By all accounts, the Redskins intend to bring Cousins back for the 2017 season, whether by brokering a long-term contract or, if need be, using the NFL’s franchise tag to force his return for one more season. Other scenarios could be in play, too.
To recap, Cousins played his fifth season in Washington (and his second as the Redskins’ starting quarterback) under the NFL franchise tag in 2016, which guaranteed a $19.953 million annual salary. Cousins started all 16 games for a second consecutive season and broke the Redskins’ single-season passing record of 4,166 yards, which he set the previous year, by throwing for 4,917. He finished with 25 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions while leading the Redskins to their first back-to-back winning seasons in 20 years.
But unlike 2015, when Cousins played his best down the stretch of the season (finishing with 29 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions), he played poorly in two late-season games, against Carolina and the New York Giants, that were crucial to the team’s playoff hopes. Largely as a result, the Redskins missed the playoffs with an 8-7-1 record.
Nonetheless, Cousins is a good fit for the Redskins’ offense. He is sturdy, starting all 32 regular season games since being named the starter. Though Cousins will be 29 when the 2017 NFL season opens, Coach Jay Gruden believes he is still improving. And the Redskins have few appealing alternatives, with the 2017 draft class and free agent crop regarded as thin on quality quarterbacks.
Here’s a look at the various scenarios in play regarding Cousins’s future, followed by a comment on the probability of each:
Scenario No. 1 — The Redskins complete a long-term deal with Cousins by March 1, the deadline for NFL teams to apply the franchise or transition tag.
Probability: Low. Cousins has no incentive to get the process over quickly, before his agent has a chance to see the value of other quarterback contracts this offseason and before Cousins has a chance to gauge with other NFL teams might have interest in him.
Scenario No. 2 — The Redskins allow Cousins to become an unrestricted free agent and take their chances on re-signing him, bidding against other teams on the open market, if they decide they want him back in 2017.
Probability: Low. Needlessly risky, when the Redskins have other options for limiting Cousins’s movement while they work toward a long-term contract.
Scenario No. 3 — If the two sides can’t agree on a long-term deal by Feb. 15, the Redskins prevent Cousins from going elsewhere by using the NFL’s exclusive franchise tag during the permissible window, Feb. 15 through March 1. The exclusive franchise tag prevents Cousins from negotiating with other teams while “buying time” for the Redskins and Cousins to reach a long-term deal by July 15.
Probability: High to middle. The exclusive franchise tag gives the Redskins the most control over the situation, while giving them roughly five months to keep working toward a long-term deal.
Scenario 3B — The Redskins and Cousins reach a long-term deal by the July 15 deadline, which replaces the exclusive franchise tag the moment Cousins signs it.
Probability: Middle. The Redskins’ top offer during the failed talks for a long-term deal in 2016 was $16 million annually, with $24 million guaranteed. Cousins sought $20 million annually and $60 million guaranteed. Neither side budged much, if at all. It’s logical to assume that in 2017, Cousins would seek a minimum annual salary of $24 million and a guarantee of $60 million or more in any long-term deal. Both sides would have to ‘give,’ in all likelihood, in order to reach a long-term deal this offseason.
Scenario 3C — If no long-term deal is reached by July 15, Cousins must play for the Redskins under the franchise tag for one more year, at a guaranteed salary that’s estimated to be about $24 million.
Probability: High to middle. A sound option that gives the Redskins total control of Cousins’s next step.
Scenario No. 4 — If the two sides can’t agree on a long-term deal by Feb. 15, the Redskins limit Cousins’s ability to go elsewhere by using the NFL’s non-exclusive franchise tag during the permissible window, Feb. 15 to March 1. Under the non-exclusive tag, which guarantees a salary that’s slightly less than the exclusive tag, Cousins can negotiate with other teams and sign an offer from another team. But the Redskins have the right to match that other team’s offer.
Probability: High to middle. Also a sound option that buys time for the Redskins, protects their investment in Cousins and assures compensation (see below), if another team wants to pay above what the Redskins are willing to match.
Scenario 4B — If Cousins signs an offer sheet with another team, the Redskins match the offer to keep him in Washington.
Probability: High to middle, depending on the value of the offer.
Scenario 4C — If Cousins signs an offer sheet with another team that the Redskins decline to match, the Redskins are compensated with two first-round draft picks by the team that signs Cousins.
Probability: Low. Many are skeptical that an NFL team would give up two first-round picks for Cousins, but all it takes is for one team to feel he’s worth the price if they believe he’s the best fit. Redskins General Manager Scot McCloughan loves additional draft picks, and the Redskins have multiple needs to address on their roster.
Scenario 4D — If Cousins signs an offer sheet with another team that the Redskins decline to match, the Redskins can agree to accept less than two first-round picks as compensation by working out a “tag and trade” deal — for example, accepting a first- and third-round pick or a second- and third-round pick in a trade for Cousins.
Probability: Middle. The Redskins would get something of value in exchange for Cousins, but they would need to have a solid Plan B in mind for their starting quarterback in 2017.
Scenario No. 5 — If the two sides can’t agree on a long-term deal by Feb. 15, the Redskins limit Cousins’s ability to go elsewhere by using the NFL’s transition tag during the permissible window ( Feb. 15 to March 1). The transition tag’s salary guarantee is less than franchise tag (The NFL hasn’t yet released the position-by-position tag values for 2017. In 2016, the transition tag value for quarterbacks was $17.696 million — or roughly $2.3 million less than the franchise tag.) Under the franchise tag, Cousins could negotiate with other teams and sign an offer from another team. The Redskins would have only the right of first refusal and would get no draft-pick compensation if they choose not to match the other team’s offer.
Probability: Low. The savings of the transition tag isn’t worth the risk of losing Cousins without getting any compensation.
Scenario No. 6 — If the Redskins give up on negotiations toward a long-term deal after tagging Cousins and, for any reason, change their mind about bringing him back (as the Carolina Panthers did in March/April 2016 after applying the non-exclusive tag to cornerback Josh Norman) — they rescind the tag, making Cousins a free agent. If they rescind the tag, the Redskins would get no compensation.
Probability: Low. It’s all but impossible to imagine a change of heart that would involve the Redskins letting Cousins go without getting something in return.
Scenario No. 7 — Cousins signs the contract once he is franchised by the Redskins, guaranteeing the one-year deal and effectively ending the need for further negotiations toward a long-term deal.
Probability: Low. It’s in Cousins’s interest to wait until the last possible minute to sign any contract, so he can weigh the Redskins’ offer against other quarterbacks’ 2017 deals.