"The Decision" from Kirk Cousins will dominate this NFL offseason

There’s no use trying to figure out the NFL right now, friends. Just enjoy the show. It’s the best reality-TV going.

First was the football theater that played out last week in Minnesota. Quarterback Nick Foles, who almost retired a year ago, outplayed Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. Won the MVP award, leading the Eagles. De-pantsed the brainy Pats, catching a touchdown pass on fourth down.

Now, football fans, comes the offseason free-for-all, and how’s this for the main attraction:

Kirk Cousins is soon to become the sport’s LeBron.

In March, The Decision on which NFL team this former fourth-round draftee selects will send ripples across the $14-billion industry.

Cousins won’t be taking his talents to South Beach, but the contract he agrees to would allow him to buy his own beach. Forecasts exceed $100 million.

Nick Foles.

Kirk Cousins.

It’s a very good time for quarterbacks age 29 who were under-drafted in 2012.

Foles went 88th, out of Arizona.

Cousins of Michigan State went 14 spots later, going 102nd overall to Washington — but not before his drafting team took another quarterback, Robert Griffin III, second overall. “Captain Kirk” as a collegian because his Spartans teammates voted him their captain three different years, Cousins passed up Griffin by their third season together and established himself as a steady starter.

In the NBA, it’s the superstars who make the waves.

In the NFL, Cousins is proof that a competent quarterback can stir up the whole industry, if circumstances align.

Unless Washington tries to keep him, which would be a stunner because it agreed to trade for quarterback Alex Smith last week and pledged him $71 million in guaranteed money, Cousins will become the rare franchise quarterback to hit the open market. Adding to his price tag, Cousins in the sweet spot of a career and, unlike the more highly drafted Drew Brees and Peyton Manning when they gained full free agency in 2006 and 2012, respectively, there’s no injury cloud hovering over his free agency.

Is Cousins overrated?

There’s a San Diego angle to the Cousins story.

In December as hundreds of thousands of San Diegans watched the telecast, Cousins played in a Week 14 game at Carson.

Against him was the former San Diego-based team that was the most NFL-watched club in San Diego County last season.

Cousins made two dazzling plays to propel a touchdown drive, but otherwise seldom looked like a quarterback who should create such a fuss.

Give his performance that day a C-minus/D+ overall, due to faulty decision-making, poise and accuracy.

Chris Cooley, a former Pro Bowl tight end with Washington who spent nine years in the NFL, called it Cousins’ “worst performance of the year” and “one of the worst performances of his career” in comments to the Union-Tribune this week.

But he cut Cousins some slack.

Injuries had bludgeoned Washington’s offense, the playoffs were out of reach and Washington’s defense was a sieve.

For Cousins, it was a game to get through.

“I think he seemed like he was a little concerned about himself in the pocket,” said Cooley, who was a Washington teammate when Cousins was a rookie and now works as a Redskins radio analyst and a co-host for ESPN 980 radio. “To some extent, he protected himself in ways that didn’t benefit the team in that game. And, I understand where he was coming from. I do.”

Cousins is having a sturdy career, a far better tool for evaluating him than one game that had no real bearing on his team’s playoff chances.

He has made all 48 starts over the past three seasons, exceeding 4,000 passing yards in each season and posting 81 touchdown passes against 36 interceptions. Three years ago in his first full season as a starter, he led the NFL in completion percentage and posted a 101.6 passer rating while leading Washington to the postseason.

Although his core stats have declined the past two years, they remained average or better.

He weathered several storms the past two years. Opponents went to school on his game film. Injuries and turnover weakened the roster. Well-regarded offensive coordinator Sean McVay left the team after the 2016 season, taking over the Los Angeles Rams and becoming the coach of the year.

Cousins impressed Cooley with his resilience.

“He’s gotten better every single year he’s played,” he said. “He’s got a better sense for the anticipation of coverages every year he’s played. He’s consistently gotten better at making plays outside the pocket when he has to do that.”

Per a Union-Tribune study of five games in 2015, Cousins has adequate athleticism. He’s more agile than Foles, but Foles has better play strength due to huge, strong hands and about 25 extra pounds. His arm strength is no worse than average. What separates Cousins from the backups and inconsistent performers is his mental processing and accuracy.

“He’s a smart guy. He gets football,” said Cooley, who played in nearly 120 NFL games from 2004-12. “He understands defense. And I think as you get into your third and fourth year, if you can’t see, breathe and correlate defense, you can’t play. And, he’s proven that he can do that.”

While he sees Cousins as adaptive, Cooley said two specific football pieces would suit him best with his next team.

“He benefits from a team that can utilize the stretch run game, so it can create a lot of play action opportunities,” he said.

“And, he can really benefit from a team that can beat man-to-man coverage. He can make every throw on the field. He’s got the arm to throw you open. So, immediately, Denver seems like it’s a pretty decent fit with a couple of good fits (at receiver in Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas).”

A few Denver Broncos players, including All-Pro edge man Von Miller, have said they want John Elway to sign Cousins. However, Denver isn’t flush with salary-cap space, so the cost to land Cousins could harm the team’s chances to retain players and add other free agents.

Other potential suitors include the Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets.

Count on a lurker or two as well.

Tom.Krasovic@SDUnionTribune.com; Twitter: SDUTKrasovic

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