The NFL Quarterback Who Gamed the System—and Hit the Jackpot

Kirk Cousins is expected to land a rich contract from a quarterback-needy team.
Kirk Cousins is expected to land a rich contract from a quarterback-needy team.

Summary

Kirk Cousins has spent years betting on himself. Now he’s about to strike it rich in free agency once more, adding another chapter to one of the most lucrative careers the game has ever seen.

The player poised to hit the jackpot when NFL free agency begins this week doesn’t look like the most desirable acquisition. He’s 35 years old, recovering from a devastating injury and has never been considered one of the best players at his position.

But reliable starting quarterbacks hit free agency so rarely that Kirk Cousins is set to land a megadeal anyway. What’s more, this isn’t the first time he has played his way into riches by taking a path that few passers have ventured down. Cousins is the unicorn quarterback who keeps hitting the open market.

Cousins, who has played for the Minnesota Vikings for the past six years, is expected to land a rich contract from a quarterback-needy team like the Atlanta Falcons and add to his $231 million in career earnings. That makes a quarterback with one career playoff win the 11th-highest paid player in NFL history—and one who, in a few years, could climb into the top three.

The reason Cousins has become so fabulously wealthy isn’t because he’s one of the premier players at the game’s most important position. It’s because he isn’t.

The best quarterbacks in the NFL seldom become unrestricted free agents, where they could realize their true value in a bidding war, because teams lock them down before that could ever happen. The Kansas City Chiefs inked a 10-year deal with Patrick Mahomes when he was 24 years old. Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson and Jalen Hurts each briefly became the league’s highest-paid player last year when they inked extensions with their clubs. Tom Brady became a free agent for the first time in his career at the ripe old age of 42.

Cousins has never been viewed as a member of that same upper tier of quarterbacks. But he found a way to beat the system because it doubted him.

“Most players will never bet on themselves, and Kirk Cousins always bet on himself," says Mike Tannenbaum, a former general manager in the league. “He’s by far the best quarterback on the planet available, and because of that, he’s going to get rewarded."

From the outset of Cousins’s NFL career, he was supposed to be backup. Washington selected him in the fourth round of the same 2012 draft in which they used the second overall pick on quarterback Robert Griffin III. But by 2015, after injuries derailed Griffin’s career, Cousins had wrested hold of the starting gig and was surprisingly impressive: Washington went 9-7 and he led the league in completion percentage.

That came at a critical moment. Because Cousins’s career had largely consisted of riding the bench before that season, he hadn’t been signed to an extension. His breakout occurred right as he was set to become a free agent.

Washington had a way to stop him from getting away. The team stuck Cousins with the franchise tag, a one-year deal that teams can use to retain a free agent by making him one of the top-paid players at their position. After another solid season in 2016, Washington franchise tagged him again—which came with a 20% pay increase to nearly $24 million.

All along, Cousins was playing his way onto the open market. Tagging him for a third straight year would have driven his cost up 44% more. Washington was left with little choice but to let Cousins test free agency.

That’s where Cousins found an insatiable appetite for someone who had played well but also possessed a career losing record.

Viable quarterbacks reach free agency so infrequently that Cousins was the hottest player in football. When he landed with the Vikings in 2018, his three-year $84 million deal made him the game’s highest-paid player. Moreover, the contract was groundbreaking because it was fully guaranteed. Cousins had struck gold not by being the best quarterback—but by taking a path that those quarterbacks eschew.

“It was a rare and unique opportunity to go out and sign a quarterback of this caliber," then-Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said at the time.

In Minnesota, Cousins continued his run of competent, if unspectacular, play. Over six seasons, the Vikings went 50-37-1 with him under center, highlighted by a 13-4 campaign in 2022. At the same time, they advanced to the playoffs just twice and went 1-2 in the postseason.

Cousins was playing some of his best football this past year when he came up limp after a play. Cousins had torn his Achilles, and his season was over. That might have signaled the end of his tenure in Minnesota, too.

When Cousins signed an extension to stay with the Vikings, it was structured to prevent them from keeping him the way Washington once had: by deploying the franchise tag. If the team couldn’t agree to an extension with him, he would get to hit free agency. Again.

Now Cousins is expected to be at the center of another frenzy at a time when it has never been better to be a free agent. The NFL’s salary cap for this upcoming season increased by a record amount to $255.4 million. Suddenly, any team interested in Cousins had more money to spend on him.

The Falcons are the favorites to land his services as a team rich with offensive weapons that has been held back by poor quarterback play. And even if he returns to Minnesota before free agency begins Wednesday, he’s negotiating with the leverage that other clubs could scoop him up imminently.

Any deal Cousins strikes will send him further up the NFL’s all-time earning list, which is a who’s who of recent all-time greats from. After just one season, he’ll pass Peyton Manning and possibly Drew Brees. If he sticks around for another couple of years, he’s poised to leapfrog another whose postseason record was a little bit better than one career win.

Cousins could wind up making more on the gridiron than Brady.

Write to Andrew Beaton at andrew.beaton@wsj.com

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