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.

  • Laces Out

    Great job on the in-depth exploration of something we shouldn’t do 🙂

    You’re basically trading Washington for their crappy situation where they won’t be able to adequately sign additional players to actually make cousins the quarterback with support he needs. They are going to lose Breland and he is one hell of a player that I would love for us to sign

    Elway didn’t overpay for Osweiler thank God, he wouldn’t overpay for Kaepernick, and he shouldn’t pay cousins more than anyone else in the league and if you guys think he’s going to do tha2t your f****** high especially at the cost of losing our best secondary Defender hands down who will make the Hall of Fame and leaving an even bigger hole at right tackle.

    With five starting-caliber quarterbacks coming out to go in the first round you can bet your ass we’re going to pick one

  • ohiobronco

    I am a little concerned that this structure is a little too back loaded. The concern is that you get into a Flacco situation where his play has leveled off but not fallen off the cliff, you really don’t want to move on from him but you can’t take his cap hit so you get into chronic restructure mode. Even if he is playing at a high level this can get problematic (see Brees). For this reason, I would prefer to take a little more of the cap pain earlier in the deal (say 22-23M in year 1 and 25ish in year two).

    Also, hard guarantees are somewhat moot. He is going to be uncutable for three seasons and painful to cut in year four. So everyone is going to need to wrap their head around the level of commitment involved. If he struggles at any point in the first few years you accept that you are tied to him and work around it.

  • Tyler

    I haven’t seen the option mentioned much but I always thought the transition tag was the most likely course of action from the Redskins. A huge contract is a hard pill to swallow. It’s even more difficult if you have to give up draft picks for the right to give out that huge contract.

    • ohiobronco

      Most think it is unlikely because a team with large amount of cap space would front load a deal that Washington could not match. The transition tag number would stay on their books until the process is done so they could lose Cousins for nothing and also miss out on the main waves of free agents.

      Nick’s trade scenario does make more sense though.

      • Nick

        The Redskins have $52 million in cap space even after getting past the top 51. It will be very difficult for any team to craft a contract so frontloaded that the Redskins can’t match. In any case, the Broncos definitely can’t attempt it even if was feasible.

        • Laces Out

          it’s an excellent point you have brought up Nick on top of the fact that why would the Redskins go out of their way to let somebody else sign the QB that they likely want to keep?

          There’s no way they just let him walk they’re going to transition tag him like you said and at least give them a chance to see what the contract is if they want to match it.

    • Laces Out

      It’s only a hard pill to swallow if the guy is not talented like Rogers, Manning, Brady, etc those guys you’d signed the check in a heartbeat and so what I and that’s been my point if you can’t over pay for average even though somebody here lost their mind and told me he’s a top 10 QB he still average

  • Royalwithcheese

    No way should the Broncos give up picks and sign Cousins. That would be an easy way to cripple a franchise.

    • cjfarls

      Depends on the pick. If it will cost a 1st rounder or more, I agree completely and its probably better to draft someone(s) and go for a cheaper option.

      If it takes a 2nd or a swap of 1sts, maybe its worth it. But we need the 1st round picks on cheap rookie deals to afford the top-of- market contracts for Von and Cousins. Paying both high picks AND high contracts is a super risky move.

      • BlackKnigh

        A swap of firsts would give us the 13th pick and a chance to get a blue chip OL guy. Plus we would have a helluva QB – and maybe not have to draft one until later. Use the top 4 picks for OL and ILB – and another top need.

  • pubkeeper

    Well, on to plan B then…

    I like cousins, but no way I’m mortgaging my future for him.

  • Funny that I dropped by here when Nick posted this. One of the Mile High Huddle staff members was discussing some of the players the Broncos are currently in negotiations with. This was shared to a private group, so I can’t say much, but should be able to talk in general terms.

    To anyone looking for specifics, I can’t say much, but here’s what I can safely share.

    * The Broncos are negotiating with Demaryius Thomas and Aqib Talib about their contracts. Either a restructure or a conversion of salary into incentives will be sought. Restructures will likely include extensions.
    * The Broncos want to extend Cody Latimer, but it’s not a guarantee they’ll keep him.
    * The Broncos have talked to Corey Nelson about an extension. If retained, it would be for depth and special teams.
    * Brandon Marshall might be willing to revisit his contract if the Broncos are serious about getting Kirk Cousins.
    * Derek Wolfe will also be approached about his contract.

