Monday, March 12, 11 a.m. CT, start of the NFL’s legal tampering period, in the downtown Chicago office of agent Mike McCartney:
Indianapolis calls. Colts want free-agent center Ryan Jensen.
Tennessee calls. Jensen.
Kansas City calls. Jensen.
About 11:10, the first Kirk Cousins call. It’s Arizona GM Steve Keim.
Denver calls. Cousins.
Miami calls. Jensen.
The Jets call. Cousins.
Tampa Bay calls. Jensen.
Minnesota calls. Cousins.
It’s after 2 now, and McCartney has missed about 50 calls and texts.
On and on it went, for Cousins and Jensen and other free agents or trade targets in McCartney’s Priority Sports group—defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, quarterback Josh McCown, quarterback Trevor Siemian. Another client, Jags linebacker Paul Posluszny, was verging on retirement. After 48 hours of phones and texts and four-hour-sleep nights, McCartney went to the chiropractor Wednesday.
“You’re a wreck!” the chiropractor said, seeing and feeling McCartney all knotted up.
“You have no idea what I’ve been through the last two days,” McCartney said.
Anything in the NFL is old news if it happened 90 minutes ago, so covering something four days ago is so … ’90s. But indulge me. The Kirk Cousins story is still fresh to me, with lots of unanswered questions (Did the Jets get played? Was the fix in a month ago? Did the Broncos really not make an offer?) about the richest per-year contract in NFL history.
I’ve found the agent for Cousins, Mike McCartney, to be an honorable man in my dealings with him over the years. All of us in this business have to judge the people we come in contact with and make decisions on how much we trust them. Whenever McCartney has told me something, it’s been the truth. He mentioned to me a couple of weeks ago that he’d been keeping a journal on the Cousins negotiations, going back to the Washington days; he continued last week, when things got intense. So I asked him if he would run me through the Cousins sweepstakes, starting at 11 a.m. CT last Monday, when the NFL allowed agents and teams to begin negotiating. In an hour and 50 minutes on Saturday, he gave me his version of the events that led to Cousins’ three-year, $84-million fully guaranteed contract. A couple of things he would not discuss: He would not disclose any offers except the one that won—Minnesota. And though McCartney characterized the tenor of his talks with each team, he would not divulge privileged conversations with negotiators for any team.
At the beginning of the process, McCartney said, he and his staff produced a book for Cousins that detailed the seven teams he felt might be interested in Cousins once it was clear Washington was not going to make him a serious long-term contract offer: Arizona, Buffalo, Cleveland, Denver, Miami, Minnesota and the Jets. This winter he and Cousins had discussed in detailed phone calls each team—how close it was to competing for a title, who would coach him, the style of offense, the lifestyle of the area. And on Monday at 11, he wasn’t positive how many teams would call, but he had a good feeling that at least four would. He told each one to make its best offer. This was not going to last long. At the beginning of the process Monday, McCartney felt strongly that any of the four—Cards, Broncos, Jets, Vikings—could win. But he and Cousins, before any formal bids came, felt that probably Minnesota and the Jets had an edge. (More about that later.)
This process, McCartney decided, was going to be a silent auction. One offer per team. That would be it. Then a visit or two to a team (Cousins said he wanted to meet the coaches he’d be working with before signing anything); then a decision. “Kirk was not going to sign before he met the coaches and got a feel for the culture,” McCartney said.
It was a curious decision by McCartney. Cousins had waited more than two years for this chance to be on the open market. Now it was going to be a sprint? “I never used the words ‘silent auction,’” McCartney said Saturday, “but that’s what this was. I made it clear to each team that if they held back, it was going to hurt them.”
Two reasons McCartney wanted to do it this way: Because several teams had quarterback needs, he knew if one or two teams sensed they were out, Cousins’ market could deflate quickly. Teams are pragmatic; the fans want their GMs to shoot for the moon, but in this game of quarterback musical chairs, if one team had only one other quarterback it really wanted—Denver and Case Keenum, for instance (which was the truth)—and learned it wasn’t the front-runner, there’s a good chance it would exit quickly.
And a fully guaranteed deal was going to be a high priority. Surprisingly, this wasn’t a big problem with the teams wanting Cousins. “There will be no discounts,” McCartney said.
