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John Elway hints Broncos might not be as interested in Kirk Cousins as we all thought

The Broncos don’t sound like a team that’s gearing up for a splash signing at quarterback.

NFL: Combine Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos have been considered one of the favorites to land impending free agent quarterback Kirk Cousins since the season ended. But a press conference by general manager John Elway at the NFL Combine gave reason to pump the brakes on that assumption.

The Broncos being interested in Cousins has seemed like common sense from the start. Last season, they rotated through three players — Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, and Brock Osweiler — at quarterback who collectively finished with 19 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. The team’s struggling pass attack and propensity for turnovers spoiled another good year for the defense.

So it’d make sense for Denver — the same team that signed Peyton Manning to a five-year, $96 million deal in Elway’s second season as GM — to want to sign Cousins, a quarterback who has a career passer rating of 93.7 and a Pro Bowl under his belt in three seasons as Washington’s starter.

Here are the hints Elway gave Wednesday that suggested the Broncos might not be all in on Cousins:

The Broncos aren’t clearing much cap space

Elway wouldn’t definitively say if the Broncos intend to bring Aqib Talib or C.J. Anderson back in 2018.

“We’ll see,” Elway said. “We’re looking at every option that we can and where our football team is. I’m not saying they’ll be back for sure, but I’m not going to say they are gone.”

Talib is due to count $12 million against the salary cap in 2018 and has been the subject of trade rumors with the opportunity for the Broncos to save $11 million by moving him. Anderson probably won’t be traded, but could be cut soon with $4.5 million in savings headed to the Broncos if they pull the trigger.

Adding $15.5 million to the nearly $24 million in space the Broncos already have would give the team some flexibility. But Denver doesn’t sound interested in clearing much more.

Elway said, without hesitation Wednesday, the Broncos plan to have Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and Menelik Watson back in 2018. Thomas and Sanders carry the second- and fourth-biggest cap hits on the team next year.

Keeping Watson is even more surprising with a $7.2 million cap number headed his way. That’s pricy for a player who struggled in seven starts before suffering a season-ending foot injury.

“Menelik [Watson] will be back,” Elway said. “He’s the right tackle.”

There are rumors the Broncos are attempting to facilitate a trade to acquire safety Su’a Cravens from Washington, and the team is likely to give linebacker Shaquil Barrett a restricted free agent tender.

Altogether, if Elway sticks to what he says and there’s no surprise moves out of left field, the Broncos stand to have somewhere around $35 million in space when free agency begins March 14.

Is that enough to get Cousins to come to Denver?


The San Francisco 49ers just set the record for a player’s hit in a single season with a contract that will cause Jimmy Garoppolo to count $37 million against the salary cap in 2018. The New York Jets are reportedly considering shattering that mark with a contract that would make Cousins count $60 million against the team’s cap next season.

Even if the Broncos convince him to pass on that much, Cousins will still likely cost around $30 million per season. He’d stand to eat just about all the Broncos’ cap space unless the team makes moves to clear more.

And yet, Elway told reporters Wednesday he has zero concern — under any scenario — that the team’s salary cap will inhibit it from signing a free agent.

So there’s three possibilities:

  1. The Broncos will find more ways to save space and go after Cousins.
  2. The Broncos are fine with cutting it close and will go after Cousins, but discount shop everywhere else.
  3. Cousins isn’t in the plans, after all.

The No. 5 pick offers quarterback options too

In the grand scheme, it’s much better to draft a franchise quarterback than sign one in free agency. Even if Cousins turns out to be a dream come true for his next team, he’ll still be really expensive. A rookie contract is much easier to work with.

The danger is the mystery that comes with a rookie quarterback. Drafting Paxton Lynch and Brock Osweiler didn’t work out so well for the Broncos and signing Cousins — at least on the surface — appears to be a much safer route.

Elway isn’t one to be dissuaded, though.

“Believe me, I’m not done swinging and missing,” Elway said. “Misses don’t bother me. We just have to figure out a way to get it right. That is what we are working on.”

But that quote wasn’t what raised eyebrows about the team’s plan at quarterback. It came a few minutes later when Elway said the Broncos will probably use one of its 30 pre-draft visits to bring in Oklahoma quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield for a closer evaluation.

It’s not that surprising the Broncos would want to give Mayfield a close look; however, he presumably won’t be in their plans if Cousins is signed. But Elway acted like it was a foregone conclusion that the Broncos will do their due diligence on one of the top quarterbacks in the class.

Ultimately, none of Elway’s comments mean the Broncos won’t dive into the Cousins sweepstakes. Plans can change and Elway may just be keeping his cards close to his chest. But if you were looking for hints that Denver is interested in a quarterback splurge, all indications at the NFL Combine were the opposite.