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Will free-agent quarterbacks fall victim to collusion?

Minnesota Vikings v Washington Redskins

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 12: Defensive end Brian Robison #96 of the Minnesota Vikings sacks quarterback Kirk Cousins #8 of the Washington Redskins during the third quarter at FedExField on November 12, 2017 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

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For the first time since the NFL launched a system of free agency that relies heavily on a salary cap, a healthy complement of veteran quarterbacks soon will hit the open market. And even though recent growth in the salary cap indicates that someone already should be making more than $30 million per year at the quarterback position, there’s a not-so-subtle sense emerging that teams will refuse to overspend.

It could be coincidental, fueled by a mutual realization based on Jacksonville’s decision to keep Blake Bortles at $18 million per year that it becomes impossible to contend if too much money is devoted to the quarterback position. It also could be deliberately coincidental; it could be the product of collusion.

Yes, collusion happens. Yes, it’s hard to prove collusion. (Colin Kaepernick’s pending grievance may prove otherwise.) Regardless, the league has a built-in structure for communicating to teams cautionary tales of overspending, and for nudging them away from blowing the curve. Coincidentally (or not), reports have emerged in recent days that teams like the Jets won’t give Kirk Cousins a blank check -- and that teams like the Cardinals aren’t even interested in joining what could become a runaway bid process for the first healthy franchise quarterback under the age of 30 to hit the open market.

This dynamic could impact other quarterbacks, like Drew Brees. A team intent on competing to win the Super Bowl this year should offer him $30 million per year. Don’t be surprised if people start talking about his age or otherwise picking nits about the current state of his game, as a precursor to no one offering dramatically more than whatever the Saints will pay.

Ditto for lesser options like Case Keenum and A.J. McCarron. Some now believe that each guy will be hard pressed to get more than Bortles got from the Jaguars.

Then there are the red-flag veterans, competent players with lingering knee problems. The money simply may not be there for Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater, if the money isn’t as big as it was expected to be for Cousins, Brees, Keenum, and McCarron.

The ultimate leverage for most quarterback-needy teams will be the draft, where potential quarterbacks can be found at very affordable five-year deals. Look at the list of annual pay rates for quarterbacks; the bottom third of it is full of players operating under the terms of assembly-line deals crafted by a system aimed at preventing busts from stealing money -- and that also allows teams to squat on talented players for four or five years at well-below-market rates.