Washington up and franchised Kirk Cousins yesterday, which means Cousins is in line to earn a cool $23.94 million in guaranteed money next season—and to count just as much against the Skins’ salary cap. He and Washington also have until July 15 to broker a long-term agreement that has the potential to be stratospheric. Cousins puts up huge numbers but in reality is consistently fine. I wrote about this in early December, after which the Skins faceplanted and missed the playoffs, with Cousins playing pretty meh. So why does he continue to have Washington by the balls? Great question. Let’s get to it.
Cousins’s 2016 numbers were pretty good, weren’t they?
They were great. He finished the season third in completions (406), passing yards (4,917), and yards per attempt (8.1); fourth in adjusted net yards per attempt (7.45); sixth in Total QBR (71.7); seventh in passer rating (97.2); and eighth in completion percentage (67.0).
So what’s the big deal?
He’s Kirk Cousins. He has, as Kevin Clark recently put it for The Ringer, “a track record of sustained adequacy.” Also, the Skins dropped their playoff ambitions into a puddle of their own barf by closing the season 2-3, and in that stretch Cousins threw as many interceptions (five) as he did touchdowns, and posted a quarterback rating of just 86.3. Remember, too, that Cousins had a terrific supporting cast, including an offensive line that finished third in adjusted sack rate.
So, then, how does Cousins have Washington by the balls?
Because he really is the Skins’ best option. Washington had no choice but to franchise him because if they were to let him hit free agency, there would have been a shitload of teams—the Browns, the 49ers, the Bears, maybe the Jets—eager to fork over a small fortune for an experienced, capable quarterback like Cousins. And Washington would have gotten nothing in return but a compensatory draft pick—no better than a third-rounder. This scenario would leave Washington without a quarterback for 2017, unless you want to count Colt McCoy. (You don’t.)
What about this year’s free agent class?
You mean the one stocked with such luminaries as Josh McCown, Brian Hoyer, Case Keenum, Geno Smith, Mike Glennon, Mark Sanchez, and Landry Jones? Though Colin Kaepernick is now out there. And Jay Cutler might soon be, too.
Yeah. Good NFL quarterbacks don’t hit free agency. There just aren’t enough of them to go around, and that’s why teams are happy to overpay.
So how can Cousins have so much leverage now, even though he can’t negotiate with other teams?
Because there’s no longer any incentive for him to take any kind of team-friendly deal. If he and the Skins can’t come to terms by July 15, Cousins will have earned $43.9 million in guaranteed money in 2016 and ‘17, and then the two sides will be prohibited from talking about a contract again until after the 2017 season. At which point, even after another year of “sustained adequacy,” both sides will be right back in the same place. If you’re Cousins, why not just wait it out?
Can Washington franchise him again next year?
Yep. The Skins could tag Cousins for a third straight time in 2018, but doing so would cost them 144 percent of what the tag would pay him this year. Which would be [whips out calculator] roughly $35 million. Another option for Washington is applying the transition tag next year, which would mandate a salary of $28.8 million—
—Let me finish. But even applying the transition tag would bring Cousins’s three-year earnings (all fully guaranteed) to $72.7 million. As Charles Robinson pointed out over at Yahoo, that would be the highest three-year haul in NFL history.
Now, the transition tag would allow Cousins to bargain with other teams, and for Washington to have a chance to match another team’s offer. But even then we’re likely talking something north of $50 million in two-year guarantees, which would be in addition to the $43.9 million Cousins took home in 2016 and 2017. That’s nearly $100 million in completely guaranteed scratch for four seasons of Kirk Cousins! (I mean, Kirk Cousins!) For perspective, Andrew Luck last year signed a deal with a five-year max of approximately $123 million in total earnings. Luck got $87 million in injury guarantees, but only $47 million in total guarantees. And Luck’s deal has set the market for experienced starting quarterbacks heading into this year’s free agency dance.
Then why would $50-plus million have to be baseline for new guarantees for Cousins?
Because, as Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio noted, if Cousins waits and has another year of “sustained adequacy,” the value of this year’s franchise tag ($23.94 million) plus next year’s transition tag ($28.8 million) comes to something like $52 million fully guaranteed. Cousins’s agent can basically start any negotiations with the Skins there.
What about a trade?
That’s a possibility, but it’s a longshot. The Skins obviously had to tag Cousins first, since any potential trade partners could simply have waited till he hit free agency on March 9 and bargained with him straight-up. But tag-and-trades are difficult to execute in the NFL because a trade partner would still have to sign Cousins to a new deal, which would likely be a part of any trade talks.
Didn’t Cousins say he’d accept a trade to the 49ers?
That’s what ESPN’s John Keim reported the other day, yes. There’s an obvious connection there between Cousins and new Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan, his former offensive coordinator in Washington. And the Niners are as desperate as anyone for a QB, and commensurately willing to overpay for one. But that doesn’t mean the 49ers would be willing to bite by giving up an asset like a first-rounder for Cousins. Especially because they have the No. 2 pick in the draft—a steep price for Kirk Cousins. Washington’s best option now might be to swallow hard and give in on a pricey long-term deal. The silver lining is that the salary cap keeps going up.
Damn. The Skins really fucked this up, huh?
That’s the consensus. You really ought to read Mike Jones of the Washington Post’s lengthy interview with ex-NFL executive Joe Banner and former agent Joel Corry. Jones spoke to Banner and Corry to get the front office vs. player rep take on all this, but both guys agreed completely that Washington messed this thing up royally by not locking Cousins down sooner.
Why didn’t they?
A few reasons. As I wrote in December, Cousins had only one season as a starter heading into last year’s offseason, and the Texans’ experience with Brock Osweiler will forever be a cautionary tale on the wisdom of throwing big money at quarterbacks with small sample sizes. But Yahoo’s Robinson also reported that Cousins last year would have taken a long-term contract with $44 million fully guaranteed—the combined equivalent of last year’s and this year’s franchise tags—and $20 million in average annual value. A deal structured like that would have given Washington the option of cutting ties with little-to-no cap implications at any time beyond 2017. But it’s obviously much too late for that now.
What did the Skins offer Cousins last year?
Just $24 million in guarantees, according to Robinson, which “was laughable given that Cousins was about to earn $19.95 million of that just by showing up in 2016.”
Yikes. So who’s to blame?
Robinson said Bruce Allen, in his role as team president, was the one who made the “ultimate decision” to punt last year on signing Cousins to a new deal. The implication is that GM Scot McCloughan—a very good talent evaluator who’s not a deal-maker—would have been all for it. It’s the kind of situation that teams can run into when they have a general manager who answers to a so-called “football czar” who has control of the checkbook. It’s what happens when the person in charge of procuring talent can’t procure talent.
Hold on. So does that mean Dan Snyder ultimately messed this up?