a situation with a ton of pressure to succeed right away on an offense that finished last season dead last in the league for scoring and yards per game.
— Jeanna Thomas
Best: Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals, just one season removed from an NFC Championship Game appearance, are primed to turn the page on the Carson Palmer era as the veteran quarterback enters his age-38 season. If he retires, Cousins could slide into his spot in the lineup — and play for a coach who just wrote a book called The Quarterback Whisperer. Arizona has a worse offensive line than Washington, and the team’s receiving corps needs an infusion of talent — Larry Fitzgerald can’t play forever — but having David Johnson around is like having a cheat code in the backfield.
Worst: Chicago Bears
The Bears’ quest to find a franchise quarterback led them to pay steep costs to acquire both Mike Glennon and Mitchell Trubisky this spring. Adding Cousins doesn’t make a ton of sense — but neither did trading four draft picks to move up from the No. 3 overall pick to No. 2 in this year’s draft, so you can’t rule it out.
Chicago offers a solid offensive line — its quarterbacks were sacked on less than 5 percent of all dropbacks last season — but few legitimate receiving targets. Cameron Meredith and a potentially healthy Kevin White are the top options on a depth chart that includes retreads like Markus Wheaton, Kendall Wright, and Rueben Randle.
— Christian D’Andrea