Seven offers, one winner: Playing out the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes

Could Cousins end up landing in Denver? (1:25)

The NFL Live crew debates if Kirk Cousins would be a fit with the Broncos or if John Elway would rather build through the draft. (1:25)

Just how much will quarterback Kirk Cousins make when he hits the open market next month, and what could the contract he signs look like?

We asked NFL Nation reporters to make their best offer -- on behalf of the teams they cover -- to the most-coveted free agent, who won't be back in Washington after the Redskins traded for Alex Smith.

We wanted specifics and perspective, so the offers below are based on what each reporter believes their team's front office will do, and how said team views free agents and quarterbacks.

We then had ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando take on the role of Cousins' agent and pick the best offer for his client. Check out which one he picked here.

Go to each offer:
Jets | Vikings | Browns | Jaguars
Broncos | Cardinals | Bills

New York Jets' offer

Total years and value: Five for $150 million
Average per year: $30 million
Full guarantee at signing: $72 million
Total guarantee: $90 million
Three-year payout: $52 million after Year 1, $72 million after Year 2, $90 million after Year 3.

The Jets can make Cousins the highest-paid player in the league without significantly hurting their ability to build a strong supporting cast around him. They have approximately $73 million in salary-cap room, and that amount will exceed $90 million once they're finished with veteran cuts. In other words, they have the flexibility to address their biggest needs on offense -- center, tight end and wide receiver. They can welcome Cousins to New Jersey with a nice housewarming gift in the form of Allen Robinson or another playmaker.

You'll notice the first-year cash payout is $52 million -- $1 million more than Lions QB Matthew Stafford received on his record-setting deal last year. The Jets are in a unique position; they can afford to front-load the contract with a huge roster bonus, absorbing a massive cap hit ($36 million) in Year 1. That will result in lower cap hits in subsequent years.

Looking into the future, they will have the same flexibility in 2019, as no key players will be eligible for free agency. They can continue to build the foundation without having to worry about dumping contracts to stay under the cap. Yes, there are holes in the lineup, but it's a young team on the rise. Only one current starter is over 30 -- nose tackle Steve McLendon. They unloaded most of the deadwood last year, cleaning up the cap in the process.

If scheme familiarity is important, this is the place. New offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates will install Mike Shanahan's version of the West Coast offense. It should be old hat for Cousins, who played under Shanahan in 2012-13 with the Redskins. Knowing the playbook will make the transition to a new city and a new team that much easier. Bates is from the Shanahan coaching tree, the same tree that produced 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and the Rams' Sean McVay. Bates sees the game the same way as them, and that will create a comfort level that can't be duplicated anywhere else.

Lastly, there's legacy. The fan base, hungry for a Super Bowl after a 49-year drought, is waiting to throw its arms around a savior. A total of 30 quarterbacks have started for the Jets in the post-Joe Namath era, only four of whom have produced a winning record, let alone a championship. Cousins can change that and be remembered forever. -- Rich Cimini, ESPN Jets reporter

Denver Broncos' offer

Total years and value: Four for $116 million
Average per year: $29 million
Full guarantee at signing: $65 million
Total guarantee: $95 million
Three-year payout: $52 million after Year 1, $68 million after Year 2, $89 million after Year 3.

If the Broncos want to sign Cousins, they will have to make him the NFL's highest-paid player and give him one of the biggest contracts in league history. Why? Just look at San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo and his $137.5 million deal with seven NFL starts on his résumé.

Cousins' camp will almost certainly put the asking price at something close to a $30 million per year average and Stafford's $60.5 million fully guaranteed at signing -- still the highest total of any deal. That's where the Broncos will have to be to get it done, especially if the Jets or Browns, with far more cap room, are willing to go big. The Broncos already have a nine-digit contract on the books in linebacker Von Miller's $114.5 million deal. He is set to enter Year 3 of the six-year contract.

