If anything’s been made abundantly clear in Washington, it’s this: The team isn’t yet ready to commit to Kirk Cousins for the long-term. Cousins will bank $19.95 million this season, all of it fully guaranteed, via the franchise tag. He’ll be the first quarterback since Drew Brees in 2005 and the second quarterback ever to play a season under the tag.
As Mike Florio posited Monday on the MMQB, General Manager Scot McCloughan has “quiet confidence that he can find another quarterback with comparable skill for a lot less money” and “the team believes that, by 2017 or 2018, it will have found a quarterback on a slotted, low-money rookie four-year deal who can do what Cousins does, or close to it.”
Should the franchise seek to replace Cousins, it’s worth considering what traits the 27-year-old has and lacks.
In his first full season as an NFL starting quarterback, Cousins barely finished in the top half of Pro Football Focus’s quarterback rankings, but led the team to its second NFC East title in the past 15 years. While casually dicing up opposing defenses when he was kept on his feet, to the tune of a 114.7 passer rating, 23 touchdowns, four interceptions and a completion percentage of 76.8 — his numbers plummeted under pressure; a passer rating of 72.3, seven touchdowns, seven interceptions, and a completion percentage of 53.9.
Some saw a player who improved immensely over the second half of a roller coaster-like regular season, a conservative play-caller with an above-average passing acumen, deft at limiting turnovers and piecing together timely scoring drives. But others were apprehensive about the league-leading 69.8 percent completion rate marred by inconsistency and an arm that rarely produced highlight-reel fodder. As Bomani Jones put it to Dan Steinberg in October, “He’s yet to demonstrate that he is capable of being very much.”
Washington’s option do not end with Cousins. Here are three college quarterbacks the team could turn to in the coming years, if it needs a new signal caller.
Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
Rudolph’s first season as a collegiate starting quarterback proved tantalizing.
The 6-foot-5, 235-pound quarterback has NFL-type size and a laser-like arm capable of feathering or driving the ball mostly anywhere on the field. More importantly, though, he takes care of the ball. Pro Football Focus noted that, despite attempting 424 passes last season, Rudolph only had 12 turnover-worthy throws last season, or 2.8 percent of his attempts. His 149.1 passer rating ranked in the top 30 nationally, and again, he was just a sophomore, in his first season under center as a starter.
Rudolph has no problem chucking the ball down the field, either: He holds the school record in yards per completion (9.1). On passes of 20-plus yards last season, Rudolph amassed the most completions (42) and yards gained (1,425) of any quarterback in a Power Five conference, with an adjusted completion percentage of 57.3, 6.6 percentage points higher than Ben Roethlisberger’s NFL-leading clip last season.
Under pressure, Rudolph averaged more yards per pass attempt (9.4 compared to 8.6), and saw his passer rating drop 6.1 percentage points, meaningfully less than the national average of 35.7.
Rudolph is Phil Steele’s No. 9 overall quarterback prospect heading into this season, a player capable of making drive-saving throws and tossing deep balls to Washington’s bevy of talented receivers.
NFL comparable: Ben Roethlisberger
The measurables are nearly identical (Rudolph is 6 feet 5, 230 pounds, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.77 seconds; Roethlisberger is 6 feet 5, 240 pounds, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.76 seconds), both excel under extreme duress, and have the arm strength to lace the ball into tough-to-reach areas of the field.
Like Roethlisberger, Rudolph accounted for more than 20 touchdown passes and 3,000 yards in his first season as a starter. Each produced an above-average passing efficiency rating, too (Roethlisberger: 146.5; Rudolph: 149.1). The Miami quarterback saw significant slight upticks his second season under center and then exploded during his junior campaign, throwing for 37 touchdowns and 4,486 yards. Rudolph should see progressions if for no other reason than he’s no longer splitting reps with J.W. Walsh, who played in all 13 games last season as Oklahoma State’s run-first quarterback option.
Chad Kelly, Ole Miss
Kelly can sling darts down the field; his deep adjusted completion rate of 53 percent ranks second to Rudolph among returning quarterbacks.
Last season he was one of 12 quarterbacks to throw for more than 4,000 yards, and his 4,551 total yards were the third most of any player in conference history. To cap the year, he became the first Ole Miss Rebel since Archie Manning in 1970 to win Sugar Bowl MVP honors.
Kelly, whose quarterback rating (87.0) is nine points higher than any other player in the conference, enters this season as a contender for a number of national accolades, and is a member of a select group of players who has a self-released rap song that simply lists his accomplishments.
The 6-foot-2, 224-pound senior is calm under pressure; his passer rating dropped 13 points when he was under duress last season, a far better split than the national average. When blitzed, his quarterback rating (110.3) was 23 percentage points higher than the national average (87.3).
Kelly is Phil Steele’s No. 3 overall quarterback prospect. Adding Kelly means adding a superior runner, and a player with the arm strength to navigate the entire field.
NFL comparable: Jay Cutler
Like the Chicago Bears starting quarterback, Kelly (6 feet 2, 224 pounds, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.76 seconds) has a slingshot for an arm. Unlike Cutler (6 feet 3, 231 pounds, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.77 seconds), Kelly seems to be better attuned to preventing turnovers. Both are unafraid to take shots down the field, allowing their receivers to high point the ball and make plays.
Kelly’s college numbers already are far superior to Cutler’s — for example, Cutler never had a season in which he threw for more than 3,100 yards and 21 touchdowns; Kelly just finished a campaign in which he threw for more than 4,000 yards and 31 touchdowns in his first season as a starter at Ole Miss. Kelly’s 155.9 passer efficiency rating last season is more than 21 points higher than Cutler’s best single season at Vanderbilt. However, like Kelly, Cutler put his opportunistic mobility on display during college, amassing more than 300 rushing yards in two of his four college years; Kelly ran for 509 yards last year.
Jake Browning, Washington
The sophomore has a chance to blossom into one of the top quarterbacks in the country this season. Last year, Browning became the first true freshman to start for a Chris Petersen-led unit.
Browning was the highest graded true freshman in the country last season, according to Pro Football Focus, inexplicably improving his ratings under pressure. While UCLA’s Josh Rosen garnered much of the freshman attention, Browning quietly put together the 15th-highest passing grade in the nation, returning as the sixth-best passer in adjusted completion percentage on deep balls and the second-best passer in throws under pressure.
He’ll be operating with fewer weapons this season, which should test his 63.3 percent completion rating, but the 6-foot-2, 205-pound quarterback has displayed remarkable composure and productivity in a short collegiate career.
Browning also proved to be productive in the run game, offering an improvement to Cousins in mobility, while also being a more controlled quarterback under pressure.
NFL comparable: Aaron Rodgers
Browning is still very green, but has proven proficient at making throws on the run, extending plays and appropriately checking down to receivers and running backs. Like the Green Bay starting quarterback, Browning will take shots down the field, but rarely makes the mistake of forcing balls into traffic.
Browning and Rodgers both threw for more than 2,900 yards and 15 touchdowns in their first seasons as college starting quarterbacks. While Rodgers’s passer efficiency rating (146.6) was higher than Browning’s (139.3), he also benefited from playing at a junior college his freshman year, while Browning was thrust into the limelight as soon as he stepped foot on campus. Browning didn’t rush for nearly as much yardage as Rodgers, but neither of the players are run-first quarterbacks and Rodgers’s abilities to navigate in the open field seemed to develop once he reached the NFL.