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The Kirk Cousins Effect

How the four remaining franchise-tagged players can find their contractual roadmap from the Vikings’ QB. Plus, your mailbag questions on picking a darkhorse contender, outlooks for Dallas and San Francisco, and possible expansion

NFL players owe Kirk Cousins a hat tip, and a few of them may be giving him just that on July 16. That’s the deadline for the four guys left on franchise tags—Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell, Lions DE Ziggy Ansah, Cowboys DE Demarcus Lawrence and Rams S Lamarcus Joyner—to do long-term deals, and, thanks largely to the roadmap that Cousins drew over the last three offseasons, it will take a lot for their teams to get them signed to anything more than their one-year tenders.

In simple terms, Cousins and agent Mike McCartney decided playing on the tag wasn’t so bad. As they saw it, it gave him guaranteed money for a single year, with significant, guaranteed raises or free agency on the other side. So Cousins took his $19.953 million in 2016, his $23.944 million last year, then got a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million deal from the Vikings in March.

Total take: $127.894 million over five years, every dollar fully guaranteed at signing. That’s better than the approximately $16 million per season he was offered in ’16. It’s also better than the $53 million guaranteed that Washington put in front of him last year, part of a proposal that gave the team the right to cut him loose after 2018.

In looking back at Cousins’s tack, there are lessons. First, extra contract years are good for the players only if those years are loaded with guaranteed money. Second, again: The tag is your friend.

We’ll get to my final pre-vacation mailbag in a second. But first we address the situations involving Bell, Ansah, Lawrence and Joyner, and why Cousins’s logic should be employed by each…

• Let’s start with Lawrence and Ansah. Both guys are set to make $17.143 million this year. If they sign their tenders, one of two things will happen next March. Either they’ll be on tenders worth $20.572 million or they’ll be unrestricted free agents in a world where both Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack could be making in excess of $20 million per. So to get them to sign deals, Dallas and Detroit have to convince them to walk away from $38 million over the next two years then free agency in 2020, or $17.143 million now and free agency in eight months.

• Joyner’s situation is similar. He’s making $11.287 million this year, and it would cost the Rams $13.544 million to tag him again next year. And so by standing pat, Joyner’s looking at either $11.287 million and free agency in March or almost $25 million over two years, then free agency in 2020. The one mitigating factor that does help the team here is that the safety market collapsed this offseason, and Joyner turns 28 in November, so he may well want to cash out now.

• Bell’s situation is clunky. He’s already on his second tag, and assuming the Steelers wouldn’t tag him a third time (that would come at the QB number, which will likely exceed $25 million, pending some new deals), he’s set to make $14.5 million this year and hit free agency next year. Meanwhile, the NFL’s next highest paid running back is Devonta Freeman at $8.25 million. But the market could change with deals for Todd Gurley and David Johnson. Then, you have the longevity question that every back faces. Yeah, there’s a lot going on here.

So these four guys and their teams have 18 days to find a middle ground on a deal. And if they decide to hold firm and bet on themselves, you can see that as a nod to the Vikings quarterback.

Speaking of Cousins, on to the mail…

• EVERYONE WANTS TO TALK TO LINCOLN RILEY: Why NFL coaches are flocking to Oklahoma to meet with the Sooners’ young coach.

From Bryan Droz (@bryan_droz):What sort of offensive strategy do you see the Vikings with a new OC implementing?

I see John DeFilippo—who was part of retrofitting the Eagles offense on the fly through the Carson Wentz/Nick Foles transition last year—building the offense specifically for Kirk Cousins. What does that mean? In the spring, Cousins showed his football acumen, his accuracy and his feel for the game to his new coaches, and there will be more on Cousins’s plate mentally than there ever was in DC.

As a result, I think you’ll see an offense that’s adaptable at the snap, and multiple. The hope is that it will take receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, both heady gym rats, to another level. And in the run game, I’d expect a healthy introduction to the RPOs that were a defining characteristic of Philly’s 2017 offense. It should be noted, too, that there is some West Coast carryover, going from Pat Shurmur to DeFilippo.

From Will Fairfax (@WillFairfax1):Croatia of the NFL this season? Surprise team that will become a Super Bowl contender?

