EAGAN, Minn. — Kirk Cousins not only reset the bar as the highest-paid player in NFL history when he inked a three-year, $84 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday, he also set a new precedent for veteran players by signing a fully guaranteed deal.
A contract of this magnitude — one that also contains another $6 million in incentives that could elevate the total value to $90 million, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter — was the focus of conversations with Cousins and his agent, Mike McCartney, for the past two and a half years.
While the deal is short-term in nature, it carries long-term importance in providing stability for the Vikings at the quarterback position and for the next chapter of Cousins’ career.
“As Rick said yesterday, this is a lifetime deal,” Cousins said. “That’s the goal. This is a three-year deal but the expectation from both sides is we raise our kids here and then if everything goes as planned that I’d be here for a long, long time.”
Joined by Vikings owner Mark Wilf, coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman at his introductory news conference, Cousins became the franchise’s next quarterback, a role Minnesota allocated significant financial resources toward in free agency. The Vikings had over $50 million in available cap space before Cousins signed his contract. He carries a $24 million cap hit in 2018, which leaves Minnesota with just over $26 million for the rest of its free-agency needs and to structure contract extensions this offseason.
Cousins earned $44 million playing under the franchise tag in each of his past two seasons in Washington and was a rare commodity as a proven, sub-30-year-old quarterback with very little injury history when he hit the open market.
Only two other times have proven veteran quarterbacks become free agents in the salary-cap era: in 2006, when Drew Brees transitioned from the Chargers to the Saints, and again in 2012, when Peyton Manning signed with the Denver Broncos.
But injuries played a role in each of those circumstances. Brees became a free agent months after he suffered a serious shoulder injury. Manning missed the entire 2011 season with a neck injury.
Cousins made every start and threw for more than 4,000 yards in each of the past three seasons. With a proven track record and that kind of durability, the Vikings were all-in.
“If you have an opportunity to go out and potentially get a franchise quarterback or a quarterback that’s going to be leading you for years to come,” Spielman said. “He’s right now in the prime of his career. Our history tells us if we hit on a player, we’re going to do everything we can to keep that player here. Especially at that quarterback position. That’s why this was so unique. The fully guaranteed part, I know it’s the first time, but also when you have an opportunity to get a potential franchise quarterback, you know where the leverage is going. We respected that and I respected that.”
Cousins’ only visit this week was to Minnesota. After the quarterback landscape began to take shape on Tuesday with three ex-Vikings quarterbacks finding jobs elsewhere in Case Keenum and Denver, Sam Bradford and Arizona, and Teddy Bridgewater and the New York Jets, Cousins and McCartney decided against any other visits.
“We had intentions to potentially consider a second visit and, as I said, on that Tuesday, it was a mad scramble for every team to fill that quarterback slot,” McCartney said. “It wasn’t necessary at that point.”
McCartney said Minnesota was “not even close” to the best offer Cousins received, but he would not reveal which team chose to offer Cousins more money.
“It’s not easy doing business,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell teams no, but I have a lot of respect for how everybody handled it, and we’re just thrilled to have Kirk here in Minnesota.”
For now, Cousins will hold the title of the league’s highest-paid player with an average salary of $28 million a year. There’s the assumption that figure will be surpassed when Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan ink their extensions in the near future. The importance of Cousins’ role as a pioneer with this historic deal, one that sets a new precedent for other NFL players to sign similar contracts, isn’t lost on him. But he echoed the need for others to follow suit.
“There’s nothing I can pave unless people come after me,” Cousins said. “I guess history will probably write that more than right now. We’ll have to look back and see how this league goes from here.”