- The hottest quarterback free agent this year is bound for a huge contract, right? Not so fast... Plus, notes on how WR Larry Fitzgerald is one of the NFL's best businessmen.
As NFL free agency approaches, we have a rare sight to behold: a true, unrestricted free agent quarterback with experience, productivity and relative youth at the game’s most important and valuable position. Kirk Cousins will finally avoid the franchise tag (Washington could try to tag and trade Cousins even after acquiring Alex Smith but, well, good luck with that...) and, for the first time in an NFL career that began in 2012, be free to negotiate with all teams. And, as the narrative goes, multiple suitors will bring multiple bidders, which will bring Cousins a CRAZY contract once the free agency bell rings on March 14.
Quarterback is the only position in football—except kicker and punter—where, barring injury, one man plays the vast majority of downs. That means teams will only pay one player at the quarterback position, unlike other positions that can support more than one upper-range contract.
There are roughly 5–7 potential teams who are in the market for a starting quarterback. One team being mentioned as a potential spot for Cousins is the Vikings, who have three quarterbacks—Case Keenum, Teddy Brigewater and Sam Bradford—all set to be free agents. But chances are unlikely that Minnesota would move away from what they know and replace it with the shiny new object in the window. The Jaguars, another team mentioned as a potential landing spot for Cousins, have exercised a $19-million option on QB Blake Bortles, so that’s not happening.
Thus, we are left five teams with potential interest in Cousins or another free agent quarterback: the Browns, Jets, Broncos, Cardinals and Bills.
The Draft Problem
Before getting to the draft, there are other obstacles for Cousins. Perhaps one of these teams, noting the magical season of the Eagles’ Nick Foles, chooses to package draft picks to secure Foles, reducing the list of potential suitors from five to four. And, of course, another team may prefer another free agent quarterback such as AJ McCarron, recently set free by a grievance arbitrator (and pursued at the trade deadline by the Browns) or cheaper options such as Keenum or Bradford.
The bigger problem for Cousins, having been a team executive, is the draft. The consensus seems to suggest that four or five quarterbacks could be selected in the first round—and these four or five teams that need quarterbacks are likely to be selecting these players. A few of the previously mentioned teams own top-10 draft picks, and some reports state that the Bills are trying to move some of the picks they have accumulated to move up to draft a quarterback as well. Will a team spend top-tier free-agent quarterback money on a veteran quarterback in March and then draft his future replacement in April? That is the question. Again, only one quarterback can play at a time.
We have seen this movie play out poorly for the teams in each of the last two seasons. In 2016 the Eagles signed incumbent Bradford to a two-year $35-million contract, only to then maneuver to draft Carson Wentz, making Bradford extraneous. They were bailed out by the Vikings, who they leveraged for a first round pick after Bridgewater’s injury in the preseason, only after paying Bradford an $11-million signing bonus. Similarly in 2017 the Bears signed the top free-agent quarterback available, Mike Glennon, before drafting Mitchell Trubisky. And the $18.5 million investment in Glennon (the amount of guaranteed money) was poorly spent as the team gave the keys to Trubisky four games into his career. NFL teams learn from past mistakes of their brethren. Teams would much prefer if the draft were before free agency (which would further soften the NFL free agent market) but that is not going to change.
But, you say, Cousins is better than Bradford and Glennon! Well, that is not the debate we should have. It is this: would the Browns, Jets, Broncos, Cardinals or Bills really spend, say, $60-70 million guaranteed on Kirk Cousins to be a placeholder?
I may be totally wrong, and Cousins—or maybe even Keenum and McCarron—may break the bank after being replaced in Washington. But that may require bidding among a total supply chain of maybe two or three teams, and a team willing to pay full retail on a free agent while drafting his future replacement. As with all things, we will see.
News came this week that the Larry Fitzgerald will continue his majestic career with the Cardinals. Fitzgerald will make $11 million this season, adding to career earnings mark that makes him the second-highest earning non-quarterback in NFL history (Julius Peppers is just ahead of him). Kudos to Fitzgerald who has mastered the financial side of the game due to good fortune from the previous CBA, elite representation from the late Eugene Parker and sustained on-field excellence.
With NFL finances clearly tilted towards management, there are precious few outliers “winning” the business of football as Fitzgerald. He and Parker negotiated not one, not two, but three record-setting wide-receiver contracts that became the standard for the position. With present career earnings of $151 million entering another season, Fitzgerald has now ensured total career earnings of at least $162 million. For comparison purposes, perennial all-start receiver Andre Johnson, the third pick in the 2003 draft, had career earnings of $106 million, $56 million below Fitzgerald, who was drafted a year later. Even Fitzgerald’s fellow University of Pittsburgh graduate Darrelle Revis, thought to be a contract savant, has career earnings (likely exhausted) of $124 million, almost $40 million below that of Fitzgerald’s.
Fitzgerald will certainly be part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but is also a first ballot member of the NFL business Hall of Fame.