Let's ante up for a game of free-agent quarterback poker.
Here are the cards we have been dealt: Sam Bradford, Kirk Cousins, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brock Osweiler.
Not exactly four aces or even kings. More like jacks. They aren't really four of a kind, but you get the point: They have a lot in common.
All of them have shown last year's employers a little, but none has shown a lot. All would probably be happy to stay in their current locations if the money works out. All four of their current teams would like to keep them if the money is right. There is no bad blood at all, but there are hard economics at work.
The Eagles, Redskins, Jets and Broncos cannot afford to overpay based on small samples of decent-to-excellent performances. No one wants to roll out Aaron Rodgers money for these guys. But their teams don't want them to hit the open market, either. There are salary-cap, franchise-tag and other variables at play. And the first team to sign one of these quarterbacks sets the market for the others.
The team that pays first could overpay; the agent who signs first loses leverage.
So four teams, one of which is the defending NFL champion, hold their cards and wait for the others to blink. We hear reports from Bleacher Report's Jason Cole that Cousins and the Redskins are far apart and hear Broncos defender Malik Jackson, involved in contract talks of his own, stump loudly for Osweiler. But we get no actual motion.
The 2016 season, and the salary structure for young middle-tier quarterbacks moving forward, hangs in the balance of what happens when everyone shows their hands.
How the Cards Are Dealt
While we wait for someone to make a move, let's look at the cards more carefully. (Note: All cap and salary figures courtesy Over The Cap.)
Kirk Cousins turns 28 before the start of next season and is coming off a career year: 29 touchdowns, a playoff berth, a league-leading 69.8 percent completion rate. He's the toast of Washington, but it's hard to tell how much of his 10-game hot streak in 2015 was the result of real progress and how much can be attributed to an epic soft spot in the schedule.
Brock Osweiler is 25 years old and led the Broncos to a 5-2 record as a starter, including overtime wins against the Patriots and Bengals. Osweiler was also benched in favor of a semi-rejuvenated Peyton Manning in the season finale and playoffs and has just 305 career pass attempts under his belt. We haven't seen yet how Osweiler will react when defenses adjust to him.
Sam Bradford's stats (3,725 yards, 19 touchdowns, 14 interceptions) and record as a starter (7-7) look pretty good when adjusted for the fact that the Eagles turned into a loony bin around him. The 28-year-old stayed mostly healthy and handled himself well despite enduring 42 dropped passes, according to Pro Football Focus, (third-highest total in the NFL, on far fewer attempts than league leaders Derek Carr and Tom Brady) and a late-season near-mutiny by much of the team.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is the elder statesman of the group at 33. Like the others, he is coming off the best season of his career: 3,905 yards, 31 touchdowns, a 10-6 record as a starter. Whereas the others have a few years on the bench or injured reserve in their background, Fitzpatrick has a decade as an itinerant backup-for-hire and a failed stint as the Bills' starter in his past. He lacks the upside of the others, but he fits as a short-term solution or a potential mentor, making him appealing to both the Jets and any team that wants to play draft-and-develop at quarterback.
Now, let's look at some potential suitors for our four-of-a-kind, besides their four current employers:
The Rams have $36 million in cap space, a need at quarterback and a new set of fans to impress. They also have enough talent on defense and at running back to appeal to a free agent with options.
The Texans have $32 million in cap space and can make a convincing argument that they are one good quarterback away from the Super Bowl.
The 49ers have a whopping $55 million in cap space, no particular love of incumbent quarterback Colin Kaepernick and a pair of loose cannons running their football operations.
The Browns need a quarterback and have $38 million in cap space to burn but (1) are in great position to draft one and (2) might have a hard time luring away a free agent with other options, because they are the Browns.
These three-and-a-half teams give Cousins and Co. some leverage, but not much. Lots of promising quarterbacks entered the league in the last two seasons, several young veterans signed franchise-level contracts, and this draft class isn't bad. These quarterbacks won't enter the frenzied market of days past, when a few good starts hurdled Rob Johnson or Scott Mitchell toward the top of the quarterback pay scale. Still, any team that lowballs one of our four jacks must face the prospect of a decent team swooping in with a tempting offer.
On the other side of the supply-and-demand curve, there are other quarterbacks on the market—wild cards if you will.
