Cunningham: Falcons shouldn’t splurge on free agent Kirk Cousins

Better to find cheaper quarterback option and fill other needs

NFL teams are allowed to talk to the representatives for free agents starting Monday. The Falcons will be giving Kirk Cousins’ people a call. When the 2024 season starts, Cousins will be 36 years old and less than a year removed from Achilles surgery. He’s still the best veteran QB available.

That tells you about the state of quarterbacks in the NFL. Good ones are very hard to find. That’s why Cousins is going to cost a lot. Spotrac predicts he’ll get a three-year deal with $70 million guaranteed and an average of $33 million per year. That’s close to Aaron Rodgers money for an old and injured quarterback who’s never been close to MVP-level.

If the bidding gets that high, and it probably will, then the Falcons should bow out. They need a quarterback, but they don’t need only a quarterback.

The Falcons won seven games in 2023. They finished two games behind the Bucs and Saints in the sorry NFC South. There’s no available quarterback who can make up that gap, and the Falcons have limited resources to improve the roster.

They have roughly $40 million in cap space. A $100 million contract for Cousins could eat $25 million of that space. The hit might be less if the deal were structured in a way that pushes cap hits into the future. But that wouldn’t be ideal given his durability concerns. There’s just too much risk and limited upside with Cousins.

I’ve made the case for the Falcons to trade for Bears quarterback Justin Fields. It appears that teams know the Bears are moving on from Fields and are waiting him to be released. He could he had for cheap. It’s reasonable to believe the Falcons could get a lot more out of Fields than the Bears, and at a team-friendly cap figure.

I’d take Fields over Baker Mayfield, who can’t be trusted to repeat his resurgent 2023 season. Fields also is a better option than the prospect the Falcons can get with the No. 8 draft pick (though that’s still a better choice than Cousins). And Fields wouldn’t cost the Falcons as much as the bounty for trading up.

Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1) breaks away in the second half of a game against the Falcons in Chicago, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

I like that Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Raheem Morris have been candid about the team’s need for a quarterback. By doing so, they’ve put pressure on themselves to find the right guy. The danger is that the decision-makers become too desperate to get a quarterback.

The Falcons can’t overpay for the QB they want while shirking other team needs. Pass rusher is 1A behind quarterback. It’s a sliding scale. Fields and, say, free-agent edge Danielle Hunter, would be better for the Falcons than Cousins and yet another year with no premier guy getting to the quarterback from the outside of the defense.

The Falcons will need to sign pass rushers one way or the other. The team’s co-leaders in sacks last season, Calais Campbell and Bud Dupree, both are free agents. Campbell was effective while playing 63% of the snaps in 2023. Even if Campbell decides to play his 17th NFL season and re-signs with the Falcons, they’ll still need more oomph for their pass rush.

The Falcons forced 16 turnovers in 2023. Only three teams had fewer takeaways. The best way to create turnover chances is to force fumbles. The only reliable way to do that consistently is to sack the quarterback.

Hunter (27 sacks over past two seasons) checks that box. Jonathan Greenard (12.5 sacks in 2023) and Bryce Huff (10 sacks) are two other good options about to hit the market. Any of those players would help the Falcons improve on their 2023 ranking of 20th in sacks per pass attempt.

Fontenot has proved that he can sign an impact defensive player. There was some risk involved with signing safety Jessie Bates III to a contract with $36 million guaranteed for two years. It was big money for a player who was good, not great, during five seasons in Cincinnati and who plays a non-premier position.

Fontenot’s gamble paid off. Pro Football Focus rated Bates as the best player of all free agents to sign in 2023. He was good defending the pass and the run. I can think of two games that Bates saved by making instinctive tackles out of nowhere.

Falcons safety Jessie Bates III (3) scored a touchdown after intercepting a Saints pass during the first half of a game in Atlanta on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023.  (Bob Andres for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Bob Andres

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Credit: Bob Andres

Still, Bates could manage to elevate the Falcons only to a decent level on defense. They ranked 18th in points allowed per game (21.9). That number was inflated by facing plenty of bad quarterbacks (one of them, Carolina’s Bryce Young, beat the Falcons with a game-winning drive). The Falcons ranked 24th in the defensive DVOA metric (adjusted for situation and opponent).

The Falcons need more help on defense. The lack of takeaways held them back. Related: the Falcons ranked last in forced fumbles with eight. The Falcons’ defense could make a big leap with a premier edge rusher who creates turnover chances. It’s rare for rookies to make an instant impact as pass rushers — only 36 of them have recorded at least 10 sacks since the statistic became official in 1982 — so free agency is the surest way to find a good one.

Cousins surely would elevate the Falcons’ offense to at least average. Coach Arthur Smith managed to reach that level with Marcus Mariota and without Bijan Robinson. New Falcons offensive coordinator Zac Robinson might do better with Cousins and Robinson, who didn’t get enough chances as an outside receiver during his rookie season.

But Cousins isn’t so good that he definitely would put the Falcons over the top. They’d have to pay him like he’s that guy. Cousins was slow before he suffered the Achilles injury. Nowadays even good offensive lines, which the Falcons have, need to be helped by mobile quarterbacks.

The NFL’s salary cap means it’s impossible for teams to have it all. Signing Cousins to a rich contract means the Falcons would have to rely on young players and bargain-bin veterans to fill other needs. Better for the Falcons to find a cheaper QB option than Cousins and use the limited cap space for other needs.