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Path to the Passer: How much is Kirk Cousins worth, and should the Bills pay it?

This is the next in a series of in-depth features on potential quarterbacks for the Bills.

The situation is practically unheard of.

A potential franchise quarterback, in the prime of his career, will be available to every NFL team, with the only cost associated being money. Granted, we’re talking a whole bunch of money, but that’s likely all it will take to land Kirk Cousins.

When the Washington Redskins swung a trade with Kansas City last month for quarterback Alex Smith, it closed the door on Cousins returning for a seventh season. While there is an outside chance the Redskins use the franchise tag on Cousins in an effort to get something back for him in a trade (it’s a complicated situation, but the bottom line is, don’t count on it happening), the expectation is that he’ll hit the open market in March – and we’ll learn exactly how much a franchise passer is worth.

The numbers promise to be staggering. The San Francisco 49ers signed Jimmy Garoppolo to a five-year contract worth up to $137.5 million on Thursday. That deal, which includes $74 million in guarantees and averages an NFL-high $27.5 million per season, was given to a player who has made seven career starts. That might be the starting point of negotiations for Cousins, who at 29 years old has passed for more than 4,000 yards in each of the past three seasons.

With the number of teams in need of a starting quarterback, and the vast amount of space under the salary cap available to most of them, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Cousins land $30 million annually and potentially $90 million in contract guarantees.

“It's insane, but it's the price of doing business in today's NFL,” said former MVP quarterback Rich Gannon, an analyst for CBS Sports. “You may say, ‘It's too much, I'm not going to pay it.’ Well fine, then don't pay it. But who are you going to roll out there in Week 1 in September? That's the question.”

It’s one the Buffalo Bills don’t have an answer for at the moment. Assuming the team cuts Tyrod Taylor, they will fall into that group of teams needing a starter.

“Whatever they decide, they've got to find a long-term answer,” Gannon said. “Denver is in the same boat. The Jets are in the same boat. Cleveland is in the same boat. There are a lot of teams out there looking.”

All of those teams are picking earlier in the draft than the Bills, who have the No. 21 and No. 22 picks in the first round. That is a factor the team has to consider, according to NFL Network analyst and former Redskins GM Charley Casserly.

“Free agency would be the best option, because where you're picking in the draft, I think it will be hard for them to get a quarterback there,” he said of the Bills. “The top four will all be gone, and I don't know that they'll be able to trade up to get one. Last year, we saw two big trades where teams came from down low to get one, but I don't know if that situation will exist this year with the number of teams needing quarterbacks up high.”

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Cousins is more of a proven commodity than any rookie and his asking price reflects that.

“He's going to get paid a lot of money, because it's supply and demand,” Gannon said. “If you're a playoff team like the Bills, are you going to hand your team over to a rookie and say, ‘let's see how we do with this guy,' or are you trying to figure out a way to keep it going? If you get a guy like Kirk Cousins, who you think can help you do some damage in the postseason, then maybe that’s the route they’ll take.”

Barring other moves, the Bills would have about $40 million in space under the salary cap if they released Taylor, so they could afford a deal for Cousins, but it would eat up a significant chunk of their spending money and limit what else the team could do in free agency.

Any decision on Taylor would likely be made before the March 14 start of free agency because he is owed a $6 million roster bonus on March 16.

At his season-ending news conference, General Manager Brandon Beane was asked specifically if there was a cap on what the Bills would spend for a quarterback.

“At the end of the day, we’ll spend what we need to spend. The key is to … spend wisely,” Beane said. “Certain guys, you’ve got to pay up here. Certain guys, you’ve got to pay down here. Whether it’s the quarterback, running back, defensive end, whatever position you name, you just have that limit. What you’ve got to be able to do is set where you think this guy belongs and not get caught in chase mode, which can happen. I’ve been a part of that.”

Kirk Cousins expects to be free agent come March

Would spending huge money on Cousins be wise? That’s what Beane has to figure out.

The numbers are no doubt gaudy. Since taking over as the full-time starter in 2015, Cousins has thrown for 13,716 yards, 81 touchdowns and 36 interceptions. He’s accurate, having completed at least 64 percent of his passes the last three years, and can make some plays with his legs, although running isn’t a huge part of his game.

“He's got some toughness. He's got some confidence and swagger that you like at the position,” Gannon said. “He's a smart guy. Can handle the volume. He can get you in and out of bad plays. I like him personally. I think there's some good qualities and characteristics there, but at the end of the day, look at his won-loss record.”

That is 24-23-1 over the last three years, and 26-30-1 overall.

“It's not like he's been a perennial Pro Bowl player at that position. He's not without his faults,” Gannon said. “He's not going to overwhelm you with his arm talent. He's not Aaron Rodgers or some of these guys in terms of their ability to push the ball down the field. He's a functional guy. He's got experience, and somebody is going to step up to the plate and pay him.”

Former Redskins General Manager Scott McCloughan made headlines last month when he told a Denver radio station “I don’t see special” when evaluating Cousins.

“But also, we were still building a roster around him to make him special,” McCloughan said on 104.3 The Fan’s Cecil & Pritchard show. “From the standpoint of the tangibles, they’re excellent. You just need to have some talent around him because you don’t want him to be throwing the ball 35 to 40 times to win the game. You want to have a running game, have a good defense, good (special) teams, and then let him do what he does.”

That sounds suspiciously like the quarterback the Bills have started the last three seasons.

“You look around the league and you have the 'haves and the have nots,' ” Gannon said. “You've got the teams that think they have one, or hope they have one, or are looking for one, and that's not a good position to be in.”

That’s why Cousins is about to strike it rich. During Super Bowl week, he spoke to Sirius XM NFL Radio about what he’s looking for in a new team.

“I think it’s a pretty short checklist. At the end of the day, I want to win,” he said. “That’s the plan. There are a lot of variables that decide, ‘do we think we can win?’ But that will ultimately (be) what makes the decision.”

Casserly thinks that gives the Bills a chance, if they’re interested.

“I think Buffalo is an underrated team,” he said. “My gut is he won't go there, but I don't know that. If he's talking about a winner, well Buffalo went to the playoffs last year, and if they had Cousins, they would have won more games – probably would have won a playoff game with him. So that's going to have to be their selling point to him. Here's where we are, we've got these draft choices, we sign you, we can bolster the offense.”

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