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The Real Contenders for Kirk Cousins

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Who are the real contenders for Kirk Cousins? Is it the Denver Broncos, Minnesota Vikings, or New York Jets?

NFL: Denver Broncos at Washington Redskins
Who really has a chance to land Cousins?
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

With reports swirling on where Kirk Cousins will sign, I thought it would be a good idea to take an objective look at what the finalists offer the free agent quarterback. Depending on your rooting interest it’s easy to rationalize why your franchise is better than all the other suitors, but what do the numbers say?

While the Browns and Cardinals have been reportedly on the list of teams after Cousins, both lack some combination of the winning tradition, roster, stability or cap space to realistically expect him to sign with them. The real contenders appear to be the Denver Broncos, New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings. Time for some cold hard facts.

NFL: Combine
Cousins says winning is important to him. Who gives him the best chance to win and win big?
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Winning Tradition

New York Jets 397 Wins 479 Losses 14 Playoff seasons and 1 Super Bowl Championship

Whether it be recent history or going back to the 1970 merger, the Jets are a bit lacking in this department. A 5-11 record in 2017 was well above above preseason expectations and required a heroic effort by quarterback Josh McCown. Prior that the team’s best performance came in 2015 when Ryan Fitzpatrick took them to the cusp of a playoff game before he melted down against the Buffalo Bills. That is the Jets only winning record since 2010.

Denver Broncos 470 Wins 404 Losses 22 Playoff seasons and 3 Super Bowl Championships

Of the 3 contenders, Denver seemingly has the best history here. It’s one reason why the two seasons since Peyton Manning have been so considered such a bust, Broncos Country is used to a certain level of success and Elway has spoiled them during his tenure, for the most part.

Minnesota Vikings 470 Wins 390 Losses 29 Playoff seasons and Zero Super Bowl Championships

The Vikings have 3 winning seasons since 2010 and most recently finished 13-3 before Case Keenum turned into a pumpkin against the Philadelphia Eagles. No doubt it was a magical run, one backed up by some numbers. A year after finishing 20th, the 2017 Vikings were the 4th most efficient team by Football Outsiders DVOA statistic (which measures performance on a down by down basis). They did this despite facing one of the more difficult schedules in the league.

Coaching and front office stability

New York Jets: Todd Bowles - 3 seasons 20 wins, 28 losses, no playoff trips

Just last offseason Bowles was considered a lame duck. A 5-11 season was encouraging enough for him to receive an extension in December. The deal runs through 2020.

Denver Broncos: Vance Joseph - 1 season 5 wins 11 losses, no playoff trips

There were mumbling that Elway should fire Joseph after a very disappointing season. Instead the staff was shuffled. Joseph’s contract runs for 3 more seasons.

Minnesota Vikings: Mike Zimmer - 4 seasons 39 wins 25 losses, 2 playoff trips 2 wins 1 loss

Zimmer’s only losing season was a 7-9 rookie campaign, the year when Adrian Peterson was suspended. Last summer Kevin Seifert of ESPN considered Zimmer’s seat “luke warm” but obviously a 13-3 year probably gives him a little breathing room.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Denver Broncos
Is Denver really the bastion of stability when Elway almost hired his 4th head coach this spring?
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive supporting cast

New York Jets

Even with Josh McCown’s storybook season, the Jets finished 24th by FootballOutsiders DVOA stats. The pass offense was 22nd, the rush offense was 26th. 2016 saw the entire offense finish 31st in the league.
The Jets have a weak offensive line outside of Kelvin Beachum, who is a better pass protector. The team’s top two receivers are Jermaine Kearse and Robby Anderson, both had decent years. Beyond them the receiving corp is very bare. Bilal Powell leads their current stable of running backs, he’s one dimensional but could flourish if the line improves.

Denver Broncos

Both years since Peyton Manning retired Denver has finished among the 4 worst offenses in football. The passing offense is obviously lackluster, but the rush O is also inefficient.

By the numbers: Denver had the second worst passing offense in the league last year and the 23rd best rush offense. This is even more discouraging when you consider that the Broncos faced the 2nd easiest slate of defenses in the league last year.

Minnesota Vikings

Minny had the 3rd most efficient passing offense in football last season. The rush offense was slightly below average.

One of the things worth mentioning here is that the Viking’s performance occurred despite the loss of Sam Bradford and Dalvin Cook. Case Keenum came out of nowhere because he was never expected to play significant time.

The team has a strong core with Cook, Thielen and Diggs all curently under 30. Additionally they have Jarius Wright as a depth and two decent tight ends. While 2016 first rounder Laquon Treadwell has been a bust so far, he’ll be 23 on opening day and still has the tools to potentially flourish.