Why should Cousins choose Denver? The Broncos will sell Peyton Manning's tenure, as they are the only team in the running for Cousins that once signed a high-profile quarterback in free agency and kept their promise to build a roster around him. The result was two Super Bowl trips in four years for Manning, one Super Bowl win, and another free-agency binge in 2014 that reeled in receiver Emmanuel Sanders, DeMarcus Ware, safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib. If Broncos GM and executive VP of football operations John Elway tells Cousins the Broncos will do what's necessary to build around the quarterback -- and they already have a top-five defense -- the proof is in the trophy case.

If Denver is going to keep the roster deep and talented, it will have to cap Cousins' offer in that $30 million per year range and try to lure Cousins with more guarantees. Stafford's deal has $92 million in potential total guarantees, and the Broncos guaranteed almost every dollar in Manning's four-year contract in 2012 to snag the future Hall of Famer.

Denver did the same with Miller in negotiations, sticking to the $114.5 million total and closing the deal by increasing the guarantees.

The Broncos will have to create some room to sign Cousins; they have approximately $26 million in cap space. Veteran players such as Talib ($11 million cap space created if released) and running back C.J. Anderson ($4.5 million in cap space created if released) would be at the front of the line. -- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Broncos reporter

Minnesota Vikings' offer

Total years and value: Five for $140 million
Average per year: $28 million
Full guarantee at signing: $65 million
Total guarantee: $90 million
Three-year payout: $45 million after Year 1, $65 million after Year 2, $90 million after Year 3.

The Vikings have their chance to (finally) sign a long-term option at quarterback. Minnesota has the eighth-most cap space of all teams with an estimated $57 million, which means it could allocate upward of $30 million in 2018 for a quarterback.

If the Vikings choose not to re-sign any of their upcoming free-agent quarterbacks (Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford), Cousins could be the primary target. The sweet spot for the team is around $28 million per year for Cousins, who has performed at a consistent level the past three years, doesn't have a history of injuries, and has the potential to be a franchise quarterback and put Minnesota over the top.

Minnesota likely cannot offer as much as teams with more cap room. The Vikings have several young and talented players -- receiver Stefon Diggs, linebacker Anthony Barr, linebacker Eric Kendricks, cornerback Trae Waynes and defensive end Danielle Hunter -- due for extensions in 2019 and will be tight against the cap even if they don't sign a quarterback to a huge deal.

But the Vikings' offer is strong for a few reasons. Take a look at all the weapons Cousins would have on offense, in addition to being backed by the league's top defense. And with the return of a healthy Dalvin Cook, the Vikings will add even more playmaking. Another bonus? If playing closer to home/family is on his wish list, the Michigan native/Michigan State grad will always be guaranteed a yearly trip to play in Detroit. Although Cousins has no history with new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, the former Eagles assistant is seen as a bright offensive mind.

Cousins made it known during Super Bowl week that he wants to go to a team that can help him achieve success quickly. Minnesota made it to the NFC Championship Game last season and is poised to return stronger in 2018. What solidifies how far the Vikings will be able to go is whom they have under center. -- Courtney Cronin, ESPN Vikings reporter

Jacksonville Jaguars' offer

Total years and value: Five for $140 million
Average per year: $28 million
Full guarantee at signing: $65 million
Total guarantee: $95 million
Three-year payout: $50 million after Year 1, $70 million after Year 2, $95 million after Year 3.

The Jaguars can offer Cousins the money he wants as well as the opportunity to win a Super Bowl. The latter is obvious based on the team's run to the AFC Championship Game last season. The defense was one of the NFL's best -- ranking first against the pass and second in sacks, turnovers and scoring -- and every starter returns in 2018.

