MINNEAPOLIS – They sauntered through the red carpet wearing the usual look of glamour and glitz.
This wasn’t Hollywood, though. This was the strut leading into the NFL Honors program.
I asked one past and current NFL player after another the same question: Should the Denver Broncos pay $30 million a year for Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, or $18 million a year for Minnesota’s Case Keenum?
To about half the group, I added a third option: One of those hot-shot quarterback prospects with the No. 5 overall pick in the draft.
The results: Five went with Kirk Cousins, two went with Keenum. Deion Sanders was the only one who went draft pick. Roger Staubach and Steve Young had plenty to say about the top two options but wouldn’t commit.
Case Keenum was interviewed and talked up Broncos’ front-office advisor Gary Kubiak, but he wasn’t given the survey.
What was he supposed to say?
There were three past and present Broncos players who strolled through the red carpet: Von Miller, Shannon Sharpe and Terrell Davis. All three went with Kirk Cousins.
Here’s what the NFL celebrities said, in order of red carpet appearance:
Sterling Sharpe: The former Green Bay Packers receiver great and older brother of the Broncos’ Hall of Fame tight end, Sharpe has done extensive NFL analyst work. He was asked if the Broncos should go $30 million a year for Cousins or $18 million a year for Case Keenum.
“That’s a tough one. I would lean toward Kirk. I’m only leaning toward Kirk because he’s done it longer. He’s had to prove himself longer. I think based on what he has been asked to do, being franchised every year, having to prove himself, I think Kirk will definitely be valued as far as hearing different information, being coached by a different group of guys, being in a different city -- I think he would do very well.
“I would lean a little bit towards Kirk.’’
Shannon Sharpe: The best tight end in Broncos history and TV sports debate champion was asked whether his former team should take Cousins for $30 million a year, Keenum for $18 million, or go with the No. 5 overall pick in this year’s draft.
It was hardly a surprise Sharpe came through with the most thorough response.
“You try to win the way the Broncos are built, they’re trying to win right now. You don’t have the luxury of trying to groom – we’ve not seen a rookie quarterback take a team and win a Super Bowl. So, the likelihood of that happening in the 98-year history is very small.
“I believe Kirk Cousins. The 98-year history says if you take a quarterback 6-foot-7 or taller he’s not going to be very good. Not only did we take one, we took two.’’
He refers to Brock Osweiler with a second-round pick in the 2012 draft and Paxton Lynch with a first-round selection in the 2016 draft.
“That’s the history at that position,’’ Sharpe said. “But to me if you give Kirk that money – it’s going to take a boatload of money. But we’ve never seen a quarterback at this age, 29, be totally free with no tag. Kirk Cousins is free. He’s 29 years of age, he’s had three straight 4,000 yard passing seasons.
He’s passed for more yards than any Redskin quarterback that’s in the Hall of Fame (a group that consists of Sammy Baugh and Sonny Jurgensen).
“But if you give up that kind of money to sign him – and I think he’s going to work it – what are you going to sacrifice? Who do you have to release? Kirk Cousins is not coming to Denver if you have to give up Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. What are you selling him?
“Case Keenum, I think Case has had a great seven, eight, nine games but that’s a small sample size. And you saw what happened in the NFC championship Game. It went from 7-0 to 38-7 in a hurry. You can’t ignore that so is Case Keenum on the rise? Or has he plateaued? Those are questions only John Elway can answer. That’s why he makes the big bucks. That’s why he got that extension.’’
Von Miller: He is very much active as a Broncos outside linebacker and is one of the most dominant defensive players in the league. OK, Von: Cousins for $30 million a year, Keenum for $18 million or draft your quarterback with the No. 5 pick?
“I like all the guys out there but if we could get Kirk that’d be great. If we get solid play (from the QB position) that’d be great. And we got to get better on defense as well.
“But since you asked me the question I would like to have Kirk. I would rather have Kirk.’’
Mike Zimmer: Minnesota Vikings was told the Broncos would have interest in his quarterback, Case Keenum, then asked his thoughts.
“Good for them,’’ Zimmer said, then abruptly walked away.
Roger Staubach: The former Navy Midshipman and Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame quarterback would not pick between Cousins and Keenum.
“I tell you what, those are two good choices. I met both of those guys here. Cousins has played a little bit more than Keenum. They’re both possibilities, yeah. If they don’t get one of those guys, then John Elway needs to come out of retirement or something. I’m an Elway fan.’’
“He was a fantastic football player. I just loved watching him. And he ran a little bit like I did.’’
What about guys like Baker Mayfield in the draft?
“I like Mayfield. He’s not tall, but he’s got a good arm. Drew Brees is here, Russell Wilson and Baker is in that category.’’
Brees and Wilson walked by quickly without stopping to talk. They must have been A-listers. Maybe they stopped at the NFL Network set at the end of paparazzi row but not with us credentialed common folk.
Joe Theismann: The former Washington quarterback is also a color commentator on the team’s preseason broadcasts. So, he can be accused of bias towards Cousins.
“I think Kirk Cousins would be a wonderful match for the Broncos. I would say of all the teams that are looking to add a quarterback, I think Kirk could be something that John (Elway) really needs. He’s a veteran quarterback who has had some success, who could run the offense the way he wants it to be run.
“(Elway) brought Peyton Manning in, and that turned out pretty well so when you bring a veteran into Denver, good things happen.’’
But $30 million a year?