The pitches were strong, without many upsets. Arizona pushed its strong core of young premier players (David Johnson, Chandler Jones, Patrick Peterson). The Jets pushed their $100 million in cap room, the fact that offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates would continue the kind of system and game-planning that Cousins knew from Washington, and that he’d be a franchise quarterback in the biggest market in the league. The Vikings felt they had everything in place to win multiple titles except a premier quarterback—plus a new facility and a new stadium.
Denver? The Broncos didn’t make an offer. This went to McCartney’s reason for making this a silent auction: Denver liked Keenum, didn’t want to pay in the neighborhood of $30 million a year guaranteed for a quarterback with so many other prominent players to pay. It came down to this for John Elway: Keenum for $10 million to $12 million per year less than Cousins, and the Broncos knew near the start of the legal tampering period they could get Keenum. Ten hours into the period, Denver had reached agreement with Keenum on a two-year, $36 million guaranteed deal.
McCartney understood Elway’s approach—Elway didn’t want to be left at the altar. McCartney did think, What harm would it do to make an offer? But Elway liked Keenum a lot, and felt he couldn’t wait until Thursday or Friday to see if he’d get Cousins.
Meanwhile, McCartney found time to discuss the three offers with Cousins that afternoon. There were no others. They prioritized Minnesota, because the Vikings were amenable to making Cousins the highest-paid quarterback in the game, fully guaranteed, at about three years and $84 million, and they were the closest to winning now. But Cousins was firm that he wouldn’t sign until he met the coaches and staff—he did not know offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, and didn’t know quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski well. The Jets were two (thanks to Jeremy Bates, and, presumably, a higher offer), Arizona three. McCartney and Cousins had several conversations about all of the teams. But one point McCartney wanted Cousins to realize about the two teams was this: The Vikings were closer to winning right now, with a talented young base and the kind of team that could win when Cousins didn’t play his best. The Jets didn’t have as good a supporting cast, and so Cousins might have to be more of a team-carrier there. And in New York, there wouldn’t be the kind of patience there’d be in Minnesota if Cousins struggled.
McCartney did say last week that Cousins didn’t take the biggest deal, so that implies that the Jets offered more money than the Vikings. In fact, the Broncos felt sure that the Jets would be the highest bidders of the four teams.
At about 8 or 9 p.m., McCartney called the Vikings to tell them they’d be Cousins’ first visit on Wednesday night and Thursday, with no promises. By later that night, taking advantage of the two-hour time difference between Chicago and Arizona, McCartney told Keim that he couldn’t guarantee him a Cousins visit, and if he had to move on, he’d understand. On Tuesday at 9:15 a.m., McCartney called the Jets. The Jets wanted to be assured they’d get to make their case to Cousins one-on-one.
“That was a tough phone call,” McCartney said. “They were clearly frustrated. They wanted to be guaranteed a visit. I told them I couldn’t guarantee a visit, that if he goes to Minnesota and loves it, he could sign. They were not happy about that. I understand, but I told everyone all along what the rules were, and we abided by them.”
That set up a strange-bedfellows kind of conversation. The Jets’ veteran quarterback fallback was Josh McCown, a McCartney client. The Jets had to position themselves to make sure that when the music stopped and the musical chairs got filled, they’d still be able to get McCown—at least. By later that morning, Tuesday, they were talking McCown with McCartney. But Buffalo also was seriously interested in McCown, so the Jets put their best contractual foot forward there and ensured they’d keep the trusted veteran who played so well last year, at 38. McCown to the Jets, one year, $5 million signing bonus, $5 million salary. At 39, he’d make the most money of his well-traveled NFL career.
McCartney knew now that the visit by Cousins was vital—because they might not have great options if for some reason Cousins hated something about the Vikings. Minnesota sent its plane to Atlanta, where Cousins was spending time with his in-laws, Wednesday at the start of the free agency period—4 p.m. ET. Accompanied by Vikings GM Rick Spielman, Cousins and his wife, Julie, and son, Cooper, flew to Minneapolis to join a contingent of 13 for dinner Wednesday night, including owner Mark Wilf, coach Mike Zimmer, Spielman, DeFilippo and wife, Stefanski and wife, tight end Kyle Rudolph and wife, and wideout Adam Thielen and wife. Independently, Cousins’ mom and dad came in to help babysit Cooper and experience the moment, and that night McCartney got a call from Don Cousins. The Vikings had left two Cousins jerseys—Vikings purple, number 8, with COUSINS on the back—in the parents’ hotel room, one for dad and one for mom. “That’s the first time I ever got a jersey from a team,” Don Cousins told McCartney.