The Viking’s offensive line had a better performance as a unit than any of the individual parts actually showed. This bears monitoring going forward as the 2016 unit was so weak the front office spent big money on Mike Remmers and Riley Reiff.

NFL: New York Jets at New England Patriots
The entire core player group of the New York Jets
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

New York Jets

The Jets defense is about average, weaker against the pass than the rush but it also faced one of the hardest schedules last season. A glaring weakness is the lack of a consistent pass rush, where the team ranks among the 7 worst teams in professional football.

The team could use additional talent in the secondary where Jamal Adams is the only real performer from a year ago. Up front the team has Leonard Williams who shows a ton of promise.

Denver Broncos

Anyone who follows football knows what the 2015 Broncos did on their way to winning Super Bowl 50, but as they say the NFL stands for “Not For Long” and 2017 showed just how true that is. Minus Wade Philips, T.J Ward and DeMarcus Ware the No Fly Zone fell to merely mortal status a year ago.

By the numbers: Denver had the 11th best adjusted sack rate and a top 5 run defense, but the pass defense was notably weak to every pass catcher beyond the top two options. The team was league average against the deep pass and allowed the second most yards per game to tight ends, ahead of only Oakland.

Minnesota Vikings

While the Purple People Eaters are hardly back, Minny finished the league as the best defense north of Florida. The team wasn’t the best at sacking quarterbacks but stood out defending number 1 and 2 receivers as well as running backs and tight ends.

The Vikings D has a very strong core with Anthony Barr, Xavier Rhodes, Erik Kendricks, Linval Joseph, Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen. Harrison Smith also just finished 2017 as Pro Football Focus’ Defensive Player of the Year. Sharif Floyd will also return from injury next year.

All but Griffen are under 30.

Cap Space (according to OverTheCap.com)

New York Jets $89 Million

There is little question that the Jets could make Cousins the richest offer. With the weakest core comes the fact that they have the most flexibility moving forward.

Denver Broncos $35 Million

With the reported trade to send Aqib Talib to the Los Angeles Rams, John Elway has opened up an additional $11 million in cap space for the Broncos. That space does not include potential deals for Matt Paradis or Shaq Barrett, both of whom are worth 2nd round tenders ($2.746 M each.) Shelby Harris is also a free agent and should be brought back.

If Denver keeps both and is serious about pursuing Cousins (not to mention any additional free agents) they may need to cut another veteran or two to make the money work. The most likely candidate is C.J Anderson, who’s release would free up $4.5 million in cap room. Other players that could be on the move are Trevor Siemian ($1.9 M), and Menelik Watson ($4.5 M).

One thing that gets overlooked with the Cousins reports is how a $30 M cap number would impact the Broncos going forward. In 2019 Shane Ray and Bradley Roby both become free agents and Elway is looking at a projected $21 million in cap space (Right now it’s $51, subtract Cousin at 30 and voila) which is pretty tight. In 2020 Denver has significant cap space but only 14 players locked into contracts. There is only one player under contract through 2021: Von Miller.

Minnesota Vikings $47 Million

A common argument against the Vikings signing Kirk Cousins is that they’ll need the money his contract eats up to sign their young core. It’s a point that fails to pass the smell test.

At present, the team has $47 million dollars in cap space and a free agent crop headlined by Joe Berger, Jerick McKinnon and the ageless Terrance Newman after you subtract their trio of quarterbacks. All 3 are strong players but a franchise quarterback is easily worth more alone than the what they provide.

If Cousins does sign for a cap number near $30 million (and you ignore any other potential moves such as draft picks and other free agents at the moment) the Vikings enter the 2019 offseason with $43 million in cap space. A large percentage of that money would likely be used to resign players like Anthony Barr, Sharrif Floyd, Danielle Hunter, Stefon Diggs, Eric Kendricks and possibly Trae Waynes.

That is a lot of names and probably the basis for this argument. It also ignores that Minnesota could trim the roster like Elway is currently doing. That 2019 number could easily grow if players like Kyle Rudolph, ($7.625 M) Mike Remmers ($4.55 M), Latavius Murray ($5 M), Andrew Sendejo ($5.5 M), or Jarius Wright (3.7 M) are let go or restructured.

Summary

Unless the New York Jets destroy any semblance of the previous quarterback market, it looks like a two horse race. The Minnesota Vikings have to be considered the favorite. While Elway could definitely work some 4th quarter magic once again, my guess is Cousins dons the purple and gold next year.

NFL: New York Jets at Denver Broncos
Do you think Elway should pull out all the stops to pursue Kirk Cousins?
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