Peyton Manning is likely to retire, paving the way for Osweiler in Denver. That said, there is a scenario where the Broncos release Manning and he plays a year or two elsewhere. He is kind of a white elephant on the market, a one-of-a-kind situation that can't be applied to other free agents. Still, he could take up a job or even gum up the works for Osweiler.
Robert Griffin III is Cousins' Manning: the guy with the big name and whopping salary who probably won't be on the roster next year. Griffin is more likely to find a home backing up an established veteran than competing for a starting job, but you never know.
The Bears are in rebuilding mode and are changing offensive coordinators. Jay Cutler proved he could be useful in the development of young players last year, but he's expensive—and no article about quarterback movement is complete without mentioning the possibility of a Cutler release or trade.
Nick Foles and Colin Kaepernick are under contract, but both contracts can be terminated without a crippling cap hit, and neither quarterback appears to be in his franchise's plans. Both quarterbacks are in the same age range as Cousins and Osweiler and were considered outstanding prospects not too long ago. Think of them as boiling chips on the market: Their 2015 failures are cautionary tales against splurging on one of the free agents, and they provide low-cost alternatives for a team that doesn't want to get into a bidding war over someone like Cousins.
There is one last variable in play: four unique cap situations.
The Broncos are tight against the cap but will have much more maneuverability when they buy Manning that gold watch. They still have a laundry list of in-house free agents to sort through, starting with Von Miller. The franchise tag is being held as a bargaining chip over Miller, and an Osweiler deal will probably have to defer some cap payments so the team can fit other key Super Bowl contributors like Malik Jackson into the budget.
The Redskins' cap situation will look much better once $16 million of Griffin is cleared away. They can franchise-tag Cousins without too many ramifications for their budget, though if they give him a one-year deal in the $19.6 million range (using an NFL.com estimate of the 2016 quarterback franchise tag value) and then discover that Osweiler and the others come in at around $12 million per year, it could complicate negotiations on a long-term deal.
The Eagles have been extending in-house contracts like crazy (Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz, Vinny Curry) but still have $26 million in 2016 cap space. They also have Fletcher Cox entering the final year of his contract; Cox is the team's best player, and the Eagles want to lock him into a long-term deal that will probably fall just a little south of J.J. Watt money. The Eagles could squeeze a tagged Bradford into the budget while wading through all the transition elsewhere in the organization, but it will be tight.
The Jets have $14 million in cap space and Muhammad Wilkerson at the top of their priority list. He is likely to get tagged. Fitzpatrick would be an odd choice to be given $19.6 million for one year at this stage in his career.
How the Hand Plays Out
OK, so we know who is seated at the table and how the deck is stacked. Let's look at a variety of ways this round can play out.
The Status Quo Scenario
There is a good chance that all four major free-agent quarterbacks stay put. For that to happen, at least some of them will sign long-term deals.
Zack Moore of Over The Cap broke down the Washington salary-cap situation in detail and speculated about the size and shape of a Cousins contract. Moore set two reasonable parameters for a Cousins deal: Andy Dalton's contract at the top and Nick Foles' extension at the bottom. Let's look at those deals side-by-side in terms of their annual cap hit, which helps lump the signing bonus and roster bonuses into the player's other compensation in a way that doesn't make our heads spin:
|Year||Andy Dalton||Nick Foles||Kirk Cousins|
|2015||$9.6 million||$4.042 million|
|2016||$13.1 million||$8.75 million||$10.0 million|
|2017||$15.7 million||$13.25 million||$10.8 million|
|2018||$16.3 million||$13.1 million|
|2019||$16.2 million||$14.45 million|
Over The Cap
This is a wide range of compensation, even allowing for the fact that Dalton probably will not see the final year of his contract. Dalton's resume was far superior to that of any of our four free agents before he signed his new deal in August 2014.
The Foles extension was a team-friendly wait-and-see deal (that 2017 figure is Monopoly money) after a trade. Yet you can see how contract talks with Cousins and the others might proceed: Agents for our quarterbacks arguing they are Dalton-like, teams noting the similarity in age and accomplishment to Foles last year, and everyone hoping to meet on their side of the middle.
The third column above represents a theoretical middle-ground contract for Cousins proposed by Moore. It's a four-year deal with a $12 million signing bonus, some roster bonuses and a value just north of $48 million. The first three years would be all but guaranteed. Like Dalton's contract, Cousins' deal would have significant escalators and bonuses for playoff success. It's a logical contract that compensates Cousins while protecting the Redskins. It even pushes the worst of the cap hits back a few years, making it an appealing model for the Broncos and Osweiler.
