Can the Minnesota Vikings have it all? That's the (multi-)million-dollar question they will attempt to answer this week during free agency.
Minnesota appears to be leading the pack in the race to sign Kirk Cousins. Whether the Vikings can afford the steep price tag for the free-agent quarterback and whether Cousins is worth the money he's going to command are two separate, yet equally important questions.
Coach Mike Zimmer cautioned about overpaying for a quarterback two weeks ago at the NFL combine. A franchise putting all of its eggs in one basket might limit what it's able to do with other players. With 13 unrestricted free agents and three restricted free agents, the Vikings will first need to flush out figures for Cousins before making decisions elsewhere.
Speculation of a three-year deal worth upwards of $90 million in guaranteed money began to surface last week. But the likelihood of Cousins becoming the first veteran player with a fully guaranteed muti-year deal might be a stretch, according to former sports agent and salary-cap expert Joel Corry.
In 2017, Matthew Stafford's then-recording setting deal worth $135 million over five years set records for the biggest signing bonus ($50 million), the most money fully guaranteed at signing ($60.5 million) and a three-year cash flow of $87 million.
Cousins' situation is unique, as a potential franchise quarterback not yet 30 hitting the open market. But is that enough to jump the bar nearly 50 percent?
"NFL teams don’t make huge jumps like that in money for the most part, even in free agency," Corry said. "Their standard doesn't go from A to P overnight. Maybe it'll be the first two years fully guaranteed and part of the third fully guaranteed at signing and the rest conditionally guaranteed, but not fully guaranteed at signing. That would be a stretch to me."
The precedent the Vikings or any other team in the Cousins sweepstakes would be setting by offering a fully guaranteed short-term deal would be something never seen before. A deal of that size could open the door for Aaron Rodgers -- whose contract is expected to catapult him to the top of the quarterback pyramid -- to land a fully guaranteed deal. The same goes for Atlanta's Matt Ryan, according to Corry.
Perhaps the biggest issue, though, deals with an archaic rule in the collective bargaining agreement that forces owners to put the amount of money they're fully guaranteeing for future years in escrow.
"So, you're talking $60 million in escrow the Vikings owners would need to set aside to make sure the guarantee would be there," Corry said. "Nobody wants to put $60 million in escrow and not have use of the money. I'm skeptical of that one."
Historically speaking, most quarterback deals are longer, somewhere around the five to six-year mark. If Cousins wants a short-term deal of three years that would allow him to hit free agency again when he's 32, it's not entirely out of the question. A more conventional deal, according to Corry, would have Cousins earning $30 million a year for five years with $100 million in overall guarantees with $65 to $70 million guaranteed at signing.
Why the extra years if Cousins wants a short-term deal? Well, the Vikings don't want to tip their hand entirely in his favor. This would allow Minnesota a team option, essentially, once Cousins' guarantees are up.
"Why wouldn't the team want the extra years?" Corry said. "It's just whether (Cousins' agent Mike) McCartney has enough interest from teams where if he wants to go the shorter-term route, he can. It goes back to the money he wants because theoretically you'd be taking a slight break with a shorter-term deal. That's probably what a team would position it as."
Therefore, the Vikings (or Jets, Broncos or Cardinals) wouldn't have to set the market as high for a short-term deal because those contracts usually bring a lower average salary per year.
The leverage the Vikings would seem to have over Cousins' other suitors is that the team is ready to contend for a Super Bowl now.
Now comes the second part of that (multi-)million-dollar question. If the Vikings are able to fork up all this money for Cousins, can they keep the rest of their team intact? A few things to consider:
Minnesota has an adjusted salary cap of 190.6 million in 2018 (thanks to a $13.4 million carryover in cap space from 2017). It will have roughly $60 million in available cap space this offseason.
Four extensions are coming due in 2019 -- Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Danielle Hunter and Stefon Diggs. The Vikings will also need to decide whether they will pick up Trae Waynes' fifth-year option.
Based on projections, the salary cap would rise north of $190 million in 2019 and somewhere in the $200 million ballpark in 2020.
OK, let's handle Cousins first. Most teams want to keep veteran quarterbacks at about 10 percent of the overall team camp number. An exception was Ryan's salary that was more than 18 percent of the total cap in 2016, the year the Falcons went to the Super Bowl.
Signing Cousins to the type of deal outlined above would make a major dent in the Vikings available cap space in 2018, and Minnesota has to be wary of how this would affect the extensions it has coming up the following year.
But the Vikings can certainly be strategic in their approach to crunching numbers.
How can the Vikings take care of Cousins without breaking the bank? Corry suggests having the quarterback sign a longer-term (a five-year, not three-year deal) so Minnesota can pro-rate the signing bonus over that entire time period. Giving him a bunch of cash up front keeps Cousins happy, and might help planning for future years.
Second, Minnesota can choose to do its extensions for Barr and Kendricks now. Barr's fifth-year option comes with a $12.306 million cap hit and would actually allow the Vikings to get some cap room out of the deal because they could give him a lower base salary and turn some of the rest of that money into a signing bonus. Corry suggests a deal in the ballpark of $11 million to $12 million per year so the Vikings could theoretically cut his base salary in half, give him a $20 million signing bonus all on a four-year deal. That would bring him down to about a $10 million cap hit in 2018 and give the Vikings roughly $2.3 million in additional space that could go towards Kendricks' deal.
Kendricks has a $1.64 million cap hit in 2018. With a four-year extension (an estimation on this writer's part), Minnesota could keep his base salary the same, give him a $15 million signing bonus and only have to use an additional $7 million in cap room between the two extensions: Kendricks' number goes up, Barr's cap hit goes down.
But that’s just 2018. Next year is a different story.
Minnesota would need to bring Cousins' cap hit down in the second year of his contract to make sure other areas are taken care of. In 2019, Hunter and Diggs come into play if the Vikings make them play out their rookie contracts. If that happens, Minnesota would probably need to franchise tag one -- Hunter, most likely, according to Corry -- because pass-rushers are harder to find. The Vikings could get some cap room back by working out a long-term deal by July 2019, but that still comes with an $18 million franchise tag.
The hardest deal to do might be Diggs. Given Adam Thielen's relative bargain of a deal ($5 million) and if Diggs performs to his potential (the Mike Evans deal with Tampa Bay just raised the stakes a little higher), it would be hard for Minnesota to keep Diggs and Thielen happy.
"If they try to keep some sort of internal consistency among the receivers and the productivity, it's just not going to work," Corry said. "If you pay Diggs a lot more than Thielen and Thielen's still more productive, you've got an unhappy guy and you're probably going to have to re-adjust his contract (Thielen) sooner rather than later as well."
And where does Waynes fit into this equation? Corry said he expects the Vikings to exercise the cornerback's fifth-year option this May so they don't get into a situation similar to the Bears and Kyle Fuller where they could have had him for cheaper but were forced to use the transition tag.
All of that is clear as mud, right? Luckily for the Vikings, executive vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski has dealt with complex contract negotiations before. The challenges of making sure there's enough cap space to accommodate other needs should the Vikings and Cousins strike a deal presents a unique challenge, but restructuring deals -- especially veteran contracts like Brian Robison, Latavius Murray, Jarius Wright and potentially Kyle Rudolph -- could help free up the space needed to keep everyone happy and here. For now.