ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — On the sideline of a football stadium in southern Alabama a few weeks ago, they were just two former Stanford guys chatting in the sun. Two friends, football executives, talking about whatever crossed their minds.
But when John Elway and John Lynch had those conversations before and during some of the Senior Bowl practices, in full view of the rest of their peers, they knew, even as they tried to keep their own secrets, each was going to have a lot to say about how the other’s offseason was going to go.
And the Broncos have now had a few days to mull over the contract Lynch, the San Francisco 49ers‘ general manager, dropped on the rest of the NFL when he signed quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to the richest deal in league history. Garoppolo, with seven career starts, turned the intersection of age (26), performance and impeccable timing in a quarterback-starved league into a five-year, $137.5 million deal.
With that, the Broncos confirmed just how much they’ll have to spend in free agency to sign the quarterback expected to be on the open market who also happens to reside at the intersection of age (29), performance and impeccable timing in a quarterback-starved league — one Kirk Cousins.
Elway, now in his eighth offseason as the Broncos’ chief football decision-maker, promised at the Senior Bowl that where the Broncos were “budget-wise and cap-wise” would get a long look in these days before the scouting combine opens later this month.
“As we gather information … we’ll start putting the plan together with all of those considerations going into the decision,” Elway said.
Well, they know, exactly, what those considerations for Cousins will be. Like anyone else who wants to sign Cousins now, the bar has been set, and Elway and his confidants will have to wrap an organization’s collective head around where that bar is.
To sign Cousins, the Broncos will have to make him the highest-paid player in the NFL with a contract that is — in average value per season or total or guarantees or all of the above — the biggest in NFL history. It is the bottom line of bottom lines.
No escape from it because if the Broncos want to fix their quarterback problem in free agency, they will be required — as in absolutely required — to write the biggest of checks to do it. And Elway, a negotiator who has often shown a hard-edged, the-number-is-the-number approach much of the time, might not have that luxury if Cousins is indeed the choice.
Yes, if the Broncos want Cousins, it will take a contract that averages more than $27.5 million — Garoppolo’s average — to do it. And if the Jets, the Browns or anybody else with a lot more salary-cap space than the Broncos want Cousins, too, his deal could move beyond $30 million per year.
Like it or not on any front, argue “worth” at your leisure, but that is the price to do business in Cousins’ aisle of free agency. Don’t want to do it, then don’t do it, but if there is no Plan B and Cousins is Plan A, then that’s the price tag. But it also sets the bar for other quarterbacks in free agency, given Garoppolo’s deal has likely, say, moved Case Keenum‘s asking price north of $20 million per year because that is what the market will bear.
Elway has negotiated those kind of deals with two contracts — Peyton Manning and Von Miller — that were for more than $90 million (with Miller’s at $114.5 million). But Elway played hard ball with both at times, and Miller’s negotiations, especially, got more than a little testy along the way (i.e., Miller carved Elway out of a picture from the White House).
Lynch knew at the Senior Bowl he was likely going to have to set the market to keep Garoppolo but was willing to do it having already seen Garoppolo work in his time with the team after the in-season trade with the New England Patriots. The 49ers looked at the draft, they looked at the possibilities in free agency, and they went all-in on Garoppolo.
Elway will show his cards at some point and will say free agency, the draft or a little of both will solve the Broncos’ quarterback woes. But if they come away from their closed-door evaluations in the coming weeks with the idea Cousins is the guy, it means the Broncos are willing to do what that will take.
To pay him more than they have ever paid anybody else.