How the Kirk Cousins rejection changed everything for the Jets

Kirk Cousins used the Jets' three-year, $90 million offer as leverage when negotiating a contract with the Minnesota Vikings. Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- It was the "no" that turned into a "yes!" (Marv Albert voice).

After being spurned by free-agent quarterback Kirk Cousins in March, the New York Jets made a quick pivot and took the road that eventually led them to Sam Darnold. Initially stung by the Cousins rejection -- he seemingly used them to leverage the Minnesota Vikings -- the Jets are now so over that chapter. In their minds, he's a distant Cousins.

"I really don't worry about the guys I don't get," coach Todd Bowles said Monday. "Minnesota got him, and they're happy. We got Sam, and we're happy."

But what if? What if Cousins, who faces the Jets on Sunday at MetLife Stadium, had accepted Gang Green's green?

Make no mistake, the Jets wanted him badly -- so badly that they raised their initial offer, putting a three-year, $90 million contract on the table -- fully guaranteed. They saw it as a rare opportunity to acquire an established quarterback in his prime. As it turned out, their blockbuster proposal accomplished only one thing: It forced the Vikings to raise their offer from $75 million to $84 million, based on what Cousins says in an online documentary that details his decision-making process. He jumped at the Vikings' revised offer, also fully guaranteed, not even bothering to take a visit to the Jets.

His decision forever changed the franchise.

"Cousins or Darnold? Me, personally, I'd take Darnold," said a longtime NFL talent evaluator, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "They gave up a lot for Darnold, but you can't minimize the money and how it impacts their cap. They got Darnold at a fraction of the price. I thought they did a good job."

The Cousins saga dominated NFL headlines during the run-up to free agency, capturing the attention of a certain college student at USC. Darnold acknowledged that he tracked the rumor mill, knowing the outcome would directly impact his draft position.

"Yeah, everything worked out for the best, I think," he said with a laugh.

Imagine if it had gone the other way. Let's examine how things would be different for the Jets if Cousins had said yes:

"It doesn't hurt at all that we now have an awful lot of money that we were thinking we might be sending out the door to one player."
Jets CEO Christopher Johnson

Totally different vibe in 2018

Cousins' presence would've changed the narrative surrounding the team. Rebuilding? No way. That perception would've gone out the window. A team can't spend $90 million on a quarterback -- for only three years, mind you -- and sell the slow build to its fan base. No, Cousins would've been an accelerator, putting the Jets in win-now mode.

That, of course, would've raised the stakes for Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan. There would have been less patience from the fans and media -- and probably ownership. When an owner writes a $90 million check -- by rule, guaranteed money must be placed into escrow at the time of signing -- he has the right to expect more than five or six wins.

Chances are the Jets would be better than 3-3 with Cousins, who is undoubtedly a better quarterback than Darnold right now. Some around the team believe an experienced quarterback would have pulled off the Week 3 game in Cleveland, in which Darnold struggled in the second half and the Jets lost 21-17. At 4-2, the Jets would be tied for first place in the AFC East.

Cousins would've been a nice fit in Jeremy Bates' offensive scheme, which is similar to the system he ran in his early years with the Washington Redskins. But Cousins' supporting cast would've been weaker than what he has in Minnesota. That, many believe, is the main reason he chose the Vikings over the Jets, who have no Pro Bowl players (past or present) on offense.

"He's a Cadillac in Minnesota," the talent evaluator said of Cousins, who has the 10th-ranked offense. "He wouldn't be that with the Jets. He'd be maybe a Pinto."

"You have to look at the big picture," he added. "Is it better to be 9-7 with Darnold or 10-6 with Cousins? I say 9-7 with Darnold."

Darnold has played two good games in a row, but that doesn't mean his growing pains are in the past. There will be rough days ahead, but he's only 21 years old, and his career arc is climbing. Cousins is 30, probably at his peak.

"Cousins is likely who he is in terms of ceiling, but at that, it's good and productive," a rival general manager said. "I just think when you get a chance to draft and groom your own guy to play for 10 or 12 years, it can be special."

Draft shake-up

Two days after being blown off by Cousins, the Jets shifted to Plan B, as Bowles called it. On St. Patrick's Day, they finalized a trade with the Indianapolis Colts, moving up three spots in the draft to put themselves in position for the best available quarterback. It was costly, as they dealt their first-round pick (sixth overall), two second-rounders and a 2019 second-rounder.

With Cousins on board, there would've been no trade. The Jets would've retained the sixth, 37th and 49th picks, giving them the chance to grab three impact players. Who? The first-round projection is hard because the Colts could have traded the third pick to another quarterback-needy team, but the most likely scenario is the Jets would've ended up with pass-rusher Bradley Chubb or guard Quenton Nelson. Or they would've been open to trading back.

Chubb wound up going fifth to the Denver Broncos, but they were known to be smitten with Darnold and would've pounced on him if he had fallen -- which would have happened if the Colts had stayed in their original spot. Insiders believe Chubb would've been the Colts' choice at No. 3. The Jets, in desperate need of an edge rush, would've taken him at No. 6, but without Chubb on the board, they would've looked to trade down, seeking to acquire extra draft capital.

At No. 37, the Jets could have addressed the offensive line (Braden Smith) or running back (Kerryon Johnson). At No. 49, they could've gone for a tight end (Dallas Goedert) or a tackle (Connor Williams). All four players were selected in the second round and are playing key roles on their current teams, but it doesn't appear that the Jets missed out on any future stars. It would've been a quantity-over-quality situation.

They might have picked a quarterback in the late rounds, someone to groom behind Cousins. Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty were on their way out, and the Jets would have needed a developmental player to pair with a veteran backup. Josh McCown probably would have left as a free agent. It's quite possible that Teddy Bridgewater would be the current No. 2.

Major impact on salary cap

This is big. The Jets have Darnold under contract for four years, $30 million. His cap charges over the first three years add up to $20.6 million -- a $69.4 million savings on what they'd be paying Cousins over the same span. This gives them a tremendous amount of flexibility as they approach free agency in the coming years.

"It doesn't hurt at all that we now have an awful lot of money that we were thinking we might be sending out the door to one player," CEO Christopher Johnson said in the aftermath of the ill-fated Cousins chase. "Now we have that back with us, and we can spread that out over a lot of other players over the next few years."

In fact, the Jets will have a league-high $96 million in cap room in 2019, according to overthecap.com. They can re-sign their own players -- defensive end Leonard Williams and wide receiver Quincy Enunwa loom as the top priorities -- and engage in another offseason spending spree if they choose.

With quarterback salaries skyrocketing, the Jets are in an advantageous position in that they have a promising quarterback on his rookie contract. Only 10 of the 32 teams can say that about their starters. When a team is paying megabucks to its veteran starter, it changes the entire salary-cap dynamic.

If Cousins had said yes, the Jets still would have been aggressive last offseason, but there would have been a limit to their spending. Chances are they would have passed on cornerback Trumaine Johnson ($34 million guarantee), leaving a hole in the secondary. Cornerback would have become a priority with one of those second-round picks.

Bottom line: Cousins would have made the Jets a better team in 2018, assuming he didn't mentally implode under the big-city pressure. Beyond that, it could be a different story. The organization, which acts as if the infatuation with Cousins never existed, believes it has something special in Darnold.

"They get a player they identified, drafted high and now have a personal investment in his development," the rival GM said. "They can mold and groom him. He's been in the spotlight. He was handpicked, and he seems to fit well in the New York spotlight."