While Cousins was flying to Minnesota, two important things happened. McCartney worked out the final wrinkles in the contract; there would be no-trade and no-transition-tag clauses in the three-year deal, fully guaranteed. But McCartney couldn’t accept it without Cousins’ nod. Also while the plane was in the air: Spielman told Cousins the Vikings were finalizing a trade for Trevor Siemian of the Broncos. During the negotiations, McCartney had stressed to the Vikings how important a helpful backup quarterback would be to Cousins. What a coincidence—McCartney represents Siemian. Late Wednesday, Siemian was officially a Viking.
At 8:15 p.m., between the appetizer and the entrée, Cousins saw a text from McCartney, still in Chicago. The agent wanted to know how dinner was going.
An hour passed. Two hours.
At 10:37 p.m., Cousins texted back: “It’s going very well. Had a great dinner. Grateful for the opportunity.”
No red flags, McCartney knew; Cousins would have told him if there were. McCartney got on a plane Thursday morning for Minneapolis, and met Cousins at the Vikings’ facility. At 2:30 p.m., the long, strange trip of Kirk Cousins’ rise to being the highest paid player in NFL history was complete. He signed his contract.
“How awesome is this?” McCartney said to Cousins.
“This is great,” Cousins said, beaming. “I am so thrilled.”
“It took a lot to get here, bro,” McCartney said.
It took two-and-a-half years, and contentious negotiations with Washington, and the football world telling McCartney and Cousins, the former fourth-round pick, that they were nuts for not taking Dan Snyder’s millions. Again and again. Understandable. Now Cousins was the richest player in NFL history, and McCartney could finally unclench. His chiropractor would approve.
“Was it worth it?” I asked.
“Hard to answer,” McCartney said on Saturday, taking a break from NCAA tournament viewing. “I do know he’s the face of a franchise in a great situation, on a team that has a chance to win the Super Bowl. I always told him, ‘I want you to be in a place where you look forward to going to work every day, you love the quarterback room, you love the culture, and your family loves where you live.’ I think we found that.”
Now it’s simple. Now all Kirk Cousins has to do is be great.
The Jets-Colts Trade
Before we analyze the winner and loser in the big weekend Jets-Colts deal (there is neither, by the way), I’ll make one prediction: There’s a good chance the Colts aren’t done trading yet. After dealing from three to six, I could see them moving down one more time before the April 26 first round. GM Chris Ballard said as much to his team’s website Saturday, and I can add a confirmation to that. Ballard’s going to try.
This deal: Indianapolis traded the third overall pick to the Jets for a first-rounder this year (sixth overall), two second-rounders this year (37th and 49th overall) and a second-round pick next year.
It’s pretty easy to say the Colts routed the Jets, getting three second-round picks to move three measly spots. But they’re three giant spots if you want to be assured of getting one of the top quarterbacks in this draft.
The earliest we’ll be able to make an educated guess on the outcome of the deal is in mid- to late-2019, when we’ve seen the quarterback the Jets pick play pro football, and we know if making that deal was worth Indy’s haul of four picks in the top 50, or whatever Colts GM Chris Ballard turns them into.
Two recent deals must be studied for precedent here:
• In 2012, Washington traded three first-round picks and a second-round pick to the Rams for the second overall pick. Immense payment to move up four spots. In fact, on the Draft Trade Value Chart that some teams use (not religiously), Washington gave up 5,490 points of draft-pick value and acquired 2,600. But that was the price they had to pay to move up for Robert Griffin III. Griffin, of course, was a bust. So you’d think the Rams killed Washington on the trade. But with the trade of linebacker Alec Ogletree to the Giants this month, the Rams have only defensive tackle Michael Brockers left from the mega-trade with Washington. They made terrible use of the picks. If possible, considering so many dashed hopes, this was a trade that hurt both teams.