It’s hard to find teams that will surprise these days. Saying the Texans doesn’t work, because they were in the playoffs two years ago. The Chargers wouldn’t qualify either, nor would the Niners, since both spent the offseason wearing out their sleeper status. So let’s go with the Colts.

For one, the AFC looks down, in general. For another, GM Chris Ballard has done a pretty solid job turning over the roster. The defense, with safety Malik Hooker expected to be healthy and a bevy of young talent coming aboard, should be better, and the offense promises to be much tougher. The question is the obvious one. What version of Andrew Luck will Indy have? If it’s close to what he was in 2014, they’re a contender right now.

From ALEXTHE25 (@alex_xxv):I know it’s a longshot but … is the league talking about possible expansion teams in the (near) future.

I get this question every so often, so I figured this was a good place to answer it. My feeling is the only way the NFL expands (it hasn’t since 2002) is if it’s part of an effort to put teams in other countries. The reason boils down to simple math. The financial pie is already cut 32 ways, and I don’t think there’s any burning desire to split it more ways without some huge benefit on the back end.

With Los Angeles taken care of, I don’t think there’s a U.S. market without a team that offers the kind of growth potential to make expansion appealing for the other owners. Being able to take the game global, on the other hand, could.

From Tiny (@King Tiny81):Do you think the 49ers could be legit contenders with the (team) we currently have?

I love the infrastructure in place there now, from where ownership is at to the GM to the head coach to the quarterback, and that’s a great place to start. The Niners should feel good about building behind John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan, and building around Jimmy Garoppolo.

That said, I don’t know that the talent is in place quite yet. The offense is closer, but still needs to get more explosive at the skill spots. And on defense, there’s work to do across the board—being able to keep Rueben Foster on the field would be a good place to start. The Niners will be competitive, and could even sneak in the playoffs, but I think they’re a year or two away from being capable of going deep into January.

From James Palmatary (@purplenoranged):How many snaps does Lamar Jackson take as QB?

I think Jackson will see some work in packages, and even as a slash-type of weapon on offense. He’s too explosive a player to keep off the field. And generally guys like that might see five or 10 snaps a game.

If your question is when we’ll see him as the starting quarterback, I think that’s tied largely to the team’s fortunes. If the Ravens are in contention all year—like the Chiefs were last year after drafting Patrick Mahomes—Jackson almost certainly won’t crack the lineup. If they fall out of contention late, then the door would open for Jackson to play.

From Andy Clark (@AndyPac33):Will Dallas make any moves to compete with the moves and drafts of other members of the NFC East?

I’ll let Stephen Jones answer this: “There are some things we’re excited about that we think could surprise this year, we feel good about our team. Player acquisition is 365 days a year, so if we see something that’s appealing out there, we could jump on it. But I will say this: We feel really good about our football team as we head into training camp.”

I did ask if he was referencing, potentially, a receiver or tight end. Jones said, “Not necessarily, and I’m not picking out those spots. I’d just say if we see a great player in general or someone that really improves our football team, then we’re not afraid to do that. We’ve cleared quite a bit of cap space, but we also know we’ve gotta pay Dak [Prescott], we gotta pay Zeke [Elliott], and we have Lawrence that we’re trying to negotiate with.”

So that’s where I think the Cowboys are. Ears open, but fine with where they’re at.

From Michael Stamm (@Pablo1212321235):Do you think Ereck Flowers will improve now that he was moved to right tackle or will he struggle?

(Let’s wrap it up here.) Yes, I believe improvement is possible. If you look at Flowers’s draft class, you’ll see two players who were left tackles in college—Washington’s Brandon Schreff and New Orleans’ Andrus Peat—who have become very good NFL guards. And we’ve seen other first-round left tackle prospects in the past, Robert Gallery and Andre Smith to name two, find long-term homes elsewhere.

Do I think it’s likely? I wouldn’t say that, just because we haven’t seen a ton of promise from Flowers. But there’s talent there. He wouldn’t have gone high in the first round otherwise, and so there’s reason to believe he’s got a shot at pulling off.

And that’s it for this week. I’m heading for vacation in a couple days—next mailbag from me will go up just before camp, on July 19. Enjoy the summer, everyone!

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