The Jaguars led the NFL in rushing, and with some additional work on the offensive line in the draft and a year of experience for running back Leonard Fournette, their running game should again be the focal point of the offense. Re-signing (or using the franchise tag on) wide receiver Allen Robinson is a priority to give the offense the downfield threat it lacked last season because of his injury. It's a good draft class at tight end, so the Jaguars will boost their talent there, too. That means everything is in place for a deep playoff run with the right quarterback. Teams went all-out to stop the run last season because they did not respect Blake Bortles. That won't happen with Cousins, and the Jaguars' offense would no longer play second fiddle to the defense.

As for the money, the Jaguars have approximately $16.5 million in cap space for 2018. Take away $10 million to sign the draft class and that leaves the team with $6.5 million. The Jaguars can clear $19.053 million by cutting Bortles. Cutting running back Chris Ivory ($3.87 million) and receiver Allen Hurns ($7 million) would help, too. That would leave the Jaguars with approximately $36.4 million in available cap space -- more than enough to afford Cousins -- and that's not even adding in any other veteran cuts, salary-cap savings and cap rollover.

The Jaguars structure their free-agent contracts and extensions to include all (or nearly all) of the guaranteed money in the first two years, so a lot of money gets freed up in 2019 from defensive end Calais Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye, defensive tackle Malik Jackson and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. -- Michael DiRocco, ESPN Jaguars reporter

Cleveland Browns' offer

Total years and value: Six for $198 million
Average per year: $33 million
Full guarantee at signing: $48 million ($18 milion signing, $30 million roster)
Total guarantee: $74 million (first two years)
Three-year payout: $55 million after Year 1, $74 million after Year 2, $97 million after Year 3.

If the Browns decide Cousins is the answer, they need to act with certainty and aggressively. They also have to recognize that the bidding for Cousins will be higher than it ever has been, and that coming off a 1-31 record they are at a severe disadvantage in selling their team and culture. The failure of the past two seasons means the Browns have to overpay. So be it.

They start from strength with a league-leading $110 million in salary-cap space. Their highest offer for Cousins shouldn't even make them blink.

That's why $33 million per season over six seasons for Cousins is the offer. It bypasses all the per-game bonus nonsense and other stuff that would only tell Cousins the offer is good, but the team is also worried. It's a direct offer designed to appeal to him, and based on the premise the Browns believe he is "the guy."

After Year 3, Cousins would be due an $8 million roster bonus. This gives the Browns an out. If 2021 is the year they want to turn to a young quarterback, they don't pay the bonus and Cousins is a free agent, able to command another large deal. If Cousins has them in the playoffs or even (gasp) reaches a Super Bowl, the Browns will happily pay it.

Garoppolo set the floor for Cousins, but this offer is one year longer, its per-year average is higher ($33 million to $27.5 million) and its three-year average also is higher ($32.2 million to $28.4 million). Let Cousins turn that down. -- Pat McManamon, ESPN Browns reporter

Arizona Cardinals' offer

Total years and value: Five for $150 million
Average per year: $30 million
Full guarantee at signing: $45 million
Total guarantee: $80 million
Three-year payout: $30 million after Year 1, $50 million after Year 2, $70 million after Year 3.

With approximately $22.5 million in cap space available, the Cardinals aren't in a position to sign Cousins in their current economic state. They'd have to make space available if they want a shot at giving Cousins the type of deal that could convince him to come to Arizona. Any deal the Cardinals offer Cousins would have to be back-loaded, at least after Year 1, when their salary-cap situation improves drastically starting in 2019.

With new coach Steve Wilks wanting to be aggressive in free agency, the Cardinals would have to give themselves enough breathing room to chase other players as well. Cutting tackle Jared Veldheer, guard Mike Iupati and linebacker Deone Bucannon would create about $21 million more in space, giving Arizona about $43.5 million left to use -- enough to give Cousins a sizable and back-loaded contract that doesn't weigh down Arizona's cap in 2018. The Cardinals don't have any big-ticket players they need to re-sign, but they could be in play for a high-priced wide receiver or cornerback. A back-loaded deal with Cousins would give them flexibility to be aggressive in free agency.

