It's been more than 10 years since Kirk Cousins last had a choice about where he wanted to play football. He chose Michigan State back then when he was coming out of high school.
The stakes are higher and much more complicated now.
The 29-year-old Cousins will be the marquee free agent on the NFL market this month -- an extremely rare franchise quarterback hitting free agency in his prime. The money will be enormous -- surely well over $100 million, with probably more than $75 million guaranteed. If the bidding gets fierce enough he could end up as the highest-paid player in the history of the league.
And chances are the bidding will be fierce. The Jets will be at the head of the line, according to multiple sources. They will almost certainly be joined by the Denver Broncos, and probably the Cleveland Browns too. Many others -- perhaps the Cardinals, Vikings, and maybe even the Dolphins and Bills -- will dip their toes into the deep end of this free agent pool to at least see if Cousins has any interest in playing for them.
So what does Cousins want? Money will be a factor, but like most free agents, he insists it won't be the only one.
"Winning is everything, especially at this stage of my career," he said on WFAN on Tuesday afternoon. "It's not about the money so much. It's about winning. I want to win."
The Jets can offer plenty of money. They also believe they can convince him that they are ready to win. But they will have plenty of competition.
Here's a look at the likely suitors for Cousins, and what they have to offer:
They can offer him as much money as anyone, since they will likely have around $100 million in salary cap room after they rid themselves of Mo Wilkerson and a few others. They're positioned so well they could give him a deal with a $30 million cap number in Year 1 and they'd still be in the Top 5 in available cap space. And that's a huge selling point. Not only have the Jets built a strong base of young talent, they can afford to add a top pass-rusher, a cornerback, a big receiver and maybe even a tackle in free agency. Their team could be vastly improved by the start of '18, and that's before they get to the future star they take with the No. 6 pick in the Draft. So the future is bright, and so is the New York spotlight if Cousins is up for it. A quarterback that leads the Jets back to the Super Bowl would be a hero around here for life.
The Broncos are just better than the Jets right now and much closer to competing for a title (some think they're only a quarterback away). So the lure of instant success, not to mention a chance to work for/with GM John Elway, could be great. The issue here is whether the Broncos can compete financially. They have about $30 million in cap room and need to do some work to add more. They can still afford Cousins, but they'll have to get tricky with the structure -- like offering him less up front but more guaranteed overall.
They just went to the NFC championship with Case Keenum at the helm, so of all the choices, this might be the place where Cousins could find an instant winner. They have a top defense, strong receivers (Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, tight end Kyle Rudolph), and running back Dalvin Cook should return to boost their offense even more next season. They still could re-sign Keenum, or Sam Bradford, or Teddy Bridgewater, but they'll all be free agents. The Vikings also have more than $50 million in cap space and a win-now mentality that suggests they will go after Cousins hard.
They are one of two teams projected to have more salary cap space than the Jets, and if they could use that on a quarterback, they could load up on help with the Nos. 1 and 4 picks in the Draft. Can they really convince Cousins that this is the place to go win, though? The Browns are 1-31 in the last two seasons, 4-44 in the last three, and last had a winning record in 2007, which was their only season above .500 in the last 15 years.
This would be a terrific spot for a quarterback. The Cards have a strong defense, good offensive weapons (like Larry Fitzgerald) and David Johnson coming back healthy to play running back next season. But they don't really have the cap space. They're estimated to have about $20 million, with some room to create a little bit more. They did reportedly try to trade for Alex Smith, though, knowing he'd want a contract extension, so maybe they have a plan for getting this done.
Blake Bortles is reportedly their choice to be their starting QB in 2018 after he helped them to the AFC championship game. That's easy to say since they don't really have the cap space ($20 million) to afford Cousins. But Bortles is playing next year on his fifth-year option at $19 million, and that isn't guaranteed unless he's on their roster on March 14. Could they cut him and suddenly have the space to afford Cousins? Jacksonville might not be an NFL hot spot, but Tom Coughlin knows how to win. He could sell Cousins on that defense and running game and how all they really need is a top quarterback to be a perennial contender.
They have a lot of money committed to Ryan Tannehill, who is coming off knee surgery, so they might not want to overspend on another quarterback. It's also a lock that Cousins doesn't want to get involved with any team that even has a hint of a quarterback controversy. They also could lose their best receiver, Jarvis Landry, in free agency, and their $20 million in cap space ranks them near the bottom of the league.
They have Tyrod Taylor, though maybe not for long, and they can't possibly be sold on Nate Peterman after his disastrous start last season. So the Bills will be interested, but their $30 million or so in cap space won't get it done -- especially since they need some upgrades on offense, too. They're much more likely to take a quarterback in the first round of the Draft.