Resetting the 2018 NFL offseason quarterback market

QB carousel full of stars in their prime (0:58)

The NFL has one of the most talented groups of quarterbacks looking for a new team in its history, with franchise-changing players hitting the market and a loaded draft class. (0:58)

Kirk Cousins is a little more than a month away from showing us what can happen when a healthy, top-level starting quarterback in his prime hits the free-agent market. This will be unprecedented. In the era of the franchise tag, only two top-level quarterbacks have become unrestricted free agents -- Peyton Manning in 2012 and Drew Brees in 2006 -- and each was coming off a major injury at the time.

Cousins is 29 years old, healthy and coming off his third straight 4,000-yard passing season at a time of rapid salary-cap growth. As of March 12, when agents of prospective free agents are free to talk with other teams, Cousins will be in a position to set a new standard at the top of the NFL salary structure -- not long after Jimmy Garoppolo agreed to terms on a five-year deal of his own in San Francisco.

Now, because I know some of you will ask: No, I do not think there is any chance Washington franchises Cousins for the third year in a row. It's certainly true that it has considered the idea of franchising him and trying to trade him, in an effort to avoid losing him and getting nothing in return. And at this stage of the process, that's the right position for them to be taking outwardly, just in case some team wants to offer them something crazy. But I, and the sources I've spoken to on this matter, consider a third Cousins franchise tag (which would cost Washington about $34.5 million) a totally unrealistic outcome.

Why? Well, any team willing to trade anything of significance for Cousins would want to know that they can sign him long term, and for how much. Washington is likely to end up with a third-round compensatory pick if it lets Cousins walk, which means a team probably would need to offer a second-rounder or more in order to get him, and why would a team do that if all it is guaranteed is one year at $34.5 million?

If Washington franchises Cousins, he'll surely rush to sign the tender and put the team in an impossible bind. That $34.5 million would immediately hit Washington's 2018 salary cap along with about $24 million in cap cost for Alex Smith, likely requiring undesirable roster cuts elsewhere and making it basically impossible for the team to do anything else in terms of player acquisition until they traded Cousins.

In theory, Cousins could make it easy on Washington by negotiating with potential trade partners on a long-term deal before a trade is finalized, but there's no reason to believe Cousins is or will be interested in doing his current team any favors. If Washington did decide to franchise Cousins, the more likely reason would be that it got cold feet on the Smith deal and decided to back out before it became official. As of Tuesday night, we can call this "Pulling a McDaniels." Not saying this will happen, but if Tuesday taught us nothing else, it's that nothing is final until it's final.

What Cousins wants -- and believes he deserves -- is a chance to hit the market unfettered, with a menu of potential new destinations from which to choose. It appears certain he will get that, and when he does, his deal could average $30 million or more per season with upward of $90 million in guarantees. The questions then will become how many teams will bid that high and how much he likes the idea of playing for those teams.

The Minnesota Vikings, who are coming off a 13-3 season and with all three quarterbacks on their roster eligible for free agency, should be at the top of Cousins' wish list. They have the cap space to make it happen. They have an elite defense, top-level wide receivers, a strong running game and an offensive line that -- while it might need some maintenance work in the coming years -- did an awfully good job of keeping Case Keenum clean in 2017. The question with the Vikings is how committed they are to developing Teddy Bridgewater as their long-term solution and rewarding Keenum for what he did in 2017. If they bring one or both of those guys back, that probably rules out Cousins. But if they see themselves a Cousins away from the Super Bowl, maybe they change the plan and go for it.

The New York Jets also have the cap room and the need. Their roster needs more work than Minnesota's does, but the receiving corps showed promise this season, the coach just got extended, and Cousins has spoken highly of new offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates. Perhaps he'd enjoy a shot to make a big splash in the Big Apple. The Buffalo Bills are coming off a 9-7 season and have a No. 1 receiver in Kelvin Benjamin and an elite running back in LeSean McCoy. If Cousins likes what Sean McDermott is putting together in Buffalo, the Bills become an interesting option that might not be too far from title contention. The Jacksonville Jaguars would be interesting if they found a way to move on from Blake Bortles, but his $19 million contract option could end up being guaranteed if Bortles, who just had wrist surgery, can't pass a physical by early March.