“You know the number’s going to be between $120 (million) and $140. I mean, I don’t even think about those kind of numbers. I hear about them, I read about them but they don’t really compute with me. But I think that’s what the marketplace is when you look at what Matthew (Stafford) is getting and Derek (Carr) is getting, it’s going to be $25 to $30 a year. With Kirk, that’s going to be a bottom number for him.’’
So far, it was a 4-0-1 landslide for Cousins. But then the red carpet started bringing in Keenum supporters.
LaDainian Tomlinson: The Hall of Fame San Diego Charger running back was the first to not ride the Cousins’ bandwagon.
“I think I take Case Keenum. Case has proven he’s a winner. What he’s done this year has been tremendous. He can get guys to fall in. Not that Kirk Cousins can’t, but I just think right now Case Keenum is playing terrific football and he has a lot that he can offer a team.’’
Case Keenum: The Vikings quarterback went from often-dumped NFL journeymen to surprise Minnesota miracle man in 2017.
He has played out his one-year, $2 million contract with the Vikings and he is scheduled to become a free agent on March 14.
His value of $18 million a year was based on the contract Brock Osweiler received two years ago after just seven starts with the Broncos in 2015.
Keenum was told his name has come up quite a bit in Broncos Country since the regular season ended.
“I’ve come up? Who knows, man? I’m not really experienced at this free agent thing. I was before (last year) but the phone wasn’t ringing so if the phone rings a little bit more, it’d be nice.’’
Is it accurate to say Gary Kubiak was the one who discovered Keenum, or at least believed in him as a potential NFL quarterback? Kubiak was the Houston Texans’ head coach in 2012 when Keenum was signed as an undrafted rookie out of the University of Houston.
“He gave me a shot. No one in the NFL called after the draft besides the Texans. That was coach Kubiak. The amount of football I learned those first two years I can’t even put into words how much he’s meant to me in my career.’’
Make no mistake, Kubiak is the Broncos’ top recruiting tool for Case Keenum.
Cameron Jordan: The New Orleans Saints’ defensive end is one of the league’s most underrated players – probably because the Saints are known for Brees and his high-powered offense.
Jordan, though, had 13.0 sacks in 2017, which was his third, double-digit sack season. He’s averaged 9.75 sacks the past six seasons.
Cousins for $30 million a year or Keenum for $18?
“You think $18 (million) is going to be able to get Case out to you after a year like this? Come on, man. Ryan Tannehill is making $20 million, right? Blake Bortles is making $19. Come on.
“Either way it’s going to be expensive. I’m just saying the quarterback markets are high.’’
So, who do you pick?
“After a year like Case Keenum had, I don’t know how you don’t go Case. We beat Kirk. We didn’t beat Case.’’
The Saints thought they did. Then came the Minnesota Miracle.
Deion Sanders: Prime Time indisputedly had the best “cover” skills in NFL history. He also might have been the league’s best-ever returner.
Sanders has had a long run as an NFL analyst.
Come on over here, Deion. Should the Broncos go Cousins for $30 million a year, Keenum for $18 million a year, or take a quarterback with the No. 5 pick in the draft?
“Baker Mayfield or Lamar Jackson. Why doesn’t anybody talk about Lamar Jackson (with the No. 5 pick)?’’
Fair point. Jackson was the Heisman Trophy winner as a Louisville sophomore when he compiled 3,543 yards passing, 1,571 yards rushing (really?) and 51 combined touchdowns.
He threw for 3,660 yards as a junior with 1,601 yards rushing (seriously?) and 45 combined touchdowns.
He is listed at 6-foot-3, 211 pounds. He was a 57 percent passer, which is why he’s not getting stronger consideration as a top 10 pick. But no player in the country has more all-around athletic talent than Lamar Jackson.
Steve Young: The Hall of Fame quarterback and former 49ers’ great has long been an NFL analyst. I initially deciphered his elaborate answer as a lean towards Cousins. Then as I went back over his answer, Young might have been leaning toward Keenum.
In the end, I decided he didn’t decide.
Cousins for $30 million or Keenum for $18 million?
“Is that what it has to be, $30 (million)? You can get a long-term contract for less than that, right? It’s hard to know if Case is a late bloomer, someone who can carry the water, or – you can’t fake what Case did. If he can replicate that, Case is fine.
“Kirk seems like a guy that’s not going to not cause grief. You can win some games, play some good defense. You can’t have your quarterback struggle. This is Denver, you know? They got to do something.’’
How about taking a quarterback with the No. 5 draft pick?
“OK, are we good at that? Someone has to be honest, you have to be honest with yourself. Do we know what we’re doing when we’re picking young quarterbacks for the pros? That’s a roulette wheel.’’
I thought Osweiler was a nice second-round selection by Elway in the 2012 draft. Paxton Lynch has yet to come on as a 2016 first-round pick. But, I get Young’s point.
“Seeing Case, you know what Case did, get someone competent who can win some games.
“The quarterback issue is such a hard one. I think it’s a generational question. You don’t have to answer it in one day. But you’ve got to have one to get you through. If you don’t have your quarterback, it hurts.’’
Terrell Davis: The former Bronco running back great finished up the red-carpet stroll of celebrities as a Hall of Famer.
Cousins for $30 million a year or Keenum for $18 million?
“You’re making it hard. Case played so well this year. But if you look at the body of work I don’t know if you can feel confident with that. I’m probably going to roll with Kirk. Yeah, I want Kirk.’’
One can conclude from this red-carpet survey that you get what you pay for. If the Broncos have the financial wherewithal, Cousins can solve their quarterback position for a good five years. There are a few more unknowns with Keenum and a rookie.
It may be worth nothing, though, that Elway nor Kubiak walked on the red carpet Saturday night.