Buyer Beware: Kirk Cousins Could Be Fool's Gold on the 2018 Free-Agent Market

Doug Farrar@@BR_DougFarrar NFL Lead ScoutFebruary 20, 2018

Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) throws a pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the New York Giants Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

Over the last two seasons, Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins ranks seventh in the NFL in passing attempts (1,146), fourth in completions (753), third in passing yards (9,010) and ninth in touchdown passes. Among quarterbacks with at least 1,000 total attempts in that time period, only Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Tom Brady have a higher completion percentage than Cousins' 65.7 percent, and he did half of this during a 2017 season in which his two best 2016 receivers—DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon—were lost to free agency.

On January 30, the Redskins rewarded Cousins for this work by trading for former 49ers and Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith and signing Smith to a contract extension that guarantees him $71 million and keeps him with the team through 2022 if they're so inclined.

It's understandable if that left Cousins miffed, and with the news that the Redskins may franchise-tag Cousins and then try to trade him to a willing suitor, per ESPN's Adam Schefter, it's also understandable if Cousins was a bit confused.

In any case, Cousins will be playing for a new team in 2018, and he's going to get paid handsomely to do it. The 49ers set the tone with their recent re-signing of Jimmy Garoppolo to a five-year, $137.5 million contract with $42.6 million in the first year and $74.1 million guaranteed for injury. It's entirely likely that some quarterback-desperate team will take a look at this draft class, prefer to make the big free-agent splash in an attempt to win now and back up a Brink's truck to Cousins' front door.

Mark Tenally/Associated Press

The question is: Will that team get the quarterback it wants for that amount of money? If you're giving Cousins the kind of contract that makes him among the highest-paid players in league history, it's entirely reasonable to want a quarterback who can define his team with abilities both inside and outside of structure that other quarterbacks would find tough to beat. The kind of plays that you see on a regular basis from Brady, Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger. Transcendent plays that turn the cost of a quarterback into clear value.

In Cousins' case, there's room for skepticism. While he will occasionally make the kinds of "dead-on" throws into contested areas you want to see from a true franchise quarterback, his last two seasons show a more common picture of a player whose teammates and scheme have helped him to a large degree—and when he doesn't have those things, the picture gets muddy pretty quickly.

To his credit, Cousins has smoothed out a lot of the mechanical issues that plagued him through the early parts of his NFL career. He's far less likely to throw off-balance or flat-footed when he's flushed from the pocket, and he's better at squaring his shoulders to the target when he's on the run. This shows that he works hard to eliminate his inefficiencies.  

But when we talk about Cousins as a hypothetical $25 million-plus-per-year quarterback, the complication is that key inefficiencies remain. Specifying these issues is as simple as reviewing a few of Cousins' late-season interceptions and detailing the factors that caused them.

Here, Cousins has two slot receivers to the left side in Jamison Crowder (No. 80) and Ryan Grant (No. 14) and Josh Doctson (No. 18) as the outside receiver. Cousins has a favorable concept here, with Doctson running an inside crosser while Grant runs up the numbers and Crowder has an intermediate outside route. The idea is for the slot receivers to clear the short area to that side so that Cousins has an easy read to Doctson if he needs it.

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Turns out he does, because the Giants are running an overload blitz to Cousins' right side with safety Andrew Adams (No. 33) and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (No. 41). Adams gets through quickly to pressure Cousins, and this reduces Cousins' time to read the coverage—specifically the zone drop of linebacker Kelvin Sheppard (No. 47).

NFL Media

The veteran linebacker already commits to covering Doctson underneath before Cousins releases the ball, but in that split second, Cousins is still committed to his underneath read, and Sheppard has this all sussed out.

NFL Media

Sheppard jumps the route for an easy interception. Could Cousins have moved to his left to buy himself more time and perhaps hit an open Crowder? He did have defensive end Olivier Vernon (No. 54) closing in to that side, but there was still room to move. Cousins committed to what he thought would be there, and he didn't see what Sheppard was setting up. In the final screenshot here, you can see that both Crowder and Grant are getting themselves open if Cousins wants to make the deeper throw into less congested coverage. 