In this scenario, Cousins and Osweiler sign deals like these in the next two weeks. Bradford and Fitzpatrick sign deals that are somewhat shorter and more modest with the Eagles and Jets. Teams like the Rams and Texans look elsewhere, and everyone walks away from the table satisfied.
Why does it feel like that would just be too easy?
The Splurge Scenario
Things get interesting if one team gets carried away and offers one of our quarterbacks Dalton money—or Russell Wilson money or beyond. The most likely suspect in this scenario is the Redskins: Dan Snyder's wallet comes equipped with its own canon, the organization and city are cuckoo for Cousins right now, and (unlike the Broncos) the Redskins have money to spend.
Washington could price the Broncos out of the Osweiler market by signing Cousins to some kind of $95 million gut-buster. That would open the door for a team with more cap space to swoop in and nab Osweiler. Let's say the Rams do exactly that.
Robbed of a quarterback to help them repeat in 2016 (and still eager to part ways with Manning), the Broncos would have to look to Bradford or Fitzpatrick—either of whom could lead that defense to the playoffs—while drafting for the future. The Eagles and/or Jets would rummage for Josh McCown types. Perhaps the Eagles would trade to bring back Foles or tag Bradford to keep him out of the chain reaction. Washington would drive away whistling like the careless driver who caused the six-car pileup.
This is a fun scenario to contemplate, but it's risky for all of the teams involved. That includes the Redskins; overpaying for quarterbacks never works for them. This scenario explains just how high the stakes of our poker game are: Some agent will come away from the market with a splashy new deal, but general managers don't want that first deal to be too splashy.
The (Almost) Free-Market Scenario
In this scenario, contract talks for all four quarterbacks stall until the March 1 franchise-tag deadline. The Redskins tag Cousins at the last minute. Everyone else hits the open market on March 8, and chaos ensues.
All sorts of crazy things can happen from here, so let's just speculate on one fun set of possibilities. The Texans decide Bradford is worth a hefty four-year deal packed with incentives, and Oklahoma-born Bradford decides that Texas is a better place for him than the East Coast. Chip Kelly realizes that brainy, fleet-footed and experienced Fitzpatrick is actually a perfect short-term fit in his offense, and the 49ers make him an offer too big to refuse. The Browns and Rams, bless them, get into a bidding war over Osweiler.
This scenario is an agent's dream, because it not only drives up the market value of our four free agents but also creates interest for the likes of Kaepernick, Foles, Griffin and others among the have-nots. The first round of the draft would certainly get more interesting as well.
This probably will not happen. But keep in mind that our four quarterbacks are not guaranteed, can't-afford-to-lose-them superstars. There are some cagey decision-makers at our poker table: John Elway is not to be trifled with, Scot McCloughan now holds the bolt cutters to the lock on Snyder's vault, Mike Maccagnan is coming off an impressive debut for the Jets, and Howie Roseman can make the salary cap sing and dance in Philly.
No one is going to get held over a barrel for money he doesn't want to spend, which could create some excitement if bluffs start getting called.
The Multi-Tag Scenario
Here's the least likely possibility: Cousins gets tagged, Bradford gets tagged, the Broncos work out a monster deal for Von Miller and tag Osweiler, and Fitzpatrick signs a two- or three-year deal with the Jets with a hearty bonus. Everyone stays put but without the long-term commitments.
Tagging Osweiler and Bradford would hamstring the Broncos and Eagles competitively in 2016. It's hard to imagine how the Broncos could sign Miller and tag Osweiler without losing every other free agent on the Super Bowl roster. For the Eagles, a Bradford tag would make a Cox extension tricky and probably make re-signing Cedric Thornton and Walter Thurmond impossible.
And, of course, the franchise tag just delays the problem. If Cousins and Co. shine during their tagged seasons, they will be in the market for superstar-quarterback deals in 2017. If they falter, well, their teams spent nearly $20 million on a wasted year.
So everyone is keeping their cards close to their vests and visors pulled low over their eyes right now. Next week brings agents, coaches and executives together in Indianapolis, with a hard tag deadline looming the following Tuesday and free agency starting the week after that. Look for the bluffing to stop and the bets to start getting called soon.
But not too soon. In this poker game, there's a good reason no one wants to show their hand until the last possible minute.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.