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Kirk Cousins is a little more than a month away from showing us what can happen when a healthy, top-level starting quarterback in his prime hits the free-agent market. This will be unprecedented. In the era of the franchise tag, only two top-level quarterbacks have become unrestricted free agents — Peyton Manning in 2012 and Drew Brees in 2006 — and each was coming off a major injury at the time.

Cousins is 29 years old, healthy and coming off his third straight 4,000-yard passing season at a time of rapid salary-cap growth. As of March 12, when agents of prospective free agents are free to talk with other teams, Cousins will be in a position to set a new standard at the top of the NFL salary structure — not long after Jimmy Garoppolo agreed to terms on a five-year deal of his own in San Francisco.

Now, because I know some of you will ask: No, I do not think there is any chance Washington franchises Cousins for the third year in a row. It’s certainly true that it has considered the idea of franchising him and trying to trade him, in an effort to avoid losing him and getting nothing in return. And at this stage of the process, that’s the right position for them to be taking outwardly, just in case some team wants to offer them something crazy. But I, and the sources I’ve spoken to on this matter, consider a third Cousins franchise tag (which would cost Washington about $34.5 million) a totally unrealistic outcome.

Why? Well, any team willing to trade anything of significance for Cousins would want to know that they can sign him long term, and for how much. Washington is likely to end up with a third-round compensatory pick if it lets Cousins walk, which means a team probably would need to offer a second-rounder or more in order to get him, and why would a team do that if all it is guaranteed is one year at $34.5 million?

If Washington franchises Cousins, he’ll surely rush to sign the tender and put the team in an impossible bind. That $34.5 million would immediately hit Washington’s 2018 salary cap along with about $24 million in cap cost for Alex Smith, likely requiring undesirable roster cuts elsewhere and making it basically impossible for the team to do anything else in terms of player acquisition until they traded Cousins.

In theory, Cousins could make it easy on Washington by negotiating with potential trade partners on a long-term deal before a trade is finalized, but there’s no reason to believe Cousins is or will be interested in doing his current team any favors. If Washington did decide to franchise Cousins, the more likely reason would be that it got cold feet on the Smith deal and decided to back out before it became official. As of Tuesday night, we can call this “Pulling a McDaniels.” Not saying this will happen, but if Tuesday taught us nothing else, it’s that nothing is final until it’s final.

What Cousins wants — and believes he deserves — is a chance to hit the market unfettered, with a menu of potential new destinations from which to choose. It appears certain he will get that, and when he does, his deal could average $30 million or more per season with upward of $90 million in guarantees. The questions then will become how many teams will bid that high and how much he likes the idea of playing for those teams.

The Minnesota Vikings, who are coming off a 13-3 season and with all three quarterbacks on their roster eligible for free agency, should be at the top of Cousins’ wish list. They have the cap space to make it happen. They have an elite defense, top-level wide receivers, a strong running game and an offensive line that — while it might need some maintenance work in the coming years — did an awfully good job of keeping Case Keenum clean in 2017. The question with the Vikings is how committed they are to developing Teddy Bridgewater as their long-term solution and rewarding Keenum for what he did in 2017. If they bring one or both of those guys back, that probably rules out Cousins. But if they see themselves a Cousins away from the Super Bowl, maybe they change the plan and go for it.

The New York Jets also have the cap room and the need. Their roster needs more work than Minnesota’s does, but the receiving corps showed promise this season, the coach just got extended, and Cousins has spoken highly of new offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates. Perhaps he’d enjoy a shot to make a big splash in the Big Apple. The Buffalo Bills are coming off a 9-7 season and have a No. 1 receiver in Kelvin Benjamin and an elite running back in LeSean McCoy. If Cousins likes what Sean McDermott is putting together in Buffalo, the Bills become an interesting option that might not be too far from title contention. The Jacksonville Jaguars would be interesting if they found a way to move on from Blake Bortles, but his $19 million contract option could end up being guaranteed if Bortles, who just had wrist surgery, can’t pass a physical by early March.

