In passing for a franchise-record 4,166 yards and 29 touchdowns while leading the NFL in completion percentage en route to a shocking NFC East title for the Redskins, Cousins set himself up for a monster payday this spring, whether it's in the nation's capital or elsewhere.
There isn't a player in the league set to be more overpaid.
Don't get me wrong. Cousins had a fine fourth NFL season. His passer rating of 101.6 ranked fifth among starters at his position. Over the season's second half, as Cousins led the Redskins on that surprising run to the postseason, the former Michigan State star tossed 19 touchdown passes against a paltry pair of picks.
|Kirk Cousins' 2015 Season|
After leading Washington to the playoffs, it's no surprise that Redskins president Bruce Allen told ESPN Radio (via Liz Clarke of the Washington Post) that the team wants Cousins back in the fold in 2016.
"Kirk wants to be a Washington Redskin, and we want Kirk to be a Redskin," Allen said. "It'll work itself out."
However, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, talks have already hit a snag:
Adam Schefter @AdamSchefter
Redskins and QB Kirk Cousins have broken off contract talks, per team source. No further talks scheduled.2/16/2016, 7:00:47 PM
That snag, in the opinion of former agent and CBS Sports salary cap analyst Joel Corry (via the Washington Post's Master Tesfatsion), may have something to do with Cousins' representation:
[Cousins] has all the leverage. His agent, Mike McCartney, [is a] sharp guy that five years ago made Haloti Ngata the highest-paid interior defensive lineman on a veteran contract. He got a great deal for [running back] Arian Foster, who was going to be a restricted free agent tender. This is not going to be one of those [team-friendly] Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick-type structures.
Yes, the structures of the contracts signed by Dalton and Kaepernick are team-friendly in that their respective teams can effectively opt out every season. It's an escape hatch the San Francisco 49ers may well use this year after Kaepernick flatlined in 2015.
What they aren't is cheap.
Using contracts signed by young quarterbacks who were both drafted outside the first round and who have led their teams to the postseason in the past handful of years, we can arrive at something of a baseline in terms of average annual salary for a Cousins deal.
|Recent Quarterback Contracts|
|Player||Year||Years||Total||AAV||Guaranteed||Playoff Appearances Before Contract|
That average comes in at just about $19 million a season. If we split the difference between Dalton's and Kaepernick's "team-friendly" deals and Wilson's bonanza, we land in the neighborhood of $20-ish million in initial guarantees.
That's a lot of green for a quarterback who essentially has one season on his resume. In the three years prior to 2015, Cousins made nine total starts, throwing one more interception (19) than touchdowns (18). His record in those starts was a dismal 2-7.
By weight of comparison, by the time Wilson and Kaepernick got their big paydays, each had played in a Super Bowl. Dalton has yet to find success in the postseason, but he's led the Cincinnati Bengals to the playoffs every year he's played, and his career record as a starting quarterback is 24 games over .500.
Cousins is three games under .500 as a starter through four years, and even during his "breakout" 2015, Cousins ranked a middle-of-the-pack 16th at his position, according to Pro Football Focus.
Those are not numbers that scream, "Pay me $18-plus million a season."
And in the opinion of CBS Sports' Pete Prisco, that leaves the Redskins playing a dangerous game:
Pete Prisco @PriscoCBS
Can imagine what Kirk Cousins is asking for in contract talks. Dangerous deal for Redskins. Be careful. Good, not great.2/16/2016, 7:07:22 PM
Still, the only thing more certain than Cousins getting a fat payday in 2016 is that said payday will be coming in Washington. There is zero chance of the Redskins letting him anywhere near the open market.
The list of teams in the NFL who would have serious interest in Cousins were he to hit the open market runs the gamut, from the squad with the No. 2 pick in the 2016 NFL draft to the reigning Super Bowl champions.
What? You think the Denver Broncos wouldn't at least kick the tires?
Teams like the aforementioned Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers also have much more cap space than Washington.
There won't be a bidding war because the Redskins can't afford it.
That leaves two options: those long-term talks that just stalled or the franchise tag.
SB Nation NFL @SBNationNFL
Kirk Cousins appears headed for the franchise tag (for now) https://t.co/LrqQDdP2rF https://t.co/7JpzQMNxHA2/16/2016, 8:20:06 PM
Sorry. Had to work that in here somewhere.
Many pundits, including ESPN.com's John Keim, believe the Redskins may be eyeing the latter route with Cousins. And in a way, it makes a lot of sense. Yes, it would cost the team around $20 million to tag Cousins, but that's it. No long-term commitment. No giant pile of guaranteed green.
If you want it, Kirk, prove it. Prove that last year was but your first season as a franchise signal-caller and not the only one. Back 2015 up.
Of course, as Keim points out, another problem arises if Cousins does just that:
The franchise tag for quarterbacks will be approximately $20 million, which for one year is fine. But consider this: If Cousins signs a deal that averages, say, $18 million per season over five years it does not mean that's what his cap hit would be that amount this year or even the next two years. It's likely to be a few million dollars below that figure, at least this season. Their current cap figure for 2016 already includes Griffin's $16.15 million option so this would not hurt them against the cap. ...
You can construct the contract in a way that enables a team to escape if things go south. Of course, Cousins would only sign such a deal with a certain amount of money guaranteed, but it's the cap hit that will matter for Washington. Though Kaepernick received $61 million in guaranteed money, they're not total guarantees; in other words, they're tied to him being on the roster so the actual amount was $12.3 million (Dalton's was $17 million). Cousins would surpass those amounts, but spread over a five-year deal it wouldn't kill them.
Let's say Cousins plays under the tag this season and excels. The Redskins would have to pay even more in a long-term deal than they would have to this offseason. Or they would face the prospect of using the tag for a second year which, in essence, would mean they'd pay him around $44 million combined for two seasons. That's a lot more than he'd get if they signed him to a deal now.
At the end of the day, you can take this much to the bank. Whether as a franchise-tag salary for 2015 or as part of a long-term extension, Cousins is going to be depositing in the neighborhood of $20 million into his checking account in 2016. That check is going to be signed by the Washington Redskins. It's a paycheck that will take up about 13 percent of the Redskins' total cap.
And it's too much.
This isn't meant to criticize the Redskins. The simple fact is that when it comes to quarterbacks, demand outweighs supply. That, in turn, drives up their salaries. A marginally competent NFL starter makes $16-18 million a season.
Looking at you, Jay Cutler. Looking right...at...you.
Cousins is young, coming off a career season and about to hit the jackpot one way or another. The Redskins just don't have a choice.
Kirk Cousins is also, however, a quarterback with one strong season who has lost more games as a starter than he's won. The leader of a team that, while winning the NFC East last year, finished the season 9-7.
That makes the giant check Washington is about to hand Cousins a risky bet no matter what course of action it takes.
Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report, a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.