Kirk Cousins is THE target for Broncos

INDIANAPOLIS – Denver Broncos general manager John Elway said Wednesday that the team is going to “explore all options” when it comes to filling the team’s void at quarterback – but one option has apparently risen above all others. Kirk Cousins has become an “all-in” target for the franchise when free agency kicks off March 14, two sources familiar with the Broncos’ free agency plans told Yahoo Sports.

Whether the Broncos will have the salary cap capital – and sales pitch – to land Cousins remains to be seen. Sources told Yahoo Sports that the Broncos have examined scenarios to potentially open up between $40 million and $50 million in cap space for this offseason. But the key to a deal is expected to hinge on a variety of factors, including the number of years in the contract, overall guaranteed money, the team’s foundation for success and possibly the city itself.

As it stands, the Broncos are expected to have two other significant competitors for Cousins: the Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets. The Cleveland Browns can’t be ruled out, but Cousins landing there would be a significant coup pulled off by that franchise. Ultimately, the determination within these teams could be determined by the structure of Cousins’ next deal, which may not end up looking like the classic seven-year contracts typically signed by franchise quarterbacks. Instead, Cousins could end up seeking a deal as short as three or four years, with salaries that are almost fully guaranteed each season. Such a deal would be very attractive for Cousins, giving him a concrete commitment and the ability to go back to the negotiating table for another big deal just before his 32nd or 33rd birthday.

Kirk Cousins' recruitment tour expects to kick off when free agency begins later this month. (AP)
Kirk Cousins’ recruitment tour expects to kick off when free agency begins later this month. (AP)

Such a contract takes away some of the advantages teams have with long-term franchise quarterback deals – with fast-rising QB salaries making the team-controlled fifth, sixth and seventh years of deals far more attractive. With Cousins already slated to land near the top of the quarterback scale (or possibly setting a new bar for it), giving him the ability to play for max money over a short term and then negotiate another max term in only three or four years might prove too player-friendly for some franchises. And as it stands, some have expressed consternation about tilting a team’s salary structure too far into one position.

As Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said Thursday, “… part of the reason we’ve been winning games and staying in games is because we’ve been playing good on defense and we’ve been a smart team and all those things. I want to be really careful about taking away from our strength and saying, ‘OK, we’re not going to be able to do this and we’re not going to be able to do that anymore because of financial reasons or something else.”

[Watch on Yahoo: Live stream the 2018 NFL scouting combine on Yahoo Sports’ website, app]

Of course, Zimmer can’t know the impact of a Cousins deal until the two sides officially exchange numbers on March 12, when the league’s three-day negotiating window opens before the start of free agency. As it stands, Cousins’ agent is expected to stack up each team’s best offer and then arrange for visits in free agency before any decision is made.

In many respects, that will make his pursuit similar to the Peyton Manning sweepstakes of 2012, when Manning visited several franchises and spoke with ownership before making a decision. Unless something changes drastically in that three-day negotiating window before free agency begins, Cousins is expected to make multiple visits before signing a deal. That scenario could be scuttled if multiple teams either find Cousins’ contract demands to be too rich, or they simply don’t want to do anything less than a seven-year deal.

If the planned visits remain a staple of his negotiation, that could give Denver an advantage as it successfully went through the 2012 Manning recruitment. A visit would also give the Broncos a chance to sell Cousins on a culture that goes beyond the paycheck he’ll be cashing, which would be important if the Jets or Vikings had larger offers on the table.

If Denver is indeed “all-in,” there’s no better way to illustrate that than by getting Cousins into the city and face-to-face with the brain trust and other players. This negotiation will come with many facets and some moving parts, but the Broncos appear fully committed in a way that harkens back to 2012. They can only hope that the deal is rich enough, salary structure is attractive enough, and sales pitch is sharp enough to land the biggest quarterback free agent since reeling in Manning.