    Also, every indicator is pointing to Menelik Watson being cut once he passes his physical. The Broncos have Cyrus Kouandijo under contract for 2018, so they have somebody who can play right tackle for the time being. It’s a deep draft class for offensive linemen, so it shouldn’t be a problem for the Broncos to find somebody in the draft.

    • RSH

      Thin Air Insider, Bob Morris. Thanks for the information. This seems to harmonize with what I and the majority here have expressed a desire to transpire this offseason.

    • Royalwithcheese

      A conversion of salary to incentives is also known as a pay cut, yes?

      • Nick


        • Royalwithcheese

          Quite the euphemism.

      • ohiobronco

        Unless your PMFM, then you just go ahead and win the SB and keep your money.

  • Oh, one other thing I will mention that I can safely share.

    Kirk Cousins turning down Washington’s contract offer isn’t because of money. It’s because he doesn’t want to play for Washington any more. He wants out. It’s not just his father talking.

    • QDoc

      So if I understand correctly…

      Let’s say WAS decides to put the transition tag on him. But Bob’s right (and I think he is) that it’s not about the money.

      Someone like Denver comes along, and works up a contract like what Nick proposes. Kirk digs it and happens to love orange and blue, so he wants to sign it. BUT… of course, WAS can match it, so they do. Kirk tells WAS to pound sand. He doesn’t have to sign their matched offer, correct? And he can sign whatever offer he wants? And further, in this scenario, DEN doesn’t owe WAS anything. WAS will get a nice third-round comp pick, but otherwise we don’t owe them anything.

      Do I have that right?

      • Tyler

        I don’t think so. What’s the point of the transition tag if Cousins doesn’t have to sign when Washington matches? Might as well be free agency if that were the case.

      • Nick

        Tyler is correct. Once Cousins signs an offer sheet with another team, a part of that contract mandates that he will under contract with the Redskins instead if they choose to match the offer sheet. Also, like I said above, Denver shouldn’t even bother negotiating with Cousins until they can first reach agreement with WAS on assuring that they don’t match the offer.

        • QDoc

          Thanks for educating me! (And you too Tyler.)

  • ohiobronco

    So let’s say Cleveland makes the pitch that they can pay him the most and still have the cap and picks to build around him. They then then do something like Barkley and Nelson in the 1st and a stud WR in the 2nd. And they can still get some other stud FAs. Plus all he has to do is get to the playoffs a couple times and he’s on Lebron’s level in Cleveland.

    • BlackKnigh

      Very smart idea. That could resurrect that franchise in a hurry.

  • Jeremy

    Great work Nick. I was skiing today so I just got back and am trying to soak this all in.

    A few things that worry me about this:
    – We learned with Osweiler that it only takes two at the negotiating table to drive the offer through the roof. There are a handful of teams who may be interested, and it seems likely to me another besides the Broncos who would be willing to engage. If the Broncos made an offer like this, it seems very possible another team who is at all interested would come in, slightly beat the APY, and add more cash upfront on the offer. Since this is about as high as the Broncos can go, you basically have to hope that Cousins cares more about being a Bronco than he does about making more money.
    – If you go this route, you are basically forgetting about making any other free agent moves in 2018 or 2019. You are hoping that the 2017 Broncos + Kirk Cousins + the rookie draft class – Watson and a shit ton of depth players – the declining play of aging veterans will elevate the team from 5-11 to playoff contenders. I think Cousins is good, but I question if he’s that great. Every year from 2012 to 2017, Elway made several moves that you really felt made the roster better. That will cease.
    – If the Broncos move on from Cousins after year three, he will have only made 79 million, or 26.3 APY. That’s pretty well below the 28.2 APY in the original contract, and I feel agents usually want a premium on the effective APY if a player is cut after year 3 in a situation like this (For instance, Von’s deal was 19 million APY, but if we moved on from him after year 3, he would have made 70 million, or 23.2 million APY). That makes me think Cousin’s agent will balk at this deal that gives the Broncos a relatively easy escape route after year 3.
    – In this hypothetical, Cousin’s cap hit in 2022 would be 21% of the cap, assuming the cap levels out around 200 million by then (a fair assumption, I could see it being lower, driving that percentage higher). I know OTC tracks this. Have you ever seen a cap hit anywhere close to that percentage of the cap? Seems insane to me.