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The third of Cousins' three picks on the day was also Sheppard's second. There are two minutes, 51 seconds left in the game, and the Redskins have 2nd-and-6 at their own 31-yard line, down 18-10. Cousins doesn't have to make a heroic throw—if he moves the chains, that's OK. Here, he has Grant and running back Kapri Bibbs (No. 39) running a mesh concept over the middle.

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However, the mesh is sloppy because Bibbs loses his footing coming out of the backfield, and whatever Cousins was supposed to deduce from linebacker movement against that double crossing route doesn't happen.

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Instead, Sheppard drops to a spot in front of where Grant will finish his crosser, and Cousins is so intent on throwing the ball there that he misses Bibbs as an open receiver coming the other way. Cousins' perception of this play is affected by Vernon crashing through and moving the quarterback from his spot.

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So, Cousins does what a lot of quarterbacks do when pressured: He defaults to the easy read without resetting and aligning his vision with the open receiver. Because of that, Sheppard—who had never intercepted a pass in his seven-year NFL career—has his second easy pick of the day.

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Jay Gruden said after the game that Cousins may have been trying to do too much, but if there's one common trait among Cousins' less impressive games, it's that his processing speed isn't quite where it needs to be. Often, you'll see Cousins throw just a bit early, just a bit late—he'll throw his receivers into converged coverage when the ideal choice is to throw one's receivers open. To do this requires not only the awareness of the timing of the route, but also the ability to, in a fraction of a second, adjust from the throw you thought you had to the one you've got. It's one more characteristic that separates the best quarterbacks from all the others, and it's something that doesn't show up enough in Cousins' game tape.

There are few more egregious examples of this than his interception in Week 16 against the Denver Broncos.

Here, the Redskins have 2nd-and-goal at Denver's 9-yard line with 9:36 left in the third quarter, up 10-3 in a game they would eventually win, 27-11. Presnap, Grant moves from left to right and cornerback Aqib Talib (No. 21) follows him, helping Cousins to discern that there will be man coverage. Grant runs a nice option route to the right boundary of the end zone, but Cousins is reading to his left the whole time—he doesn't see Grant to that side.

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To his left, Cousins has two reads—tight end Vernon Davis (No. 85) running a crosser from right to left and covered by linebacker Todd Davis (No. 51) and Doctson running a slant to the goalpost.

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The issue with throwing the ball to Doctson is obvious—the Broncos are clustering their defensive backs in the middle back of the end zone, right where he's going. It will require a perfectly timed throw to beat the coverage and connect for the touchdown. Cousins starts his progression with a pump fake in Davis' area and then comes back and throws to Doctson later than he should. Safeties Will Parks (No. 34) and Darian Stewart (No. 26) are leveraging to Doctson's eventual spot, and because Cousins throws late and indecisively, there's no way his target is getting the ball.

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At the end of this play, it's so congested toward the goalpost that cornerback Chris Harris Jr. (No. 25) is backing off because he doesn't want to interfere with what is a gimme interception unless two or more Broncos defenders run into each other.

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Cousins has said in the recent past that he wants to win now, which leaves more developmental, quarterback-starved teams like the New York Jets and Denver Broncos out of the equation if that is indeed the priority. What's more likely in that scenario is a pairing with the Minnesota Vikings or Jacksonville Jaguars, though the Jets have over $73 million in 2018 cap room available, per Over The Cap, if they want to break the proverbial bank. The Vikings come into the 2018 league year with nearly $50 million in cap space and a highly unresolved quarterback situation, which could present an ideal fit.

The "win now" scenario makes sense for Cousins in more ways than one. Teams like the Vikings and Jaguars have the players to support a quarterback and prevent him from spending too much time outside his talent curve. At least at this point in his career, Cousins still needs a team around him to hit the highest marks. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but this brings the question of value into focus.

Is the team that pays Kirk Cousins at a record level going to get the kind of quarterback worthy of that investment? Unless he continues to iron out the kinks, Cousins could be fool's gold for that franchise.

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