Sports Columnist

Kirk Cousins gave his doubters fuel with two interceptions in a season-ending loss to the Giants. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The Redskins should let Kirk Cousins test the market in free agency.

Paying the quarterback $24.5 million under the franchise tag next season or as much as $120 million over five years on a long-term deal would not be the best path for Washington to reach a Super Bowl. While Cousins is an above-average quarterback, he hasn’t shown that he can carry a team.

For the Redskins to truly become Super Bowl contenders after 9-7 and 8-7-1 seasons in the past two years, they need to make several big moves, and not just in the draft. Washington needs to conserve money for free agency, and breaking the bank for a quarterback who was unreliable in critical losses to the Panthers and, most recently, the Giants would limit spending on defensive playmakers.

Some desperate team could offer Cousins $24.5 million per year. But his value should be closer to $20 million after he faded in the final weeks of the regular season. If the Redskins, who know every aspect of Cousins’ game, are reluctant to pay him like the face of the franchise, other teams will be skeptical, too.

At best, the Redskins might keep Cousins with a cheaper deal in a softer market. At worst, they have enough offensive stars to prop up a lesser passer while gaining salary cap room to build the defense.

Improving from bad to fair is not the NFL’s hardest challenge. It’s going from good to great. While losing Cousins might seem like a step backward, making smart moves with the money saved could elevate the team into elite ranks.

Cousins has led comeback wins, but his second season as a starter fueled fears that he’s more of a fantasy stats freak than a consistent gamer. While Cousins set team records for single-season passing yardage in each of the past two years, the Redskins went just 1-5-1 in games this season when he topped 300 yards.

After signing Cousins to a one-year, $19.95 million deal under the franchise tag before the season, general manager Scot McCloughan is again on the clock to make a franchise-defining call. McCloughan should either bring Cousins back for a reasonable price or find a replacement while using Cousins’ money to find difference makers on defense.

Backup Colt McCoy would almost certainly be a downgrade from Cousins, but he’s probably a better option than most available free agents. McCoy could play while the team grooms a draft pick. When McCloughan was with Seattle, he found Russell Wilson in the third round in 2012. Wilson makes an average of $21.9 million per year now, but he took the Seahawks to two straight Super Bowls while still playing on a rookie contract that paid him less than $1 million per year. To build a true contender, the Redskins need a cheaper passer than Cousins.

McCloughan is supposed to be a draft savant, but so far he’s found just three solid players in his first two drafts. Guard Brandon Scherff is headed to the Pro Bowl, receiver Jamison Crowder is an emerging playmaker and versatile defender Su’a Cravens has a bright future. The general manager needs to build depth, and he can’t do that if his budget is entirely tied to the quarterback.

Cousins is worth keeping, but not at any price.

Read more columns from Rick Snider:

A playoff berth could secure Kirk Cousins’ future with the Redskins

To rediscover their offense, the Redskins must go deep

Why choose? The Redskins should bring back Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson.

Even if the Redskins make the playoffs, their defense isn’t good enough to contend