The Cleveland Browns will have all kinds of money to spend, but that situation comes with a ton of uncertainty. How long will Hue Jackson be the coach? Would Cousins expect to click immediately with offensive coordinator Todd Haley? How close, really, is a team that is 1-31 over the past two years to contention?

There’s long-range coaching staff uncertainty, too, with the Denver Broncos, who also have to move a bunch of money around to clear room for a Cousins pursuit. And while the Arizona Cardinals have a need and sound like a nicer place to live than some of these other options, the Cardinals feel like a start-from-scratch situation in the wake of Bruce Arians’ and Carson Palmer‘s retirements (and possibly Larry Fitzgerald‘s, too).

The upshot: Cousins is likely to find a historic contract on the open market, but it won’t necessarily be easy for him to get there. Each potential landing spot has hurdles in front of it that he and/or his new team will have to clear. We’re not likely to know the exact parameters of the Cousins market until after the combine, when the free-agency picture starts coming into focus. But when the smoke clears, expect Cousins to be at the top of the most interesting quarterback offseason in memory.

A quick look at some of the other names — and potential names — on that market:


2018 status: Unrestricted free agent

Brees would obviously be the top quarterback on the market if he hadn’t been so vocal about his desire not to go anywhere. The final three years of the extension Brees signed two summers ago void on March 14, which would make him a free agent. Expect the 39-year-old and the Saints to work out something — even if it’s converting one or two of the void years into real years just to keep him in New Orleans and avoid an onerous 2018 cap situation.

2018 status: Unrestricted free agent

As mentioned above, it’s possible Minnesota wants Keenum back after the year he just had. It’s also possible (and would make sense) that Keenum wants to parlay his big 2017 season into as big a contract as he can get, since he might never have a year like that again. If it’s the latter, expect any jilted Cousins suitors to be in the mix.

2018 status: Unrestricted free agent

Assuming his contract doesn’t “toll” for injury reasons, Bridgewater would hit the unrestricted market. If they don’t pursue Cousins, expect the Vikings to bring him back on a reasonable deal.

2018 status: Unrestricted free agent

The veteran wants to keep playing, but the condition of his knee will severely limit his market value.

2018 status: Unrestricted free agent

Makes a lot of sense as a bridge quarterback for a team developing a draft pick (Browns?).

2018 status: Unrestricted free agent

A grievance hearing this month will determine whether McCarron is an unrestricted or a restricted free agent, and that obviously will affect his market value and mobility. Don’t rule out Cleveland, where head coach Hue Jackson is a former Bengals offensive coordinator.

2018 status: Potential cap casualty

Almost certain to be cut by Buffalo, Taylor could appeal to a team looking for an experienced option or a bridge guy while they ready a rookie.

2018 status: Possible trade candidate

The unlikely Super Bowl MVP is signed through 2018 for $7 million in salary and bonuses, of which $3 million is guaranteed. As long as they’re uncertain about starter Carson Wentz’s timetable for recovery from his ACL injury, it makes sense for the Eagles to hold onto their decorated backup. But if someone comes offering a second- or third-round pick — neither of which the Eagles have in 2018 at the moment — it could prove tempting to sell high on Foles and invest in a different backup option.

2018 status: Possible trade candidate

As mentioned above, it’s possible Bortles’ wrist surgery could trigger his $19 million injury guarantee and tie Jacksonville’s hands. But if they can find a way to knock that 2018 number down, they could end up trading Bortles, releasing him or keeping Bortles and bringing in some competition for him.

2018 status: Unrestricted free agent

Sources close to the situation say the Dolphins are all-in on Ryan Tannehill. Expect Cutler to see if that broadcasting job is still available. But if Tannehill gets hurt again or if someone else comes with another $10 million — who knows?

2018 status: Potential cap casualty

A candidate for a cap cut ($1.9 million savings), Siemian opened the season as the Broncos’ starter the past two years and has shown flashes. Could have some appeal on a market where everyone is always looking for quarterbacks.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included Jimmy Garoppolo, before he and the 49ers agreed to terms on a five-year deal Thursday.

