With Smith out of the picture, Cousins will be the lone established franchise-altering talent available this offseason. In fact, the only quarterback ever to draw the franchise tag in back-to-back seasons figures to land the biggest contract in NFL history after inspiring the most fiercely contested free-agent sweepstakes since Peyton Manning's grand tour with the 49ers, Titans, Cardinals, Dolphins and Broncos in 2012.
As luck would have it, two of those very same organizations top the list of suitors this time around. Let's examine the most likely landing spots for Cousins this offseason:
1. Denver Broncos: After pocketing more than $40 million via the franchise tag, Cousins can afford to prioritize stability and roster strength over maximum dollar value. The Broncos have been one of the most respected and reliable organizations under the determined direction of John Elway, who is resolved to fixing his quarterback quandary this offseason. The veterans on Denver's championship-caliber defense are avowed Cousins fans, as is head coach Vance Joseph. If lightning strikes twice -- allowing Elway to land his white whale for the second time in six years -- the Broncos would immediately set their sights on regaining AFC West supremacy.
2. New York Jets: Never underestimate connections when it comes to NFL signings. Cousins emerged from Robert Griffin III's shadow under the guidance of former Redskins play designers Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, not only two of the best offensive minds in the game but also proud graduates of the Mike Shanahan boot-action offense. You know who else learned at the knee of Shanahan? The Jets' recently promoted offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates, who is firmly on Cousins' radar.
"(Shanahan and McVay) are great football minds and I've been very fortunate to have one good coach after the other," Cousins told New York's WFAN on Tuesday. "Jeremy Bates does come from that coaching tree, if you will." Cousins went on to compliment the Jets on a "smart hire" by replacing John Morton with Bates. Flush with nearly $100 million in salary-cap space, general manager Mike Maccagnan is poised to give Elway a run for his money.
3. Arizona Cardinals: Yet another franchise in the market for a veteran signal-caller? Cousins' agent must look like the cat that ate the canary. Carson Palmer's retirement leaves the Cardinals without a single quarterback under contract. New coach Steve Wilks emphasized to Arizona's brass that he wasn't prepared to take over a rebuilding effort in the desert. "We're going to have a very active and aggressive plan for free agency," Wilkes vowed, establishing Arizona's quarterback strategy.
4. Cleveland Browns: Could Cleveland pull an end-around on the three aforementioned teams and attempt to pry Cousins away from Washington via trade before the onset of free agency? New general manager John Dorsey reportedly struck out in his attempt to reach a deal with his former franchise for Smith's services. Thanks to Sashi Brown's almost unprecedented stockpile of draft picks, Dorsey has the arsenal to tempt the Redskins into a trade. That hypothetical swap would be dependent upon Cousins' willingness to sign long term in Cleveland before testing the market, a dubious proposition.
5. Buffalo Bills: The Browns aren't the only outfit with draft picks to burn and a long-standing need under center. The Bills have two picks apiece in the first two rounds, plenty of ammo to join the Cousins hunt should they opt to pursue an upgrade on Tyrod Taylor. Considering Taylor has been benched for less than stellar backups in each of the past two seasons, nobody should be surprised to see Buffalo enter the Cousins derby.
6. Minnesota Vikings: Much like the situation in Arizona, the quarterback cupboard is bare with Case Keenum, Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater all set to reach free agency. While it seems likely that at least one of those incumbents will return to hold down the fort, it's conceivable that the Vikings will kick Cousins' tires as proper due diligence. Would Cousins be comfortable signing on with an unknown entity at offensive coordinator after Pat Shurmur left for the Giants job?
7. Jacksonville Jaguars: This outlook seemed much more realistic a few weeks ago, before Blake Bortles led an upset victory over Pittsburgh and nearly knocked off New England in the AFC Championship Game. Even if the Jaguars' brain trust still harbored doubts after watching the coaching staff coddle the beleaguered quarterback with ultra-safe game plans, their options are limited following news of Bortles' recent wrist surgery. The fifth-year option on Bortles' rookie contract is guaranteed at $19 million for injury only, which means he will collect if he can't pass a physical in March. Should that scenario play out, it's hard to imagine Jacksonville's commitment to change will compete with the likes of those listed above.