The Broncos, going back as far as Week 16 of the 2017 season when they faced Washington, were expected to prepare an all-out pursuit of Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, the top free agent on the market (especially after Washington traded for former Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith in late January, a move that will be made official when the new league year begins March 14).
Keenum, who led the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC Championship Game in 2017, was widely regarded as the second-best option in free agency behind Cousins. (Because everyone in their heart of hearts knew Drew Brees was ultimately headed back New Orleans and not truly a free agent). Cousins was not expected to make his decision on where to sign until Wednesday, but it now appears his timeline escalated in the wake of the Keenum news. He will reportedly sign with the Vikings on Thursday.
John Elway in his tenure as head of Broncos football operations historically has been the type of GM to go after the biggest prize in free agency. Think Peyton Manning, DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib. Elway operated with that “the best or nothing” mentality on the field during his playing days and carried into the executive suite, where his mantra became “Don’t just win now, win from now on.”
So why would Elway and his player-personnel department jump to agreeing to terms with Keenum while Cousins was still on the market?
1. It’s All About the Money
The Broncos have money to spend in free agency. But they don’t have New York Jets money, or even Minnesota Vikings money.
Even after trading Talib to the Rams last week, Denver at present has approximately $29.03 million available in “Top 51” cap space, according to Spotrac. The Vikings, by comparison, have $45.29 million to spend for 2018, while the Jets lead the league with $92.08 available.
With seven-figure cap hits belonging to Von Miller, Chris Harris Jr. and (for now) Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Derek Wolfe, Denver doesn’t have much wiggle room without bidding farewell to at least one of its biggest stars.
After the San Francisco 49ers set the market for quarterbacks earlier this offseason, the price for Cousins may have simply grown too high for Denver’s liking.
The 49ers in February signed Jimmy Garoppolo to a deal worth $137.5 million over five years ($74 million guaranteed, $27.5 million average per year); Cousins’ deal will eclipse those numbers, at least on a per-year basis. Minnesota reportedly has a deal pending with Cousins worth $28 million per year, fully guaranteed for three years.
Keenum, meanwhile, will cost Denver just $18 million per year on a two-year contract, as reported by KUSA.
Signing Keenum at a roughly 35 percent per-year discount compared to Cousins — and only needing to commit to two years — allows the Broncos to keep most, if not all, of those big-name salaries listed earlier, while still having some dollars left to sign other positions of need like tight end.
The Broncos sit just below the league average for available cap space, and Keenum gives them much more flexibility both in the short and long term. If Keenum over the next two seasons can be even 75 percent the player that Cousins is, the Broncos will have made the right move.
2. The Kubiak Connection
If there is one person in Denver with firsthand intel on Case Keenum, it’s Gary Kubiak.
Kubiak, who coached Denver to a Super Bowl 50 victory, was the head coach in Houston when the Texans signed Keenum as an undrafted college free agent out of the University of Houston. Both Texas boys through and through, Kubiak and Keenum spent parts of two seasons (2012 and ’13) together with the Texans before both departed the organization. Kubiak was fired as head coach in December 2013 and Keenum was waived in August 2014 under new head coach Bill O’Brien.
The Texans, even without Kubiak’s sway, thought enough of Keenum to sign him back (off the Rams’ practice squad) in December 2014 after Ryan Fitzpatrick broke his leg. Keenum won back-to-back games to close out the season for Houston that year, including his first NFL victory, which came against the Baltimore Ravens and Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak.
Now a Senior Personnel Advisor with the Broncos after retiring in January 2017, Kubiak was a strong supporter of signing Keenum according to Charles Robinson of Yahoo! Sports.
Keenum’s résumé reads like any journeyman quarterback’s: Multiple stints with multiple teams, practice squad signings, releases and trades. Yet in 2017 Keenum over 14 regular season starts and a playoff win for the Vikings made the case that he can be a legitimate starting quarterback.