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Lions releasing running back Kerryon Johnson, per reports

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The Detroit Lions are releasing running back Kerryon Johnson, according to multiple reports.

Detroit drafted the former Auburn standout in the second round in 2018. Johnson became expendable after the team drafted D’Andre Swift No. 35 overall in 2020, signed free agent running back Jamaal Williams in March and drafted Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson last week.

Johnson ran for 1,225 yards and eight touchdowns over three seasons. He also has 61 career receptions for 527 yards and three scores.

Last year, he had 181 yards rushing and two scores on 52 carries. and had 19 receptions for 187 yards receiving and a touchdown.

NFL Network first reported that Johnson would be waived.

The Lions also added a player in free agency, signing tight end Darren Fells on Wednesday. The move gives the team a veteran at the position it can put on the field with Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson.

The 35-year-old Fells has 123 career catches with 1,483 yards receiving and 21 touchdowns. The previous two years in Houston, he had a combined 55 catches for 653 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Fells has started 76 games — including 13 with the Lions in 2017 — and played in 102 games with Arizona, Detroit, Cleveland and the Texans. He was a rebounding standout at UC Irvine and played basketball in Argentina, Mexico, Belgium, Finland and France before playing in the NFL.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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QB Blaine Gabbert re-signing with Tampa Bay Buccaneers on 1-year, $2.5 million deal, source says

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TAMPA, Fla. — Once again, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians has kept his word.

Days after saying the Bucs would work to re-sign Tom Brady’s top backup, quarterback Blaine Gabbert, the team is indeed re-signing Gabbert to a one-year deal worth $2.5 million, a source told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler.

Gabbert, who has played in 60 career games with 48 starts, previously earned $1.187 million in 2020 and $1.6 million in 2019.

Last season, Gabbert, 31, completed 9 of 16 passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions, with all but one of those pass attempts coming in the second half against the Detroit Lions in Week 16, when Arians opted to rest Brady.

The Bucs selected quarterback Kyle Trask in the second round of the NFL draft last week, but Arians said that would not preclude them from re-signing Gabbert. The team also re-signed Ryan Griffin, who was last year’s third-string backup, earlier this offseason.

Gabbert enters his third season with the Bucs, after spending 2018 with the Tennessee Titans, 2017 with Arians and the Arizona Cardinals, 2014-16 with the San Francisco 49ers and 2011-13 with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Gabbert has had an eventful offseason. In addition to attending the Kentucky Derby with Brady and Griffin on Saturday, he married longtime sweetheart Bekah Mills in Paradise Valley, Arizona, in March.

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NFL sends memo reminding clubs the league will not pay players who suffer injuries away from facilities

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The NFL reminded teams Wednesday that they are not obligated to pay players who suffer an injury away from the team facility, an issue that moved this week to the center of an ongoing dispute between the NFL and NFL Players Association over in-person participation in offseason workouts.

The memo, obtained by ESPN, was prompted by several prominent players who were surprised by media reports about Denver Broncos offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James, who tore an Achilles tendon this week while working out on his own and could miss the 2021 season. NFL contracts have long classified such injuries as “non-football,” because they happen away from the team environment, and they are not covered by typical injury guarantees. As a result, the Broncos could withhold James’ salary for as long as he is sidelined. More than $10 million would have been guaranteed if the injury had occurred at the Broncos’ facility.

The NFL has noted this contractual leverage multiple times during negotiations with the NFLPA, which has advised players to skip the voluntary portion of in-person offseason training unless they stand to lose workout bonuses.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was among those who seemed unaware of the full implications of “non-football’ injuries in comments this week on social media.

“According to the media coverage,” the NFL wrote in its memo, “several players have expressed surprise that Mr. James’ injury was not covered by his Injury Guarantee, although this point has been made frequently in our discussions with the NFLPA about the offseason program. Clubs are encouraged to remind players of the significant injury-related protection provided if they choose to work out at the club facility and the risks they undertake in choosing to train in non-NFL locations.”



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