• In 2016, Philadelphia traded first-, third- and fourth-round picks in 2016, a first-round pick in 2017 and a second-round pick in 2018 to Cleveland to acquire the second overall pick in the ’16 draft, and a fourth-rounder in 2017. That first-rounder turned into Carson Wentz, who appears to be a franchise quarterback. Cleveland? It’s not over, but it’s not looking good so far. The five picks from Philadelphia have so far turned into 10 picks, and of the eight players the Browns have chosen so far, only one of them—safety Jabrill Peppers—appears to have a chance to be a top-flight starter. The highest pick, wideout Corey Coleman (15th overall, 2016) has been wholly unimpressive. Cleveland has the fourth and 64th picks this year to try to make this trade pay off.
That’s why it’s folly to say the Jets overpaid. What New York has done, in the wake of losing Kirk Cousins to the Vikings in last week’s free-agency derby, is settle for its second-best quarterback option. The Jets have assured themselves of one of the top four passers in the draft—either Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen or Josh Allen. My money’s on Mayfield, who could go from the pride of Norman to Broadway Baker.
The pressure on GM Mike Maccagnan? Immense. This could be it for him, his last chance in his fourth season to construct a winner. He blew his first shot at a quarterback of the future, taking Christian Hackenberg in the second round in 2016. Hackenberg has not played a single snap in either of the last two 5-11 Jets’ seasons, which is some indictment of him as a football player and of the management that drafted him. The Jets have been uber-focused on trading or drafting a quarterback since the start of the college football season last fall, and now that they’ve traded four usable pieces to move up to get one, Maccagnan simply has to get it right. This will be the Jets’ most important draft pick in years.
Ballard got a lot of “attaboy” calls/texts over the weekend, and rightly so. I had one GM tell me his team has about 70 players on its draft board rated as starter-quality, which strikes me as about right judging how teams have told me they’re judging this draft.
STARTING PLAYERS IN THE 2018 NFL DRAFT INTERLUDE.Interesting question. Queried about how many starting-caliber players they felt were in this draft, six scouting people or GMs over the weekend came back with these figures: 35, “40 to 50,” “about 70,” 73, “75-ish,” 83 and 111. I asked because I wanted to figure out whether it made sense for the Colts to try to trade down one more time.
ASTERISK TO STARTING PLAYER INTERLUDE. One of those teams said if you considered “situational starters” like third corners or slot corners, slot receivers or slotback/receiver types like Christian McCaffrey, he’d add 32 players to his team’s total.
The Colts very much need to maximize this draft. It’s likely their roster is the weakest in the rising AFC South. Ballard knows he needs quantity in this draft. That’s why if he could turn the sixth pick into something in the 10 to 12 range and add another second-rounder, I believe he’d do it. At six, he’d likely have a chance at pass-rusher Bradley Chubb or guard Quenton Nelson. At 11, let’s say, he’d have a chance at a desperately needed rangy linebacker like Roquan Smith or Tremaine Edmunds. A second trade would mean Ballard would have turned the third overall pick into five players who would have a chance to start from this one trade alone.
Colts’ picks in the top four rounds now: 6, 36, 37, 49, 67, 104. If I were Ballard, I might trade down from 6 to Buffalo at 12 if the Bills would deal the 53rd overall pick and maybe the 96th pick as well—seeing that the price for a quarterback is more of a premium. But of course, this is probably a night-of-the-draft deal, because the Bills would have to see a quarterback they’d want here.
It’s such an inexact science, and the Rams’ and Browns’ hauls from their big deals show it’s great to get the picks, but you’ve got to be smart enough to use them well. As much as Andrew Luck’s return is the story of 2018 for the Colts, a very close second is what Ballard does with his five starter-caliber picks in the top 70 (as of this morning) in April.
I like what the Bills did
Free agency is a tortuous process, because even when you think you’ve made a great deal, you’ve got this feeling deep down: What if the money spoils this guy? Or what if we’re overrating him after a small sample size?
So take this with caution, Bills Mafia. But your general manager, Brandon Beane, had a good week, from my view of it. To recap: He got the first pick in the third round for a quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, he was clearly ready to move on from; Beane also paid interesting young quarterback A.J. McCarron for two years what the Jets paid Josh McCown for one ($10 million); and Beane gambled that coach Sean McDermott can make talented but meh defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (five years, $50 million) shine again. At the same time, Beane was trying to keep his promise to owners Kim and Terry Pegula: fix the bloated salary cap he’d taken over 10 months ago. He’d do it, he vowed, after two seasons, and so part of his decisions this year included pinching pennies so he could clean up the cap by the opening of the 2019 league year.
