How Can The Broncos Get Kirk Cousins?

The Broncos need a quarterback. Officially, Kirk Cousins is deemed to be the best quarterback available in free agency. Thus, it’s natural for some to think that the Broncos could be interested in bringing Cousins to their team. But as you may know, there may be obstacles in the way of such a goal. What are those obstacles, and how can they be navigated to achieve this goal?

Let’s take a look at what such a process would look like, one step at a time.

A third franchise tag would be reckless by the Redskins, and it would be their mess to deal with.

As bad as the Redskins have managed their hand with Cousins, I would be stunned if they placed a $34.478 million tag on him. That would be way out of whack even for the quarterback market. If they actually did that, Cousins would sign that tender quickly and lock himself further into the stratosphere of quarterback play for another year in DC, ending any quests by other teams.

A transition tag is more sensible, and still gives the Redskins plenty of negotiating power.

At $28.732 million, the transition tag would still be the highest in the NFL, but not that much higher from current clubhouse leader Matt Stafford’s APY of $27 million. It is probably close to the APY that Cousins would get on the open market. This should be very much on the table as a possibility to happen.

But while the transition tag officially allows Cousins and his agent to freely negotiate with other teams, in practice any other team will still need to talk to the Redskins. This is because they would hold the right to match any offer sheet that Cousins signs with another team. Not only would it be a waste of time for the Broncos or anyone else to essentially negotiate a deal on behalf of the Redskins, that waste of time would put teams behind in negotiating for other quarterbacks as alternatives to Cousins. It would be disastrous to spend a week trying to get Cousins, failing, and left with no serious alternatives as other quarterbacks already have new homes.

So, if John Elway is serious about getting Cousins under a transition tag, the first conversation needs to be with Dan Snyder, Bruce Allen, Doug Williams, or whoever has final authority over the roster in Washington, and it’s one in which talks need to happen no later than the combine. The essential question to be addressed is: “What assurance can I get from you that you will not match any offer we make?”

If the Redskins are smart, that assurance will come in form of significant compensation via a tag and trade deal, not unlike what these very two franchises did with Champ Bailey and Clinton Portis 14 years ago. What the Redskins would want is unclear, but it would not surprise me if they try to recoup the draft capital they burned in trading up for Robert Griffin III six years ago, which was a swap of top ten picks, two future first round picks and one second round pick.

What Elway is willing to give up is also unclear. Personally, if I were the Broncos’ GM the only absolute dealbreaker for me is giving away the 5th overall pick unless the Redskins send back the 13th overall pick. A top five pick is a valuable thing, and it’s also something the Broncos plan to avoid like the plague in the future, so they need to make usage of that pick count.

And while I’m on the record of opposing cutting proven talent, I would ask the Redskins if they were interested in any of Aqib Talib, CJ Anderson, or Trevor Siemian in order to reduce draft compensation. Those three players in particular have very little dead money associated if they leave, and would also get good cap savings to help make room for Cousins. That said, the Redskins likely don’t need a running back, and Colt McCoy is already serving the role Siemian would serve. Cornerback could be a possible need if they lose Bashaud Breeland in free agency, but they already sunk a ton of money into Josh Norman and have Kendall Fuller emerging as a force. Even if it’s unlikely the Redskins would interested, it doesn’t hurt to at least ask.

If a satisfactory deal can be reached with the Redskins on compensation in a tag and trade, then the next step is to start talking with Cousins and his agent on what it would take to sign a deal to bring him to Denver. (Of course, if Cousins isn’t tagged at all, then the step discussed here can be ignored.)

How can the Broncos get cap space to sign Cousins?

Jason Fitzgerald estimates that an APY for Cousins will come in between $27.5 million and $29 million, with guarantees upward of $65 million. This strikes me as the appropriate range as well, as both figures would just barely edge out Stafford in that department. Another important question is whether Cousins can get the third year of his contract guaranteed, either in writing or in practice due to the structure of the contract making it impractical to cut him that year. Stafford was able to gain a practical third year guarantee via a high signing bonus, and Andrew Luck was able to get $3 million of his third year guaranteed in writing. On the other hand, Derek Carr failed to achieve third year security in his extension, only getting a guarantee for injury.

Before I craft a contract for Cousins that would fit the Broncos, let’s take a look at their own cap and contract situation. I estimate that, after Matt Paradis and Shaq Barrett are given second round RFA tenders, and 2018 rookies are accounted for, the Broncos will have about $14.5 million in 2018 cap space. This gets lower, of course, if they do things like give Bennie Fowler an RFA tender, extend Cody Latimer, Todd Davis or Corey Nelson, or make other free agent acquisitions.

In the Broncos’ case, 2019 is also an important year to take into account. My estimate there, after both 2018 and 2019 rookies are accounted for, and either a fifth year tender on Shane Ray or an extension for Barrett is secured, will be $24.5 million left in 2019 cap space. Furthermore, the grand majority of that could be eaten up by extending Matt Paradis and Bradley Roby. Roughly estimate about $8.5 million APY for Paradis and $13.5 million APY for Roby, and you can see there’s not much left over.

