8 min read

The Big Money Blues

There’s a reason fantasy football leagues got that name: they’re fantasy. Unless you are thoroughly deranged, you can participate in a league without significant consequence to the rest of your life. You look at your roster a couple of times a week, make whatever trades seem sensible, then you watch the games, realize that your system of avoiding quarterbacks named Tom needs work, write another check to the league, and move on with your life.

A good NFL general manager realizes the difference between his league and a fantasy league. In a fantasy league, the worst-case scenario is usually endless ridicule from the folks who finished above you in the rankings. In the NFL, treating your roster like a fantasy league team can cost you your job. Yet every offseason, general managers treat free agency like it was played under fantasy league rules. They believe they can fix their mistakes just by hitting the escape key.

Exhibit A in the free agent frenzy this season is Kirk Cousins. At some point in the next few weeks, Cousins will become the highest paid player in the NFL. Ever. Think about that. Then think about how many quarterbacks you would choose for your fantasy league team before you take Cousins. And then think about it again. Unlike your fantasy league, though, signing Cousins comes with real risk for an NFL team. Depending on how his contract is structured, Cousins will consume more than 15 percent of his new team’s cap space for the next five to seven years. With a hard cap, that means less money for the other 52 roster spots. Some teams, like the Vikings, think they can handle such a hit to their cap room because their core players are all on affordable contracts, but those contracts all end, and when those players come looking for more money it won’t be there.

A perfect example of how this works is the Seattle Seahawks. Seattle made two Super Bowls while Russell Wilson was on his rookie contract, and, because Wilson was underpaid, they could afford to make guys like Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett among the highest paid players at their positions. Then, when it was time for Wilson to get his big deal, they had to make tough decisions about who to keep. The Seahawks have skimped on their offensive line for several years, resulting in their biggest asset running for his life on every passing play. Now they don’t have enough cap space to keep their defensive core together, without having young players ready to step up.

At least Pete Carroll has a Lombardi trophy to snuggle with while he figures this out. Of course, whoever signs Cousins is gambling that they will get a similar payoff, in spite of dubious odds. Only eight active quarterbacks have started and won a Super Bowl. Four (Brady, Roethlisberger, Brees, and Rogers) are cinch Hall of Famers. Wilson probably will be if his career stays on its current trajectory. Eli Manning will get some votes, based more on his two titles than on his career stats. The other names on this list are Joe Flacco and Nick Foles. It’s too soon to know if Foles’ miraculous run was a Kurt Warner-like career renaissance or simply a hot streak, but Flacco’s run in 2012–13 certainly looks like an outlier.

The point of all that is that at any given point there are only a few quarterbacks who are capable of winning a Super Bowl. Some, like Rogers and Brady, can carry a lesser team beyond its potential, while others (Eli, perhaps) are good enough to not hold a capable team back. The rest can only win if a fluke happens. If your QB is making $5 million or his contract expires in a year or two, you can live with that. If he’s making $30 million and you’re on the hook for six or seven years, guessing wrong can cost you your job.

Can Cousins win a Super Bowl? He’s only played in one playoff game in his life, and he lost that. That reflects more on the Redskins’ dysfunction than on him, but it means that you don’t know how he will perform in a high-stakes environment. If you merely want to rely on his stats to project how he will do, he was sixth in the league in QBR in 2015 and 2016, but he slipped to 15th in 2017. If he goes to a team that already has its core in place, like the Vikings, he may put them over the hump. The window, though, would likely only be open for a year or two before other guys are due for big raises and the team will have to decide who they can afford to do without. If they keep drafting well, those choices get easier, but drafting well is tougher when you’re choosing at the back end of every round.

Denver and Arizona, two of Cousins’ other choices, have older rosters and less cap space, so they will have to cut some players just to sign him, and they will also have fewer ways to add talent in the short term. That makes for a shorter window of opportunity, although Denver at least will have some primo draft picks.

The Jets, the other option, may be the most interesting case. They have tons of cap space and high draft picks, so they can build a core around Cousins if they make good choices. But they’re the Jets, so any confidence in their ability to do that is based mostly on faith.

At least with Cousins, there’s a track record on which to make a judgment. Somebody will make a bet, albeit smaller, on A.J. McCarron based on 133 lifetime attempts. While McCarron has performed well in those attempts, we can assume a lot from the fact that he has been with Cincinnati four years and they have decided to base their future on Andy Dalton. McCarron may not come at a huge price, but there is still an opportunity cost. If the Browns, for example, sign him as is rumored, they will probably not draft a quarterback in the first round. Cleveland was apparently willing to trade a first and second round pick for him a few months ago, for what it’s worth. That means that for the next few years, at least, they will go as far as McCarron can take them. Would you rather have your future riding on the top overall pick or on a guy who couldn’t beat out Andy Dalton, especially when the draft pick will be cheaper?

These kinds of issues are dissimilar from the negotiations between the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell. Like Cousins, Bell is in the midst of negotiating an extension and is seeking a long-term deal. While the Steelers are saying all the right things about wanting Bell for the foreseeable future, they fully know that Bell is 26 years old and has had an enormous workload for the past couple of seasons. While having him play another season (or even two) under the franchise tag is expensive and breeds ill will, it is probably a better investment in the long run than, say, a five-year deal. If Bell were allowed to become a free agent right now, somebody would sign him to a five-year deal, probably for about $15 million per year. That might look like a smart move for a year or two, but the back end of that deal would be a cap-killing nightmare.

The Steelers have a long history of getting rid of players a year too soon rather than a year too late, which is part of the reason they have been able to make the playoffs four consecutive years while turning over their entire defense. Unless he defies the precedent of practically every running back who has come before him, at some point over the next five years Bell will get hurt or just lose a step. His 4.0 yards per carry and three carries over 20 yards indicate that this may already be happening. As good as it would feel to reward a guy likely to go down as the best running back in team history and have him retire as a Steeler, the downside of such a gesture is so great that the Steelers are better off just franchising him for a year or two, then see how things look when he’s 28.

Whether it is Kirk Cousins or Le’Veon Bell, tying up a large percentage of the salary cap over multiple years in the NFL usually doesn’t work. Cousins is more than likely going to wait out until he is offered a monster contract. But should teams actually offer that monster contract to Cousins? That’s the conundrum. He’s skilled enough to improve your franchise, yet there is going to be a defined ceiling of success with Cousins as your starter. Is he truly worth more than 15 percent of a team’s salary cap? We are going to find out the answer pretty soon.

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