With the franchise-tag deadline looming Wednesday, a handful of impending unrestricted free agents were slapped with the tag at the start of the week.
And while Washington finally did tag 2016's seventh-highest-rated passer on Tuesday, the delay until the eleventh hour lends credence to the idea that the team might not be convinced Cousins is the man to lead it for years to come.
That perception has existed for some time, mainly because the Redskins low-balled Cousins in long-term negotiations last offseason, per Mike Garafolo of NFL Network, and because he remains without a tender—let alone a contract—right now.
And then you've got the well-connected Daniel Jeremiah from NFL Media, who suggested on 1090 AM San Diego last week that there's greater than a 50 percent chance Cousins isn't a Redskin in 2017. Jeremiah was connecting dots in D.C. and California, where the San Francisco 49ers have an opening at quarterback, plenty of money to spend and a new head coach who used to oversee the Redskins offense.
Might Cousins wind up reuniting with Kyle Shanahan in the Bay Area? Might he land elsewhere? The Broncos, Bears, Texans, Jaguars, Jets, Bills and Browns could all seek something new under center. If any are willing to pay Cousins more than the Redskins are, you might see Washington make a deal.
For now, he's Washington's property at a projected cost of $23.94 million. But the Redskins still have the ability to trade him at any point.
General manager Scot McCloughan would be best served by biting the bullet and paying the man. Promise him his $24 million this week, rule out a trade, and hope to work out a long-term agreement that will save the team money in the short term.
Worst case, you get another year with a Pro Bowl quarterback in his prime, giving you a distinct opportunity to make a run in a league that possesses 32 teams and fewer than 32 franchise-caliber quarterbacks. If he crashes and burns in his third season as a starter, you move on knowing you took a swing at a hittable pitch. And if he succeeds, you have enough evidence that he's the real deal to fork over big long-term bucks in 2018.
Best case, you strike a long-term deal this summer and have several years with a quarterback who has been one of the best in the game since becoming a starter in 2015. If he crashes and burns, you hope it was a one-year anomaly and hold on for another season or two. If he succeeds, you look smart.
In none of those "keep Cousins" scenarios would the Redskins be forced to wonder what could have been. The only way that happens is if they trade him and his career continues to take off elsewhere.
You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. The Redskins have to consider what teams like San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Houston, Jacksonville and Cleveland have been going through. They have to avoid "grass is greener" syndrome like the plague. They don't have a suitable replacement for Cousins, and nobody in the draft or on the market has the same credentials.
Let's remember that we're talking about a 28-year-old quarterback who during his first two full seasons as a starter has been the sixth-highest-rated qualified passer in the NFL, behind only Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott (who's only played a single year). In that span, only three quarterbacks (Brees, Ryan and Philip Rivers) have passed for more yards than Cousins' 9,083, yet 12 have thrown more interceptions. And his 7.91 yards-per-attempt average ranks fifth, behind only Ryan, Wilson, Prescott and Ben Roethlisberger.
|Highest-rated qualified passers, 2015-2016|
|1. Tom Brady||Patriots||106.3|
|2. Matt Ryan||Falcons||102.1|
|3. Drew Brees||Saints||101.4|
|4. Russell Wilson||Seahawks||100.8|
|5. Kirk Cousins||Redskins||99.3|
|6. Aaron Rodgers||Packers||98.6|
|Pro Football Reference (min. 20 starts)|
With Cousins under center, the Redskins bounced back from a four-win 2014 season by winning the NFC East in 2015. The next year, he again led them to a winning campaign. In both seasons, the Redskins ranked 28th in the league on defense.
He led the NFL with a 69.8 completion percentage in 2015 and made the Pro Bowl with the NFL's third-highest yards-per-attempt average (8.1) in 2016. Only Brees had more 20-plus-yard completions last year, and nobody completed more 50-plus-yard passes. Pro Football Focus rated him as the third-best quarterback in the NFL, behind only Brady (MVP runner-up) and Ryan (MVP).
Is there room for improvement? Of course. The dude's not perfect and is far from consistent. But again, he's two years into his career as a regular starter. At the same stage, Aaron Rodgers, for example, had hardly been better.
|Kirk Cousins vs. Aaron Rodgers: First 2 years as a regular starter|
|Pro Football Reference|
Just last week, two former NFL players, Jordan Rodgers and Tiki Barber, said they'd rather have Cousins than 2015 MVP Cam Newton (h/t Barstool Sports). The very fact a claim like that can be made with a straight face goes to show how far he's come.
If the Redskins deal him away, they run the risk of embarrassing themselves while also taking a step backward with a less proven quarterback outside of his prime.
"It's ironic that the Redskins have spent the last 25 years looking for stability at quarterback, and now they finally find that guy and face the strong likelihood they could lose him this year or next," Mike Jones wrote for the Washington Post. "Cousins falling into the Redskins' lap in the fourth round of the 2012 draft and developing into a life raft after the RGIII debacle was a godsend for this franchise. But now the Redskins find themselves on the brink of [another] debacle."
The Redskins could have avoided this entire potential "debacle" by giving Cousins a long-term deal last offseason, but it's clear they weren't confident in him yet. It's possible they still aren't, but Cousins has all of the leverage now, regardless.
The Redskins have to forget the 2016 offseason. The $19.95 million they paid Cousins under the franchise tag in 2016 is a sunk cost. Refusing to pay him $23.94 million with a new tag or $25-plus million per year on a long-term contract because you've already given him $20 million will only make things worse. And letting him potentially succeed elsewhere while you start from scratch at quarterback is a nightmare scenario, especially when—according to Over the Cap—you've got nearly $59 million in salary cap space.
Can you really put a price on a franchise quarterback? The numbers indicate that's what Cousins is becoming, and unless Brady, Ryan, Rodgers, Brees, Roethlisberger, Wilson, Newton, Andrew Luck or Derek Carr becomes available, he's by far the most qualified applicant for the job.
Look at the Super Bowl winners this century. We're talking about teams led by established stars under center. Thirteen of the last 14 Super Bowls have been won by guys named Brady, Manning, Roethlisberger, Rodgers, Brees and Wilson. The 14th was won by Joe Flacco when he threw 11 touchdown passes to zero interceptions in the 2012 postseason.
Extreme exceptions notwithstanding, you can't compete in the most pass-happy era in professional history without a star quarterback.
The Redskins could save money and gain draft currency by trading Cousins. But again, his replacement will have a less convincing resume. History indicates that even an early first-round draft pick has no better than a 50/50 chance at becoming a high-quality starting quarterback, and that often takes several years.
I get the feeling the Redskins are well aware of all of this. I get the feeling they'll keep Cousins and try their damnedest to sign him to a long-term deal this spring or summer. I'd like to think they see the big picture here, and that they realize this is a no-brainer.
But in this league, and with this team, you just never know.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.