Kirk Cousins, QBs dominated free agency before it even began

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It tells you something about the state of NFL team-building that on the first official day of free agency, some teams' top decision makers were in Oklahoma for the pro day of soon-to-be first-round pick Baker Mayfield.

It's already on to the next thing in the NFL, with the free-agent quarterbacks -- read: Kirk Cousins and everybody else -- quickly sorted out well before free agency officially opened, and the search for the next great one moving to the draft. Cousins, as expected, was the big winner of free agency in large part because he met the Washington Redskins' ambivalence with his own. They were never sold on him as their long-term answer, and he, as a result, was not sold on them. That absence of sentiment served Cousins well. He left to break the bank with a precedent-setting fully guaranteed contract, and with the chance to do this all over again in just a few years, when he is still in his early 30s and there are even more millions available. Let that be a lesson to anybody -- player, coach, even fan -- who still views football through team-color-tinged glasses. Cousins was eminently likeable throughout his awkward and forced mating dance with the Redskins. Even more likable is his business acumen.

Cousins, though, was the rare high-level quarterback to be available as a free agent while in the prime of his career, which is why those hoping that guaranteed contracts will now become as routine in the NFL as they are in the NBA and Major League Baseball should probably keep their expectations in check. It will take the same extreme confluence of talent, market demand, leverage -- and the willingness to exercise it -- for others to become trend-setters, too. It would be conceivable for a player like Aaron Rodgers. Less so for most others.

More typical will probably be what we saw from the rest of the quarterbacks in this group. Thanks to the Vikings letting all three of theirs go as they waited to secure Cousins, the market was flooded with viable options. The best of them went to ... Washington. That was the benefit of the Super Bowl-week agreement to trade for Alex Smith. The Redskins jumped ahead of the rest of the league to secure a quarterback coming off a career-best season with years of success to back up the expectations. Everybody else was left to scramble for damaged -- or at least questionable -- goods. The Redskins fumbled their handling of Cousins -- they paid about $44 million for the last two years of service and lost Cousins with no return -- but while that mess was of their own making, they at least made the best of a bad situation in getting Smith. Need proof? Look at what everybody else had to settle for.

The Broncos signed Case Keenum after their brief flirtation with Cousins fell through. But John Elway was among those at Oklahoma, and his praise for Mayfield at the NFL Scouting Combine suggested that the Broncos -- who hold the fifth overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft -- may not be done. (Indeed, shortly after the free agency period began, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported that the Broncos and Vikings, of all teams, were finalizing a trade to send QB Trevor Siemian to Minnesota.)

This year's draft class of quarterbacks loomed over free agency. The Browns traded for Tyrod Taylor, as the presumed bridge to a rookie they will draft with one of their first-round picks. The Jets added two quarterbacks, with both Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater getting one-year deals, the clearest possible signal that GM Mike Maccagnan (also seen at Oklahoma) will take one in the draft. The Arizona Cardinals added two quarterbacks -- trend alert! -- in Sam Bradford ($20 million for one year) and Mike Glennon, but nobody who has witnessed either of them, particularly Bradford's brittleness, can expect them to be long-term solutions for a rebuilding team. And most intriguing of all, the Buffalo Bills still don't have a starting quarterback, after moving Taylor and maneuvering to put themselves in position to push further up in the first round for a quarterback.

(UPDATE: The Bills announced Wednesday that they have agreed to a two-year deal with former Bengals backup quarterback AJ McCarron.)

In fact, the team that may have done the best work for a quarterback this side of Minnesota was one that did not sign one at all. The New York Giants added Nate Solder, the best left tackle on the open market, solving a problem that has plagued them for at least the last two years, and one that has underscored how close to the end Eli Manning is. The Giants have committed to Manning for this season and maybe more, but linked to that decision is a clear mandate to improve an offensive line that went curiously unmended last season. The Giants had hoped to land guard Andrew Norwell before he agreed to head to Jacksonville, but getting Solder is even better. The Giants appear to be in win-now mode, while Manning is still viable -- their trade of two 2018 draft picks for linebacker Alec Ogletree is another clue -- but if they are to be competitive, Manning has to be more comfortable in the pocket. Solder should go a long way to helping with that.

The Giants still have a momentous decision to make about how and when they will get Manning's successor. But Solder's signing provided a reminder after the flurry of quarterback shuffling finally subsided Wednesday afternoon. None of them can succeed without smaller-headline talent to help. Cousins, above all people, can attest to that. In choosing the Vikings, he finally got it, too.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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