Game-changer: How the Cousins-Vikings deal could alter future of NFL contracts
Geoff Burke / USA TODAY Sports

Kirk Cousins isn't the hero we expected, but perhaps he's the one NFL players need right now.

The veteran quarterback reportedly plans to sign a fully guaranteed three-year, $84-million contract with the Minnesota Vikings, just over one day into the NFL's "legal tampering" period.

In doing so, Cousins doesn't just take the mantle of the league's highest-paid player from Jimmy Garoppolo after about a month - he becomes the first player in NFL history to leverage a fully guaranteed contract.

That's right: Somehow, the most physically punishing of America's four big professional leagues is the only one that's avoided giving its athletes contracts worth the paper they're printed on.

At this time of year, fans are aghast at the deals players receive in free agency. But it doesn't take a very deep dig into NFL finances to demonstrate that players are being exploited.

Long-term deals are mirages; teams only care about guaranteed money and cap hits, and it's easy to manipulate yearly averages and contract length to make it seem like players are more than fairly compensated.

When talking about millions of dollars in compensation, it's easy for the public to brand athletes as greedy for taking issue with their contracts. But players accept myriad health risks, are kicked to the curb the second their usefulness is outweighed by their deal (Richard Sherman being the latest example), and watch as their likenesses and talent are used to line the pockets of billionaire owners, who seem immune from the same criticism.

And not every NFL player makes millions, especially when most have a small window to maximize their earnings. According to Statista, the average career of an NFL player lasts 3.3 years. First-round picks - the supposed best of the best from college - last an average of 9.3 years. In 2014, the NFL Players Association put an average NFL player's career earnings around $4 million after taxes.

But a market dominated by team-friendly contracts was never going to last, especially not when players are finding their voices, both in social activism and in matters of league business. Yet the NFL's financial revolution needed a spark - a unique contract situation that would force the league to change.

Cousins is that catalyst.

Franchise-tagged twice, and disrespected and underappreciated by the forever-dysfunctional Washington Redskins, Cousins entered the offseason as a unicorn: a franchise quarterback in his prime, looking for a place to win and greater long-term security.

His leverage was nearly unprecedented, and he used it to his full advantage.

Garoppolo's deal, while enormous, was still in line with the way quarterback contracts have grown in recent years. He pushed the average yearly salary up several million, but only received $74.1 million in guarantees (55.89 percent of his $137.5-million total contract), well short of both Andrew Luck (70.75 percent guaranteed) and Matthew Stafford (68.15 percent), according to Spotrac.

Cousins, however, will essentially get a $28-million check in each of the next three seasons, and he didn't have commit to extra term that would primarily benefit the team to get it.

He will be 32 years old by the time his contract ends, and likely set for another huge payday. As an added bonus, Cousins probably won't ever be franchise-tagged again, since he'd be entitled to a 44 percent raise over his previous year's salary - a staggering figure that should ensure he controls his free-agent fate for the rest of his career.

As Baldwin notes, Cousins cracked open the door, but one player alone can't knock it off its hinges. As is always the case in football, that will require a team effort.

Cousins was an aberration caused by the Redskins' ineptitude. His situation likely won't be replicated anytime soon, but players can capitalize on the momentum he created, and it will be up to the quarterback fraternity to lead the charge.

Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, and Russell Wilson are all in line for big-money extensions. Ryan will likely ink his deal this offseason, while the other two might wait until 2019.

It's Rodgers and Wilson who could truly change things: both elite-level players, the faces of their franchises, and arguably the two quarterbacks shouldering the heaviest offensive burdens in the league.

Rodgers and Wilson have the clout to not only demand Cousins' deal be their starting point in negotiations, but argue for a longer contract term (it's not clear if Cousins could have done that with Minnesota, or whether he had the desire to do so).

Only when quarterbacks further assert themselves will the rest of the league begin to feel the impact of Cousins' contract, but after that, fully guaranteed deals will become typical.

Radical change may not be imminent - the NFL is slow to adapt and will always fight to protect its power - but Cousins has begun to forge a path. The rest of the NFL's workforce must get in line behind their unlikely trailblazer if they're ever going to truly control their financial futures.

Game-changer: How the Cousins-Vikings deal could alter future of NFL contracts
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