EAGAN, Minn. (AP) The idea began to percolate about 2 years ago, in discussions between Kirk Cousins and agent Mike McCartney about his status with the Washington Redskins and his future in the NFL.
The goal was to get a fully guaranteed contract, the security players in this league of high turnover and short shelf lives have sought for decades, unlike their peers in professional baseball, basketball and hockey who are accustomed to guaranteed money.
This week, when Cousins finally reached free agency after two consecutive seasons playing on the franchise tag, the Minnesota Vikings made that once-unrealistic aspiration happen with an $84 million, three-year deal.
”It took a great player to come to the market, and it’s not easy to get to the market with great players,” McCartney said. ”It’s just the way it turned out. It’s been an exciting several weeks in anticipation. We researched all fall, the different teams and potential options. At one point, we never thought that the Vikings would need a quarterback and yet still did our research and homework on them. As we got closer to free agency, I had a feeling we were going to have an opportunity.”
As a low draft pick who was forced to work his way up the depth chart and has never won a postseason game, Cousins represented an unlikely candidate to set the precedent. The market always flows toward the demand, though, and because Washington was lukewarm on his long-term potential, Cousins was able to make about $44 million over the last two years and still hit free agency in his prime with no history of significant injury. The Redskins declined to use the franchise tag a third time and acquired Alex Smith in a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs instead.
That allowed a player who topped 4,000 passing yards in three straight seasons to cash in on the volume of quarterback-needy teams in the NFL, where there’s perpetually a short supply of true superstars at the most challenging of all positions.
”It would be great if this would be a game changer and started a trend. Hopefully, there are some high-profile guys who can build on this and go beyond Kirk’s money but still have a fully guaranteed contract,” McCartney said, adding: ”It’s time for it to happen.”
The Vikings were the other critical part of this equation, of course. They drafted Teddy Bridgewater in the first round in 2014 with the expectation he’d become their franchise quarterback, but he wrecked his knee right before the 2016 season and has yet to start a game since then. His replacement, Sam Bradford, became a free agent. So did his super sub, Case Keenum. With a roster on the cusp of a Super Bowl, having lost to the eventual champion Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC championship game, the Vikings were more than willing to be as aggressive as they needed to acquire the quarterback they believed was the best available free agent.
”I don’t know where it’s going to go,” Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said. ”But I know when a player of this caliber gets out there on the market and he’s been franchised two years in a row, and it’s the quarterback position, you’re going to have to do what you have to do. If we didn’t, I know a lot of other teams out there would have.”
The Vikings didn’t offer Cousins the most overall money, McCartney said, but they were confident enough in Cousins to commit to not only the largest per-year average in NFL history (topping Jimmy Garoppolo) but the biggest guaranteed figure the league has seen (beating Matthew Stafford). Those benchmarks will be temporary, of course, with quarterbacks of greater ability and accomplishment like Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan in the queue for contract extensions with their clubs.
The ice has at least been chipped, though, if not broken wide open.
”It won’t matter if other players after me choose to go a different route,” Cousins said at his introductory news conference on Thursday. ”It is what it is for my situation, but players after me have to decide what they want to do.”
There are a number of complex reasons why NFL contracts have so rarely been guaranteed like those in MLB, the NBA or the NHL, with one being a decades-old clause in the collective bargaining agreement that requires teams to put deferred guaranteed money in escrow. That was devised before the league’s revenue boom to ensure teams wouldn’t run out of cash to pay players. Now, the rule can simply deter deep-pocketed owners from granting long-term, guaranteed deals that require cutting massive checks that won’t be cashed for years.
”Now we have so much TV money that it’s completely unnecessary from my vantage point,” McCartney said.
The key to making this a trend instead of a footnote will be more players willing to take shorter contracts. If Cousins asked for a five-year deal, the total value likely wouldn’t have been much higher if at all. In so many contracts over the course of the modern NFL, the maximum value was never paid out because teams were able to cut an aged or underperforming players without being on the hook for much if any guaranteed money in the latter part of the deal.
McCartney acknowledged his confidence level of fulfilling this goal was relatively low when he first approached the Redskins about a new contract for his client. Cousins picked the Vikings for more than just the desirability of their offer. They provided him the best championship opportunity of all the suitors, and he raved about the culture and leadership he discovered through his research and initial visit to team headquarters.
”Just so grateful for the way things have played out,” Cousins said. ”I wouldn’t change anything that has happened for the world. Now I’m just excited to look forward to all that is in store.”
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