    One other question. If it’s true Kirk wants out of DC because of his dislike for the team, it would seem he would be fairly concerned about his offer sheet being signed. Would one way to increase his leverage be to increase his signing bonus to very high levels and decrease his salary? If you hold out until week six you still get paid your signing bonus, but lose six game checks. Also, if the Redskins sign him with the thought that they can trade him if he does hold out/they can rectify their feelings, the Redskins would be left paying the signing bonus (flip side of this is you would get even more back in a trade since he would come on such a cheap annual salary). Just something to keep in mind.

    • Nick

      Getting to this late because this came in while I was at a hockey game, sorry. Let’s take these a point at a time.
      1. The contracts that I put up here are almost always a neutral take on what should be reasonably expected at the end. If I’m representing the Broncos or Cousins I’ll start off lowballing or highballing and then work from there. Typical negotiation stuff. The Broncos will have some hard limit of course, and if some other team goes apeshit, oh well, that’s on them and congrats to Cousins for getting that deal.
      2. Well, I have argued that aside from QB there aren’t many major roster holes as constructed. I’m fine with going lean on free agency and leaning on the draft the next two years if need be. However, if they do need to make future FA moves there are other roster moves (restructure Von, cut Talib, etc.)
      3. OK, so I did screw up and say Stafford’s 3-year cash flow was $74M when I meant that was Luck’s. Stafford’s is way up there at $85.5M. I’ll fix that in a bit. You could send a bit more money into 2020 if you want (and it would help with 30% rule compliance), but it may also allow the Broncos to gain cap space when cutting him–I tried to tailor it so the Broncos would be at a slight loss with a pre-June 1 cut.
      4. Don’t pay much attention to cap numbers after 2020, who knows what the new CBA will calculate then. Also, if Cousins made it to 2022 of this deal, there would almost certainly be an extension that would drive his cap number lower.
      5. I’m not sure what your holdout plan is here. If he held out after signing an offer sheet that the Redskins matched, WAS could go after his signing bonus as forfeiture. If he holds out because he doesn’t sign the tender, that’s within his right but there’s no bonus involved with the tender, just a large base salary. Finally, if the Redskins want to tag and trade him, they’ll be talking with other teams about possible compensation first before they (or anyone) would talk contract with Cousins.

  • Yahmule

    This whole system shows what the NFLPA gets for hiring amateur negotiators who’ve taken thousands of shots to the head instead of a professional like Marvin Miller to sit down across the table from these NFL lawyers.

    Possible they’ll pass on a franchise tag because Snyder hasn’t shown any desire to wrap Cousins up in a long term deal commensurate to his value. Gruden’s comments about him after the season were pretty neutral as well. The Broncos shouldn’t talk to Washington about Cousins at the Combine at all. Let them decide if they want to tag him or not by the March 6th deadline. If they’re looking to pursue significant trade capital, the Broncos can walk away. Washington can only tag him for one more season, so they might believe they’re better off making a break now and trying to get his replacement in the draft.

  • More Cow Bell

    The amount of money and compensation is ridiculous. I would think that a team leader/QB would settle for a lesser APY to build a well rounded team. Would his agent/NFLPA let him take a contract with a smaller number but higher GTD? 5 year, 100 mil, fully guaranteed?

  • One other point I will add here.

    The Broncos will not trade draft picks for Cousins. It’s either sign him as an UFA or consider a contract offer under the transition tag that Washington doesn’t want to match. If the Broncos are put into a situation in which they have to give up picks, they will pass on Cousins and most likely focus on QBs in the draft.

    • ohiobronco

      That paints a picture that kind of brings Kaep to mind, where the Broncos are interested but on thier terms and thier terms only. That’s very different than Cousins or bust.