If you’ve done the math, you’ll see that the Broncos now only have $17 million unaccounted for over the next two years, when they’re trying to deal for a quarterback who on average would have close to $60 million over the first two years. Doesn’t look good, huh? Does that take the Broncos out of the running?

No, because there are plenty of ways to clear space to get there. My preference would be to limit it to these two preferred methods to get there. (All parentheticals are the total savings over two years.)

  • Cut Menelik Watson. ($11.25 million) I’m generally hesitant to cut him without a better solution in hand, but signing Cousins obviates that hesitation, because now the Broncos can focus primarily on improving the offensive line in the draft. In this case, it matters not whether the Broncos use a June 1 designation since they’ll get $11.25 million in some manner over two years.
  • Plan to cut or trade Aqib Talib in 2019. ($8 million) Even if the Broncos extend Roby, it can practical to keep all of he, Talib, and Chris Harris, Jr. for 2018 by structuring Roby’s contract in a way that declares that his true 2018 compensation is nothing more than the fifth year option amount. But when Roby’s salary would balloon into eight digits in 2019, that’s where the practicality ends, and where it’s time to say goodbye and thank you to Talib.

These two moves (in this example using a June 1 designation on Watson) will increase operating cap space to about $20 million in 2018 and $17 million in 2019. $37 million total in these two years should be the bare bones amount to fit Cousins in. These two moves also minimize the loss of talent elsewhere on the roster. There are many other moves that could be done to gain even more space (cut or trade Talib in 2018 instead of 2019, plan to let Roby walk, restructure Von Miller, cut CJ Anderson, trade away the 5th overall pick, extend Chris Harris, Jr., just to name a few), but for now I’ll work with $37 million as what I need to get a deal done.

The contract

Year Base Salary [Guaranteed] Prorated Bonus Option Bonus Cap Number Dead Money, pre-June 1 Cap Savings
2018 $12,000,000 $6,400,000 $0 $18,400,000 $67,000,000 ($48,600,000)
2019 $12,000,000 $6,400,000 $0 $18,400,000 $48,600,000 ($30,200,000)
2020 $22,000,000
$6,400,000 $1,000,000 $29,400,000 $30,200,000 ($800,000)
2021 $27,000,000 $6,400,000 $2,000,000 $36,400,000 $12,800,000 $22,600,000
2022 $33,000,000 $6,400,000 $3,000,000 $41,400,000 $6,400,000 $36,000,000

This is a five year, $144 million contract, with the APY of $28.8 million just edging out the transition tag tender. $67 million is fully guaranteed as follows: a $32 million signing bonus, guaranteed base salaries in 2018 and 2019, and half of his base salary in 2020. The other half of his 2020 base salary is guaranteed for injury only, but will become fully guaranteed if the Broncos exercise a $3 million option before the start of the 2020 league year. For the non-guaranteed years, the Broncos hold options of $2 million on 2021, and $1 million on 2022. This contract also barely abides by the 30% rule that mandates that any base salary raise beyond the end of the CBA in 2020 is limited to 30%.

This contract beats Stafford in APY and full guarantees. What Cousins cedes here to Stafford is cash flow1: at two years the $56 million is below Stafford’s $60.5 million, and at three years is well behind Stafford’s gargantuan $85.5 million, though at $78 million Cousins does surpass Luck’s $74 million.  is . Cousins also only gets his signing bonus at signing, but given that the Redskins have already paid Cousins almost $44 million in cold hard cash over the past two seasons, I’m hoping that he’s OK with that. If he balks, I’m amenable to shifting some of the 2018 base salary into a roster bonus payable later in the offseason.

The 2018-2019 combined cap numbers of $36.8 million are just under the $37 million I have set aside for this contract. This forecloses the Broncos making other major free agency moves for those two years without more corresponding roster moves, but if they play their cards correctly, signing Cousins and extending Paradis, Roby and one of Ray or Barrett may be all that the Broncos need to do as far as veteran contracts go for those two years. The main risk to the Broncos here is that although they have a hypothetical out in 2020, it will be a costly one to the cap that year, although using a June 1 designation will blunt that hit a bit.


To review, here are the steps that have to happen to bring Cousins to Denver:

  1. The Redskins cannot franchise tag him.
  2. If they transition tag him, the Broncos and Redskins have to reach a tag and trade agreement.
  3. Cousins has to show interest that he wants to play in Denver.
  4. The Broncos and Cousins have to reach a deal that is satisfactory to both sides.

If any one of those steps fail, Cousins will not be a Bronco. This is why I think it’s quite unlikely that such a signing will be able to be made. However, it is far from impossible for it to happen, and in a year where the Broncos need to dramatically improve the quarterback position, no option should be taken off the table.

1 CORRECTION: an earlier version of this article incorrectly crossed up yearly cash flows between Matt Stafford and Andrew Luck.