Three quarterbacks have been in the news recently.
In Dallas, Brian Hoyer last week organized and ran a three-day practice sessions for the 49ers and a number of skill position players, a strong step by Hoyer toward establishing himself as the team’s offensive leader.
In Los Angeles, Sam Darnold is entering his second season as USC’s starter. If he improves on his first season he very well could be the top — or most sought after — pick in the next draft. Fans of some woebegone NFL teams already are advocating a “Suck for Sam” campaign for the upcoming season.
And in Washington, it seems as if Kirk Cousins will play his second straight season under the franchise tag after he and the team there could not agree on a long-term contract by Monday’s deadline to do so.
Cousins long has been linked to the 49ers because of his connection with head coach Kyle Shanahan, who was Washington’s offensive coordinator when Cousins was drafted in 2012 and who developed an affinity for his coach. When rumors of a Cousins trade were rampant in February, Cousins reportedly stipulated that the only spot he was willing to go in a trade was San Francisco.
That Cousins again is playing under the one-year franchise tag makes it more likely he will be available to Shanahan and the 49ers in March.
Washington still could work out a long-term deal after the season. But that seems unlikely considering the two sides have failed to negotiate that type of contract to this point and because Cousins would be just a couple of months from being the subject of a possible bidding war when the season ends.
Washington could franchise him for a third straight season. But that would boost Cousins’ 2018 salary to $34.5 million, ostensibly too steep for a quarterback who’s never won a playoff game.
The transition tag is another possibility. That would drop his salary to $28.7 million but would allow Cousins to negotiate with other clubs. The 49ers have a league-high $66.8 million in salary-cap space this year, a cushion that will roll over to next season. They could use that space to craft a front-loaded offer to Cousins that Washington, which currently ranks 27th in salary-cap space, could not match.
The most likely course of events has Cousins becoming an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career at which point any team with a need at quarterback — San Francisco, Washington, perhaps even the Los Angeles Rams, whose head coach, Sean McVay, is Cousins’ former offensive coordinator in Washington — could try to sign him.
The 49ers, with their mountain of salary-cap space, would have to be considered the favorites in that scenario.
Two quarterbacks could change that.
No one is expecting anything dramatic from Hoyer in his first year with the 49ers. After all, he signed what was viewed as a placeholder-type contract with the team in March. He’s seen as a bridge to the team’s next franchise passer.
But his outing in Texas was a positive one, and if he has even a solid season in San Francisco some will wonder why the 49ers should spend a mint on Cousins, who is 19-22-1 as an NFL starter, when they have any adequate and far cheaper option in Hoyer (as well as a player similar to Cousins in rookie C.J. Beathard) already in the organization.
And if Hoyer flounders in 2017, attention will turn to Darnold or whoever the most highly-rated college prospect is at season’s end.
Shanahan has said that at any given time in the NFL there are perhaps seven elite quarterbacks in the 32-team league.
“You’re always looking for one of those seven throwers on the planet, whatever that number is,” he said upon being hired by the 49ers. “But I’m guessing there’s only around seven, so you’d better not be set on that and say, ‘Hey, I need one of those seven guys.’ I hope we get one of those guys, but if you don’t, you’ve got to find other ways to win.”
The 49ers not only will have an abundance of salary-cap space next season, they’ll have a lot of draft picks after adding an extra second- and third-round pick for 2018 in this year’s draft.
Which is to say, if the 49ers believe that Darnold or anyone else can be one of those magnificent seven, they have the ammunition to get him.