$100 million gamble on Kirk Cousins announces the Falcons are done being patient


The Atlanta Falcons and the Minnesota Vikings traded places Monday. That’s essentially what happened when the Falcons outbid the Vikings for the services of veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Over the last two seasons, Minnesota won 24 regular-season games but none in the playoffs while paying Cousins $51.6 million. In the same span, Atlanta won 14 regular-season games and appeared in no playoff games while paying the trio of Marcus Mariota, Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke a combined $8.75 million.

Both teams decided this free-agency period that those paths were unsustainable. The Falcons’ response was to agree to a contract that will pay at least $100 million to a 35-year-old quarterback who is coming off a torn Achilles tendon, a league source told The Athletic. The Vikings’ response was to not do that.

Minnesota head coach Kevin O’Connell said last month at the NFL combine that he was confident a deal was going to get done with Cousins, but, on Monday, Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah released a statement that read in part: “After significant and positive dialogue with Kirk and his representatives, we were unable to reach agreement on a contract that fits the short- and long-term visions for both Kirk and the Minnesota Vikings.”

The Falcons appear to be done with long-term goals. It seems 81-year-old owner Arthur Blank has been patient long enough.

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After three straight 7-10 seasons, including the last two led by quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder, owner Arthur Blank and the Falcons decided to make a big splash at the position. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

There is a belief around the league that Atlanta is overpaying for Cousins. Remember, no deals can become official until Wednesday at 4 p.m. when the new league year begins. But the Falcons can point to how far prudence has gotten them lately. Hint: It’s not the playoffs.

Cousins is getting a four-year deal that could be worth up to $180 million from the Falcons. He will pocket $90 million of that in the first two seasons, and $100 million of it is guaranteed. After the first two seasons, Atlanta would have some flexibility to move on from the deal if time does in fact take a toll on Cousins’ body sooner than they hope.

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The Falcons entered free agency with $37.3 million in salary-cap space, and the Cousins deal will eat up most of that. The only other move the Falcons made Monday was to agree to terms with San Francisco 49ers reserve tight end Charlie Woerner, a blocking and special teams specialist, on a three-year, $12 million deal that will bring Woerner back to his home state.

The Vikings used the money they would have spent on Cousins to bolster their defense by making deals with edge rushers Jonathan Greenard and Andrew Van Ginkel and linebacker Blake Cashman. That’s the same type of investment the Falcons tried last year when they went into the season with Ridder, a second-year pro, as the starting quarterback and spent big on defensive additions Jessie Bates, David Onyemata, Kaden Elliss and Calais Campbell.

That got Atlanta the No. 26 scoring offense in the league (18.88 ppg.) and a 7-10 record for the third straight season. If Falcons fans read Adofo-Mensah’s statement on Monday, they probably chuckled when they got to this part: “We are moving forward with plans that allow us to continue building a roster that can compete for a championship.”

“Yeah, we tried that. Good luck to you,” they could be forgiven for thinking.

Outside of concerns about age and cost, Cousins makes good sense for the Falcons. In six seasons in Minnesota, he was third in the NFL in passing touchdowns (171), sixth in passer rating (101.2), 11th in expected points added per attempt (.20), 13th in passing yards per game (264.4) and 17th in yards per attempt (7.6), according to TruMedia.

Last October, he was leading the NFL in passing yards per game (291.38) before his season ended after eight games because of the Achilles injury, and he’ll be playing in the same offensive system in Atlanta that he was in the last two seasons in Minnesota.

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O’Connell and new Falcons offensive coordinator Zac Robinson both worked under Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay, and Robinson is expected to run the same 11-personnel-heavy system used by McVay and O’Connell. Adding Cousins not only gives Atlanta one of the most statistically successful quarterbacks in the league, but it also will shorten the learning curve for young offensive standouts Kyle Pitts, Drake London and Bijan Robinson.

The Falcons hope it unlocks the full potential of each, too. The team used top-10 draft picks on each of those players in the last three years, and so far only London looks on track to fulfill that investment. Better quarterback play will change that, Atlanta’s new coaching staff believes.

“From the Atlanta standpoint, (this) had to happen,” ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said on the network after the Cousins deal was made. “This team last year was good enough to get to the playoffs and quarterback play kept them short. For Atlanta, I absolutely love this. This has a chance to be an offense that looks a lot like the one he ran in Minnesota. Kirk is a true old-school, pocket-passing quarterback.”

ESPN analyst Kevin Clark later called Cousins “deodorant for the entire franchise.”

Pitts also seemed pleased with the development. He wondered on X, formerly Twitter, whether he’d be able to keep his No. 8, the same jersey number worn by Cousins, and reposted several news items about the agreement.

Pitts and company might get even more offensive help soon. Adding a quarterback in free agency means the Falcons won’t have to spend their first-round draft pick on one. That could be good news in a draft year that includes several elite prospects at wide receiver. The Falcons pick at No. 8 and still need to bolster their wide receiver depth to run the type of offense expected to be installed.

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No less an authority than Matt Ryan, the winningest quarterback in Falcons history, signed off on the signing of Cousins, even if it was before it happened. Ryan mentioned Cousins as his top choice during a Monday morning appearance on the “Up & Adams Show” on FanDuel TV.

“I think you have to be aggressive if you’re Atlanta,” he said. “You’re in a position where the roster is too good (not to be). They have to go find a guy who can be the point man for them.”

The Falcons’ owner, fourth-year general manager Terry Fontenot and first-year head coach Raheem Morris believe Cousins is that person, and they spent big Monday to show that.

Live updates: Free-agent news from across the NFL
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(Top photo: Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)





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