ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Heading toward an offseason when the Denver Broncos are expected to go hunting for a quarterback, perhaps both in the draft and in free agency, one of the most prominent names who could be on the open market will line up across from their defense Sunday in Kirk Cousins.
The Washington Redskins quarterback is poised for a free-agency bonanza in March if the Redskins (6-8) don’t take the uncommon step of using the franchise-player tag on him for the third consecutive year; Denver's QB picture, meanwhile, has been an unsettled carousel throughout 2017. Add it up and a late-season game between two teams out of the playoffs is suddenly the topic of many conversations among Broncos faithful.
“I think he’s a special guy," Broncos coach Vance Joseph said of Cousins on Wednesday. “Numberswise he’s top 10 in all the QB categories. Watch the guy play: He’s poised, he’s smart, he’s got a really strong arm; I wasn’t sure about that, but as I watch more tape, he can make every throw on the field. He’s a tough guy also. He’s been hit a lot this year ... and he hasn’t blinked at all.’’
If you tune in to any drive-time radio show in the Rocky Mountain region these days, listen carefully in line at the grocery store or hover anywhere football is on live television, it won’t take long for Cousins’ name to come up in the same sentence as "Broncos."
After all, Denver has started three different quarterbacks this season -- Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch -- and struggled mightily on offense, with a cascade of turnovers that led to an eight-game losing streak, the team’s longest since 1967. The Broncos sit at 5-9 and will miss out on the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
So any and all quarterbacks who might be available in free agency in March or in April’s draft will almost certainly be on the Broncos’ radar when the discussions about repairs begin in earnest. Which is why for many in a football-mad city, a Week 16 matchup against Cousins holds such great interest.
The Redskins, unable to work out a long-term deal with Cousins, have used the franchise tag in back-to-back years, which meant the 29-year-old got $23.944 million guaranteed this season; if Washington uses the tag a third time, he could earn closer to $34 million. It is why many in the league believe Cousins will be one of the most sought-after passers on the market.
For his part, Cousins said Wednesday he was mostly worried about what the Broncos' defense had in store for him this weekend.
“I think there’ll be plenty of time for that when the season ends,’’ Cousins said. “I can focus right now on the Denver Broncos; I have enough to keep me busy today with that, and when the season ends I’ll have plenty of time to look at what’s next. But my best chance to have a successful future is to have a successful present.’’
Cousins has been sacked 38 times this season behind an injury-ravaged offensive line -- the fourth-highest total among NFL starters -- but has also thrown for 3,636 yards and 24 touchdowns. Cousins is on track for his third consecutive 4,000-yard passing season, something only Peyton Manning has done in Broncos franchise history.
“He runs the show, he’s a real NFL quarterback,’’ Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib said. “There’s a difference if you really look around the league, [a] handful of guys who really run their offense. ... He gets the ball out of this hand, he’ll create time in the pocket, man, he’s very accurate. ... He plays like a real NFL quarterback.’’
Cousins was one of the quarterbacks president of football operations/general manager John Elway brought in for a visit before the 2012 draft, the year the Broncos selected Osweiler in the second round. And one of Cousins’ biggest boosters is also still a fairly well-known presence in Denver: Mike Shanahan, who coached the Broncos when Elway was the team’s quarterback and who was the Redskins' coach when they drafted Cousins in the fourth round.
“Great coach, great football mind, great offensive football mind,’’ Cousins said of Shanahan. “You know, he did believe in me, and he communicated that. I enjoyed playing in his system. ... I’ve enjoyed keeping in touch through the years.’’
For Cousins, however, the future is not now. He says he's content to wait and see what unfolds.
“You don’t really have to handle that if you’re not really hearing it,’’ Cousins said. “I just go about my business here, focus on the present, and I don’t really have to deal with it. I can just go play football.’’