The Cleveland Browns will have all kinds of money to spend, but that situation comes with a ton of uncertainty. How long will Hue Jackson be the coach? Would Cousins expect to click immediately with offensive coordinator Todd Haley? How close, really, is a team that is 1-31 over the past two years to contention?

There's long-range coaching staff uncertainty, too, with the Denver Broncos, who also have to move a bunch of money around to clear room for a Cousins pursuit. And while the Arizona Cardinals have a need and sound like a nicer place to live than some of these other options, the Cardinals feel like a start-from-scratch situation in the wake of Bruce Arians' and Carson Palmer's retirements (and possibly Larry Fitzgerald's, too).

The upshot: Cousins is likely to find a historic contract on the open market, but it won't necessarily be easy for him to get there. Each potential landing spot has hurdles in front of it that he and/or his new team will have to clear. We're not likely to know the exact parameters of the Cousins market until after the combine, when the free-agency picture starts coming into focus. But when the smoke clears, expect Cousins to be at the top of the most interesting quarterback offseason in memory.

A quick look at some of the other names -- and potential names -- on that market:

Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

2018 status: Unrestricted free agent

Brees would obviously be the top quarterback on the market if he hadn't been so vocal about his desire not to go anywhere. The final three years of the extension Brees signed two summers ago void on March 14, which would make him a free agent. Expect the 39-year-old and the Saints to work out something -- even if it's converting one or two of the void years into real years just to keep him in New Orleans and avoid an onerous 2018 cap situation.

Case Keenum, Minnesota Vikings

2018 status: Unrestricted free agent

As mentioned above, it's possible Minnesota wants Keenum back after the year he just had. It's also possible (and would make sense) that Keenum wants to parlay his big 2017 season into as big a contract as he can get, since he might never have a year like that again. If it's the latter, expect any jilted Cousins suitors to be in the mix.

Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota Vikings

2018 status: Unrestricted free agent

Assuming his contract doesn't "toll" for injury reasons, Bridgewater would hit the unrestricted market. If they don't pursue Cousins, expect the Vikings to bring him back on a reasonable deal.

Sam Bradford, Minnesota Vikings

2018 status: Unrestricted free agent

The veteran wants to keep playing, but the condition of his knee will severely limit his market value.

Josh McCown, New York Jets

2018 status: Unrestricted free agent

Makes a lot of sense as a bridge quarterback for a team developing a draft pick (Browns?).

AJ McCarron, Cincinnati Bengals

2018 status: Unrestricted free agent

A grievance hearing this month will determine whether McCarron is an unrestricted or a restricted free agent, and that obviously will affect his market value and mobility. Don't rule out Cleveland, where head coach Hue Jackson is a former Bengals offensive coordinator.

Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills

2018 status: Potential cap casualty

Almost certain to be cut by Buffalo, Taylor could appeal to a team looking for an experienced option or a bridge guy while they ready a rookie.

Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles

2018 status: Possible trade candidate

The unlikely Super Bowl MVP is signed through 2018 for $7 million in salary and bonuses, of which $3 million is guaranteed. As long as they're uncertain about starter Carson Wentz's timetable for recovery from his ACL injury, it makes sense for the Eagles to hold onto their decorated backup. But if someone comes offering a second- or third-round pick -- neither of which the Eagles have in 2018 at the moment -- it could prove tempting to sell high on Foles and invest in a different backup option.

Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars

2018 status: Possible trade candidate

As mentioned above, it's possible Bortles' wrist surgery could trigger his $19 million injury guarantee and tie Jacksonville's hands. But if they can find a way to knock that 2018 number down, they could end up trading Bortles, releasing him or keeping Bortles and bringing in some competition for him.

Jay Cutler, Miami Dolphins

2018 status: Unrestricted free agent

Sources close to the situation say the Dolphins are all-in on Ryan Tannehill. Expect Cutler to see if that broadcasting job is still available. But if Tannehill gets hurt again or if someone else comes with another $10 million -- who knows?

Trevor Siemian, Denver Broncos

2018 status: Potential cap casualty

A candidate for a cap cut ($1.9 million savings), Siemian opened the season as the Broncos' starter the past two years and has shown flashes. Could have some appeal on a market where everyone is always looking for quarterbacks.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story included Jimmy Garoppolo, before he and the 49ers agreed to terms on a five-year deal Thursday.