I spoke with Beane on Friday afternoon about the big decisions he and coach Sean McDermott had made.
MMQB: You got Cleveland to take all of Tyrod Taylor’s salary, and got the first pick in the third round. How?
Beane: “We wanted to find a spot for him, not to just put him somewhere. We were open and honest with him and his agent. Sometimes these situations can get salty, but here, everybody wanted to do the right thing and not be confrontational. Getting the 65th pick was huge. Patience was the key. I am very happy how it worked out for the Bills and for Tyrod, and the financial part was a part of it. When it’s all said and done, we’re going to have about $45 million in dead money this year. That was part of my plan—to eat all of it, or as much as we could, this year.”
MMQB: You waited out the quarterback market, from the looks of it, and got McCarron for good value—two years, $10 million.
Beane: “We did due diligence there. Every dollar we spend there is a dollar less we can spend somewhere else. We didn’t want to get into chase mode. We had different guys we thought would fit, A.J. being one of them. One word we heard over and over from people who had coached him or known him. like Hue Jackson: competitor. That was music to my ears. He’ll fit here.”
MMQB: Star Lotulelei for medium defensive tackle price—was he a target from the beginning?
Beane: “I was part of the crew that drafted him in Carolina. One word for him: selfless. Luke Kuechly will rave about Star, because he allowed Luke to run free. For us, I believe Star can be a two-and-a-half-down player, playing some third downs.”
MMQB: Looks like you have the ammo to move up in the draft again and get one of the quarterbacks. Will you trade again?
Beane: “The truth? Most of these quarterbacks I’ve only spent 15 minutes with. [At the combine, each team can meet with prospects for a maximum of 15 minutes per player.] I haven’t spent enough time to have an opinion about any of them yet, honestly. I actually sent a little note to our [scouts] yesterday. We got six weeks to get our board together. I am not there yet, knowing if we can or will move up again. I want Sean to get to know all of them. We’re just keeping an open mind. Where we’re at, we’ve got the picks, we've got the draft capital. I’m not ready to pull the trigger.”
That was a sudden retirement, Joe Thomas
Cleveland left tackle Joe Thomas, one of the great players of his day at any position, will formally announce his retirement today after playing every Browns snap for 10-and-a-half seasons—from the time he was drafted in 2007 to the afternoon in October when he snapped a tendon in his arm and was lost for the remainder of the year.
But it’s not his torn triceps driving him away from football, or the prospect of a cushy TV job for FOX or ESPN, though both are knocking at his door, and he’s a candidate for a three-man booth at one of the two networks this fall. It’s his left knee. Four knee surgeries have left him with a bone-on-bone situation in the knee. It got so painful in the past couple of years that at times it was intolerable to even stand at practice—so he spent practices inside the trainers’ room. The knee was so bad that Thomas considered an experimental procedure that would have inserted baby cartilage in the knee. The knee was so bad that the only way he was able to play the first seven games last year was pre-season Platelet-Rich Plasma injections that made the pain in his knee tolerable.
The fact that Thomas was a Brown for his entire career, even though he had one legitimate chance to join a Super Bowl contender (Denver), is impressive enough. The fact that he played through the immense knee pain and never missed a snap until he tore his triceps last year should be enough to earn him a statue in Cleveland.
When Thomas speaks today, I don’t expect him to concentrate on the negative—the knee pain that required him to take so many pain-killers over the last few years, or the fact that in his last 10 seasons, the Browns never had a winning record. (In fact, if Thomas makes the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he’d make it having played on teams with a .287 winning percentage. It’s believed that would be the worst of any player or coach to gain Hall entry.) I think, knowing Thomas some, he’s more likely to crack a few jokes and try to make those in the room feel they’re not at a sad event. Rather, they’ll be at a celebration of one of the greatest Browns in modern Cleveland history.
Quotes of the Week
“It stings. I tried to tell the guys in there, ‘This is life. It can’t define you. You enjoyed the good times, and you’ve got to be able to take the bad times. When you step into the arena, the consequences can be historic losses, big losses, great wins. And you have to deal with it.’ That’s the job. I don’t know what to say but that was a thorough butt-whipping.”