As long as the Cardinals can get through 2018 with a manageable cap number, they'll be in the clear. They'll have about $90 million available starting in 2019, giving them ample space with which to work. In this proposed offer, Cousins' first year with the Cardinals would net him $45 million, which includes a $15 million roster bonus. He'd earn $20 million in base salaries the next two seasons with $12.5 million in roster bonuses available each season, which would very likely be earned. The only year that wouldn't come with a guaranteed salary would be the fifth season.

The Cardinals are in serious need of a long-term answer at quarterback. With offensive pieces in place for 2018 such as receiver Larry Fitzgerald, running back David Johnson and tight end Jermaine Gresham, Arizona would give Cousins an immediate chance of winning. -- Josh Weinfuss, ESPN Cardinals reporter

Buffalo Bills' offer

Total years and value: Five (team option after first year) for $146 million
Average per year: $29.2 million
Full guarantee at signing: $18 million
Total guarantee: $98 million
Three-year payout: $18 million after Year 1, $78 million after Year 2, $98 million after Year 3.

If Cousins was interested in joining a team that made the playoffs last season, the Bills would have an edge over the Broncos and Jets, who both missed the postseason. Signing Cousins also would allow Buffalo to use its four draft picks in the first two rounds this April to build a better team around him, instead of packaging some of those picks to trade up for a quarterback.

Cousins' price tag and long-term financial commitment make him an unlikely target for Buffalo, but it's still possible to craft an offer. There are two main goals for the Bills in an offer. One would be to minimize Cousins' salary-cap impact in 2018, when Buffalo is still relatively tight against the cap. The second goal would be to give the Bills an easy way out of the deal after 2018 in order to turn the offense over to a developing draft pick.

If the Bills trade or release quarterback Tyrod Taylor, they should have about $35 million in cap space. In order to give Buffalo enough cap space to re-sign some of its key free agents -- or find replacements -- the Bills would need to keep Cousins' cap hit in the range of $15 million to $20 million.

Buffalo's offer to Cousins would be a fully guaranteed base salary of $18 million in 2018, with an additional $10 million in not-likely-to-be-earned incentives for passing touchdowns, passing yards and playoff wins that would hit the Bills' cap in 2019 if earned.

The Bills would then have the choice to "buy in" to another four seasons of Cousins in the form of a $40 million option bonus due by the start of the 2019 league year, which would count $10 million against the salary cap from 2019 through 2022. The option bonus would then trigger fully guaranteed base salaries of $20 million in 2019 and 2020, as well as non-guaranteed base salaries of $24 million in 2021 and 2022. Buffalo would not be able to franchise Cousins if it declined his option after 2018. -- Mike Rodak, ESPN Bills reporter

Which offer should Cousins take?

The Jaguars are the choice, and it's a relatively easy one to make. My client wants a fair deal maximizing his ability to win right away. The deal with Jacksonville sacrifices average per year relative to the other offers, but the $28 million average still resets the current market. My client has earned more than $40 million over the past two seasons, so squeezing out every last dollar from a new deal is not critical. The absence of a state income tax in Florida lets my client keep a larger share of his income anyway. Every other offer comes from teams situated in states with an income tax. Rates are especially high in places such as Minnesota, New York and New Jersey.

The Browns' offer is legit in some ways, but after living under questionable management in Washington all these years, my client isn't ready to trust Cleveland's ownership. The Jets' offer was another strong one, but I'm not sure what the future holds for the leadership there, and the tabloids will crush my client if the team doesn't contend for whatever reason. Denver is intriguing for the win-now potential and the opportunity to develop trust with a general manager in John Elway who understands the position. However, the Broncos' four-year commitment was on the lean side.

Jacksonville, it is. There's a great young defense in place, a workhorse running back, and strong leadership from the top in Tom Coughlin. This is a great situation for any quarterback. -- ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando, playing the part of Cousins' agent