BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – Elite is Tom Brady and then Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and Drew Brees. Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford, too, and on the way are Carson Wentz, Jared Goff and Deshaun Watson.
I look at Kirk Cousins and I don’t see elite.
Close your eyes and it’s Neil O’Donnell.
Okay, maybe he’s better than O’Donnell, who was a bust with the Jets after signing a five-year, $25 million free agent contract in 1996, but at least O’Donnell had just taken the Steelers to the Super Bowl.
It sure would be nice, if the Jets are going to pay Cousins $25 million-$30 million per year, if he at least had one playoff victory on his resume to bring to a team that hasn’t made the playoffs seven straight seasons.
The Eagles know all about Cousins from their twice-a-year battles with Washington in the NFC East. I solicited opinions of several Eagles Wednesday at the Super Bowl following Washington’s decision to trade for Kansas City’s Alex Smith, which means they won’t be franchising Cousins for a third consecutive season and he will become an unrestricted free agent.
“When you say elite, I’m thinking top five. Or top three,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said.
So, is Cousins elite?
“No,” Jenkins said. “But he’s in that top 10 category.”
Top 10 would be a jump up of about 20 spots from the Jets current quarterback situation: Free agent Josh McCown and the double disasters of Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg.
“His numbers and statistics don’t lie,” Jenkins said. “He’s been a great quarterback in that system. He’s made plays. I think he’s a talented quarterback. He’s got a talented arm. Smart at the line of scrimmage. Knows how to make adjustments. I think he will do well in the market.”
The Jets need to develop their own quarterback instead of paying somebody else’s. They thought they had hit it big with Mark Sanchez after he helped them advance to back-to-back AFC Championship Games in his first two seasons, but he regressed and was soon gone. Chad Pennington would have been a star if he didn’t keep busting up his shoulder. Perhaps Geno Smith would have developed if a teammate didn’t break his jaw with a locker room punch.
The Jets just haven’t been able to identify and develop quarterbacks they’ve drafted.
Over the years, the Jets have tried to cover up their QB drafting mistakes with veteran band-aids: Boomer Esiason, O’Donnell, Vinny Testaverde, Brett Favre, Michael Vick ... it’s been a vicious cycle. Cousins would fit right in. I think he’s good, probably very good, but he’s not great.
He will be 30 in August so he probably has at least five good years left. It is extremely rare when a quality QB in his prime hits the open market.
Cousins will be the most debated player until the free agency signing period opens on March 14 after the two-day legal tampering period.
“He’s been a starting quarterback for a couple of years now so you got to put him as an elite player,” Eagles DT Fletcher Cox said. “I think Kirk is a great quarterback.”
The Eagles had lost four in a row to Cousins until beating him twice in the 2017 season. In the season opener, Philly had a 22-17 lead and Cousins started a drive with under two minutes remaining from his own 25. After Cousins completed a seven-yard pass to tight end Jordan Reed, he was strip-sacked by defensive end Brandon Graham with Cox picking up the fumble and clinching the game by running 20 yards for a touchdown.
In the second meeting in the seventh week, Washington trailed 31-17 when Cousins had a pass tipped at the line and intercepted by Corey Graham, setting up an Eagles field goal to put the game away. In the two games, Cousins had four TDs, 2 INTs and was sacked eight times.
“I think Cousins is really good,” Brandon Graham said. “He’s a guy who can get the ball out fast. He can make every throw. He’s real quick making decisions. He’s right there to where I wouldn’t say elite just yet. He’s working towards it for sure. I just feel like when he had DeSean Jackson and those guys, he was elite. It’s just different when you don’t have the same guys around.”
The Jets will face competition if they want to sign Cousins, likely from the Broncos, Jaguars, Browns, Bills and Cardinals.
The issue: Is Cousins going to be worth it?
Washington just gave up a third-round pick and starting cornerback Kendall Fuller for Smith, who has played 13 seasons and is 33 years old. Washington signed Smith to a four-year, $94 million extension that includes $71 million guaranteed.
That’s the kind of deal Washington never gave Cousins. That tells you something.
The Jets have the sixth pick on April in a great QB draft. Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen are expected to go 1-2 in some order to the Browns and Giants with John Allen and Baker Mayfield winding up with the Broncos (No. 5) and Jets (No. 6) with trade ups a possibility.
Should the Jets go all-in trying to sign Cousins or should GM Mike Maccagnan give it his best shot to maneuver to get the quarterback he most wants out of the top four? Maccagnan cleared the decks of big contracts last year and put an emphasis on developing young players. Drafting a quarterback at the top of the first round QB would fit right into that philosophy.
But that requires Maccagnan to get the Jets right rookie. He whiffed on Petty, but he was just a fourth-round pick. His miss on Hackenberg, a second-round pick, is much more egregious and damaging.
Rather than taking the risk on another high draft pick, Maccagnan may want to spend all the money he saved last year and pay Cousins. Maccagnan is the GM because he was considered a draft whiz. He’s done an excellent job so far – except at quarterback.
Cousins may be another band-aid or maybe he becomes elite. It will cost the Jets a lot of money to find out.