Howe: A peek behind the scenes of the Kirk Cousins, Russell Wilson, Baker Mayfield deals

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The three biggest names on the quarterback market were whisked off the board within 24 hours at the dawn of free agency, as Kirk Cousins, Baker Mayfield and Russell Wilson evaluated their markets and struck on their opportunities.

Each had different priorities at unique stages of their careers. And as they quickly secured their next contracts, the veteran trio also helped shape the QB market for the rest of the offseason.

Mayfield started the chain reaction Sunday afternoon when he reached a three-year $100 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Wilson struck a Sunday night agreement with the Pittsburgh Steelers for one year and the $1.2 million league minimum. Cousins capped it off Monday afternoon when he landed a four-year $180 million pact with the Atlanta Falcons.

While the moves and the financial parameters were unique, they were also somewhat connected as they came together, according to at least a half dozen sources with direct knowledge of the situations.

Mayfield was coming off the best season of his career in his first go-round with the Bucs, and the 28-year-old wanted to remain in Tampa after bouncing around the league for a couple of years. He’s had eight head coaches and seven offensive coordinators while playing for four teams in his first six seasons, so continuity has been a goal of his for quite a while, league sources said.

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Mayfield appreciated the way the Bucs set him up for success last season, not just with former offensive coordinator Dave Canales but with coach Todd Bowles’ leadership and the culture of the veterans around the building. And while Canales left for Carolina, Mayfield is somewhat familiar with new offensive coordinator Liam Coen from their month together with the Los Angeles Rams in 2022.

The Bucs and Mayfield accelerated negotiations last week, and they intensified over the weekend with a series of proposals and counteroffers. For Mayfield and that desire for continuity, the guaranteed money in the second year of the deal was particularly important from a job security standpoint.

He got $40 million fully guaranteed, with $30 million in 2024 and another $10 million in 2025, plus an extra $10 million for injury. So as long as he plays well, Mayfield should be back with the Buccaneers in 2025. But if the Bucs decide to split after the 2024 season, he’ll have earned $40 million for his services.

Last month, league executives believed Mayfield could eye New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones’ four-year, $160 million contract as a comparable deal. And maybe, if Mayfield wanted to push his free agency into Monday when the NFL’s negotiating window opened, he could have conceivably found a deal with more total money.

But that’s not as simple as it sounds. Over the weekend, people around the league believed Cousins would decide between the Falcons and Minnesota Vikings, leaving the losing team and the Buccaneers alone in a competition for Mayfield. But the hypothetical risk with that strategy could have involved the Vikings offering a low number and the Buccaneers withdrawing their best proposal. And while the New England Patriots were internally high on Mayfield, a union between the sides just didn’t make sense — again, leaving Mayfield with two potential suitors with the appropriate cap space to make a good offer and the personnel to challenge for a division title.

Ultimately, Mayfield wanted to return to the Bucs. He got an offer that should keep him secure for a minimum of two years and accepted it.

The best chance to start

Wilson’s situation was far different from Mayfield’s. The Denver Broncos will officially release him Wednesday at the start of the new league year, but they informed him of that decision last week and permitted him in the meantime to visit with teams.

Then, there was the wild card with the economics. The Broncos are still on the hook for Wilson’s $39 million salary in 2024, and that’s considerably more than he could have gotten in free agency. So Wilson informed teams that he’d play for the minimum — with the Broncos picking up the balance of the tab — so they could use their cap space elsewhere.

Wilson had two quality meetings with the Giants and Steelers. Both were deemed exploratory sessions, and they got a feel for their visions of the offense and Wilson’s goals for the season.

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The Giants offered no assurances on playing time, as Jones is expected to start once he’s cleared from his torn ACL. As for the Steelers, who benched 2022 first-round pick Kenny Pickett last season, Wilson has a very realistic path to a starting job for a team consistently in the playoff mix and has never finished below .500 in coach Mike Tomlin’s 17 seasons.

Wilson met Friday with the Steelers decision-makers, including Tomlin, offensive coordinator Arthur Smith and general manager Omar Khan. With Tomlin and Smith, the offense should again be physical with a strong ground game and yield enough opportunities for Wilson to throw the deep ball, assuming he wins the job.

Wilson put together a better season in 2023 before the Broncos benched him in December, in part to ensure an injury wouldn’t further complicate their offseason decision with the quarterback. If the 35-year-old can maintain that trajectory, he’ll increase his chances of finding a more lucrative payday in 2025, whether it’s in Pittsburgh or elsewhere.

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A two-team race for Cousins?

Cousins, despite coming off a torn Achilles, was the central figure on the quarterback carousel, and he had indeed settled on Atlanta and Minnesota, where he played from 2018-23. If either of those options fell by the wayside and the financial offers plummeted, a league source said the Broncos likely would have gotten involved.

But dwindling offers weren’t an issue as the Falcons and Vikings made hard pushes for Cousins, who will get $90 million guaranteed in the first two years of the deal. Cousins had previously crossed paths in Washington with new Falcons coach Raheem Morris, and the quarterback should be a quick study with offensive coordinator Zac Robinson, whose principles are similar to Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell from their days together with the Rams.

The Falcons have also been assembling a better roster in recent years, and Cousins’ arrival should help them contend for the NFC South title and a playoff spot. They’ve got a strong running game, an improving offensive line and attractive pass catchers with Drake London and Kyle Pitts.

It was a perfect recipe for Cousins, who will be 36 at the start of next season.

The Vikings tried to keep Cousins, but they also knew it was important to prepare for the future at the position and couldn’t make the same financial commitment. So when the Falcons stepped up with their offer, considering the appeal of the roster and coaching staff, it all came together for Cousins.

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The remaining QB market

A few moving pieces remain. The Chicago Bears, Washington Commanders and Patriots hold the first three picks in the upcoming NFL Draft, and indications suggest each team will take a quarterback with USC’s Caleb Williams, North Carolina’s Drake Maye and LSU’s Jayden Daniels the expected candidates.

That has essentially only left the Vikings, Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders with openings. The Raiders agreed with Gardner Minshew on a two-year $15 million deal that could be worth up to $25 million, and he’ll compete with Aidan O’Connell. The Broncos still have Jarrett Stidham, while the Vikings appear to be starting over.

With Jacoby Brissett rejoining the Patriots, the free-agent market is highlighted by Sam Darnold, Joe Flacco and Ryan Tannehill. It still feels inevitable the Raiders will release Jimmy Garoppolo, and the Bears should still be looking to trade Justin Fields. The Commanders could conceivably move Sam Howell, and the Jets are expected to part with Zach Wilson in some capacity.

Now that deals are done for Mayfield, Russell Wilson and Cousins, there’s one final fascinating element in play. Those final three teams in need of quarterback reinforcements — the Vikings, Broncos and Raiders, respectively — hold picks Nos. 11-13 in the draft. They could be competing again for Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy or perhaps even Oregon’s Bo Nix and Washington’s Michael Penix.

The veteran trio set the stage for more fireworks on the quarterback front over the next two months.

(Photos of Baker Mayfield, Kirk Cousins and Russell Wilson:
Todd Rosenberg, Stephen Maturen and Cooper Neill / Getty Images)





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