This year’s draft could begin with three quarterbacks, and the teams currently holding the top choices have been steadily linked to taking a first-round passer. Teams in need of signal-callers who do not carry friendly draft real estate will, of course, be monitoring the buzz circulating around the Bears, Commanders and Patriots’ draft blueprints.
Two clubs who appear to be among those watching top QB prospects look to be those positioned just outside the top 10. Holding the Nos. 11 and 12 overall picks, the Vikings and Broncos are believed to be interested in drafting a quarterback high. While it will take considerable draft capital to climb into the top three, neither of these two are in good shape at the position. Minnesota, however, may still have the inside track on Kirk Cousins, who has expressed his fondness for his Twin Cities situation on a number of occasions.
Some around the league are keeping an eye on the Vikings’ interest in moving up for a passer, ESPN.com’s Jeremy Fowler offers, noting the team did extensive work on the QB front last year. The Vikes were the team most closely tied to showing Trey Lance interest — before the Cowboys completed a trade for the former 49ers No. 3 overall pick — and they did not come to an agreement on another extension with Cousins.
Guaranteed money into the deal’s third year provided a sticking point, and the Vikings merely restructured Cousins’ contract. The latter transaction has put Minnesota in a time crunch, and the team could face the prospect of losing its starting QB — who has mentioned testing free agency — and being hit with a $28.5MM dead-money bill brought on by void years. If the Vikings do not re-sign Cousins by the start of the 2024 league year (March 13), that $28.5MM accelerates onto their 2024 cap sheet. Not quite the Tom Brady void years-driven cap charge the Buccaneers just faced ($35.1MM), but that is a high dead-cap number devoted to one player.
Cousins, 35, will undoubtedly factor in a potential Vikings desire to trade up for a quarterback into his latest free agency decision. Cousins is the longest-tenured Vikings QB1 since Tommy Kramer, narrowly edging Daunte Culpepper as the third-longest-tenured QB1 in team history. Like Culpepper in 2005, Cousins is coming off a major injury. The Vikings and other teams will be factoring Cousins’ Achilles tear into prospective offers.
The Broncos are almost definitely moving on from Russell Wilson, preparing to enter dead-money infamy in the process. The forthcoming dead-cap hit will cost the Broncos $84.6MM, which will be spread over two offseasons due to the expected post-June 1 designation. This stands to limit the Broncos’ interest in pursuing a pricey veteran — should any starter-caliber arms be available by the time the legal tampering period begins March 11 — and would naturally make Sean Payton‘s team more interested in a draft investment. The Wilson-fronted five-game win streak midway through this season, however, moved the Broncos down to the No. 12 slot. That will complicate a move into high-end QB real estate.
A rumor at the East-West Shrine Game involved Payton being interested in the Broncos moving up to draft Caleb Williams, Drake Maye or Jayden Daniels, Sportskeeda’s Tony Pauline writes. Of course, the cost of doing business here would be steep — and the team would need a willing seller. The prospect of Denver trading up may already be drowning in cold water, too, with Pauline adding the team should not be considered likely to move in this direction because of the draft capital — and/or established players — that would need to be included.
The Broncos gave up their first-round picks in 2022 and ’23 in the Wilson trade, and while they obtained a 2023 first-rounder from the Dolphins in the Bradley Chubb swap, it was subsequently thrown in to acquire Payton’s rights last year. This stands to be the Broncos’ first chance to use a Round 1 pick since they nabbed Patrick Surtain ninth overall in 2021. Surtain has become one of the NFL’s top young corners, and GM George Paton — who is still with the team despite being the point man behind the Wilson and Nathaniel Hackett calls — said Surtain is viewed as a cornerstone piece. Denver’s actions at last year’s trade deadline, which featured at least two first-rounders to even warrant a Surtain discussion, back that up. Pauline adds the Broncos do not want to part with Surtain and would only do so as a last resort in an effort to trade up for a QB.
Wilson’s 2023 rebound notwithstanding, the Broncos have obviously struggled to fill this spot since Peyton Manning‘s 2016 retirement. They were in the Cousins mix in 2018 but bowed out — as the Vikings emerged in pole position — en route to Case Keenum. The Broncos would seemingly have another shot at Cousins now, though QB demand would still make the veteran starter costly — even after the Achilles tear. As of early February, the Vikings are projected to hold more than $24MM in cap space; the Broncos are nearly $24MM over the projected salary ceiling.
Most around the NFL view the Broncos reconciling with Wilson as unlikely, Fowler adds. If Wilson were to remain on Denver’s roster past the fifth day of the 2024 league year, his 2025 base salary ($37MM) locks in. That would balloon Denver’s 2025 dead money for a Wilson release past $85MM. Hence, the team’s controversial maneuvering in an attempt to move the date on which Wilson’s injury guarantee vests.
Although Wilson was fond of Payton prior to the parties’ partnership, Fowler adds Payton let it be known behind the scenes he was not big on the ex-Seahawks star. Wilson’s penchant for creating plays out of structure ran counter to how Payton prefers his offense to run, being part of the reason — along with the injury guarantee — the Broncos benched him for Jarrett Stidham in Week 17. Fowler mentions Minnesota as a destination Wilson would likely pursue, given Kevin O’Connell‘s presence, in the event Cousins leaves after six years. O’Connell worked alongside ex-Seahawks OC Shane Waldron under Sean McVay. The Vikings also roster Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison and T.J. Hockenson.
If/once Wilson departs Denver, his next team will not need to pay him nearly what the Broncos and Seahawks have. Wilson’s 2023 rebound still probably places him as a mid-tier starter, but Fowler adds his next team could build around him more effectively due to the offset language in the Broncos’ five-year, $245MM extension. Wilson signing at a low rate would be punitive for the Broncos, as their two-year starter’s next deal helps determine how much dead money will be on tap.
Cousins and Wilson join Baker Mayfield and Ryan Tannehill as experienced starter options set to hit the market. But Denver and Minnesota will need to weigh their chances of trading up in Round 1 against spending on a veteran. There will be plenty of moving parts at QB for certain teams this offseason, with the Bears’ upcoming Williams-or-Justin Fields decision a rather important domino as well.