Keenum passed for over 3,500 yards with a 67.6 percent completion rate and 22 touchdowns to just seven interceptions for Minnesota as their starter. Respectable numbers for any NFL quarterback, and leaps and bounds better than the combined numbers of the trio of QBs Denver trotted out last season.
The biggest questions lingering with Keenum are whether last year was an aberration or the start of something big, and whether an inexperienced head coach in Vance Joseph (and his staff) can draw the same performance out of Keenum as Mike Zimmer did in Minnesota.
Kubiak knows Keenum better than anyone else at Broncos HQ, and he is a powerful voice in Elway’s ear. But Kubiak was also the top lobbyist for Trevor Siemian, who shares much in common with Keenum (size, arm strength, durability), and could not keep the starting job in Denver.
If Keenum plays in Denver like he did in Minnesota last season, Kubiak will be back in Denver’s good graces as he was following the Super Bowl 50 season. If Keenum plays like Siemian did for Kubiak during the 2016 season when Denver missed the playoffs, or worse, like Siemian did for Vance Joseph in 2017 when they stumbled to a 5-11 record and Siemian lost his starting job, we could be seeing a second graceful exit by Kubiak in as many years.
3. The Broncos Have the No. 5 Draft Pick (and Paxton Lynch)
Signing Keenum to a two-year deal gives the Broncos at least two options to develop a quarterback behind him.
Because of that 5-11 record and poor strength of schedule in Joseph’s first year as a head coach, Denver has the No. 5 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. There are three teams presently ahead of Denver (Cleveland has the No. 1 and No. 4 picks), who each could take a quarterback — the Browns, Giants and Colts — but there are at least four quarterbacks in this year’s draft that project high in the first round.
If the Jets (No. 6) don’t land Cousins, as it appears they won’t, they may want to move up into the top five picks. The Bills have been aggressive in acquiring draft picks and still need a quarterback after shipping Tyrod Taylor to Cleveland (and probably needed one anyway). Unless either team trades with Cleveland for No. 1 or No. 4. Even if they do, the Broncos may still be able to secure a top-four QB prospect without trading up, assuming that’s the direction they want to go with their first-round pick.
If they’re not willing to move up or take the last man standing at No. 5 among Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield and Josh Rosen, Denver can use that pick on one of the top linemen (offensive or defensive) or even hope that Saquan Barkley somehow falls to them.
The fact that Keenum’s deal is only two years suggests that Denver will still eye a quarterback early in the draft, either at No. 5 or within the first two rounds. That would give their rookie two years to learn and develop before being given the opportunity to take the reins. And if Keenum shines, Denver would have at least two more years after that to continue that draft pick’s development. If Keenum falters, it gives Denver all the more reason to move on quickly to their draft selection.
The two-year deal for Keenum also aligns with the final two years of Paxton Lynch’s rookie contract (which the Broncos could add a fifth to, if so inclined). Lynch, the No. 26 pick in 2016, hasn’t yet panned out for Denver, and as a first-round pick presents a bit of a problem for Elway if they select a quarterback early in the draft. The Broncos would likely have to trade or cut Lynch in that scenario, something they may not yet be wont to do. The other option would be to stockpile other talent with their high draft position and give Lynch a little more time to develop.
Either scenario — drafting a QB early or riding the Lynch train a little longer — is a gamble as the backup option to Keenum in 2018. Denver could do both, though, and simultaneously ramp up the pressure on Keenum and Lynch, which may not be a bad thing.
Signing Case Keenum may not be as splashy as signing Kirk Cousins would have been, but it does afford the Broncos better financial flexibility over the next two years. It puts the onus on Gary Kubiak to be right about a late-round/undrafted quarterback, giving Elway a potential scapegoat if things go poorly. And it buys Denver time to develop a 2018 draft pick or make one last-ditch effort with Paxton Lynch.
This wasn’t a home run like Elway hit when landing Manning, Ware or Talib, but it was far from a swing and miss.