Once again, the Washington Redskins and Kirk Cousins stood pat, and once again, the team’s quarterback situation will lack clarity beyond the season ahead. As expected, the NFL’s 4 p.m. deadline passed Monday with Cousins and the team failing to reach a long-term deal, meaning he will play a second consecutive season under the team’s franchise-player tag, entitling him to a salary of $24 million.
Team president Bruce Allen revealed in a meeting with a small group of local reporters that the Redskins on May 2 offered Cousins a deal that would have paid him a total of $53 million in guaranteed money, and that in the event of injury, the quarterback would have received $72 million.
However, Cousins can still make similar — if not more — money just by waiting. If he played for the Redskins under the transition tag in 2018, he would earn $28 million, and if he played under the franchise tag, he would earn $34 million.
The proposal also called for Cousins to essentially play for less in the seasons of 2019 through 2022. His average salary would have been in the low $20-million range, one person with knowledge of the offer said, during years that could be considered his prime.
The failure to reach an agreement hardly came as a surprise. People familiar with the behind-the-scenes workings of the negotiations had long maintained the Redskins had virtually no chance of signing the sixth-year veteran to a long-term contract, despite repeated public declarations that they wanted to do so.
Many league insiders believed that to have a legitimate chance of re-signing Cousins, Washington would have had to guarantee much more. Projections based off the quarterback market called for roughly $58 million or more guaranteed at signing, and roughly another $30 million in guaranteed money over the life of the deal.
“I thought they were going to have to beat Ndamukong Suh’s mark of $60 million guaranteed at signing, and they were going to have to get in the Andrew Luck neighborhood in overall guaranteed [$87 million] and to make him the highest-paid player to make Cousins even consider,” said former NFL agent Joel Corry, now an analyst for National Football Post and CBS Sports. “If you weren’t going to do all those things, their side wasn’t going to think it was a legitimate offer that was worth their while.”
The Redskins and Cousins’s agent, Mike McCartney, always viewed the quarterback’s value in a different light. McCartney believed his client deserved to be paid like one of the top players at his position after proving himself in back-to-back seasons as Washington’s starter.
Last year, the Redskins offered Cousins roughly $4 million less annually than what McCartney asked for, saying they wanted to see the quarterback prove his 4,000-yard production in 2015 wasn’t a fluke. Cousins played on the franchise tag in 2016, earning $19.95 million (the average of the top five quarterback salaries) and threw for nearly 5,000 yards, earning a Pro Bowl invitation while leading Washington to back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in nearly two decades.
But Redskins officials and McCartney still didn’t see eye-to-eye after resuming negotiations this offseason. The starting point for negotiations, according to the Cousins camp, should have been around $24 million a year. The Redskins, meanwhile, initially offered just $20 million per year, and only limited guaranteed money.
Neither side budged, so Washington had to use the tag again. The Redskins could have traded Cousins after placing the tag on him, or they could have hammered out a long-term deal. But no trade suitor was willing to meet the asking price, which league insiders said was two first-round picks, and talks between the team and player agent proved fruitless.
Some people familiar with Cousins’s thinking said early in the offseason that the quarterback had no intention of signing a multiple-year deal with Washington, because team officials displayed only a lukewarm commitment to him based on their less-than-market-value offers in 2016 and 2017. The same people also said the quarterback had expressed a desire to test his value on the open market. The franchise tag prevented him from doing that.
Cousins’s lack of concern for long-term stability differs from the approach many players take because they fear injury and want to ensure financial security for multiple years. Cousins is used to having the odds stacked against him. He concluded his senior high school season without a scholarship offer, getting one from Michigan State only after the Spartans’ top quarterback prospects turned them down.
Cousins then entered the NFL as a fourth-round pick, drafted 100 selections after Washington took Robert Griffin III at No. 2 overall. The quarterback’s prospects of becoming a starter with the Redskins seemed bleak. But injuries derailed Griffin’s career, and Cousins ascended up the ranks, leading the team to the division title in 2015, and then played well despite the pressure of the franchise tag in 2016, and he entered this offseason prepared to do the same.
And now, that’s exactly what will happen. People familiar with Cousins’s thinking said that the quarterback wasn’t upset over Washington’s lack of a better offer. Instead, Cousins and those in his camp are excited to see what he can accomplish in a third season as starter.
Once again, Cousins finds himself in position to further drive up his value.
“If he does what he’s done the past two years, it’ll go up because it went up from 2016 based on what he did last year,” Corry said. “So if he goes out and throws another 4,500 yards, completes 67 to 69 percent of his passes, 2-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 100 passer rating, he can pretty much name his price.”
The Redskins have roughly six months to decide how to proceed at quarterback.
They passed on the chance to select a quarterback in this year’s draft. And the company line is that they want Cousins to be their quarterback for years to come. But they’ll have to show him that financially.
If Cousins plays well this season, his asking price only will increase. Washington will have three options: (1) give Cousins whatever he asks and swiftly sign him to an extension following the season; (2) use the franchise tag a third time to maintain control of his rights; (3) use the transition tag to give themselves at least a chance to match whatever offer Cousins receives from another team.
A third straight franchise tag is unheard of. Cousins already is the first quarterback to play on the franchise tag for two seasons. And a third straight designation would compute to a salary of around $34 million for the 2018 campaign. But the Redskins might not have a choice.
“It’s ludicrous on one level, but if he takes his game to another level, they’re not really going to have a choice,” Corry said. “I always thought Bruce didn’t help himself in negotiating process by throwing it on the table that [using the tag in 2018] might be a possibility, because then the agent says, ‘Okay, I’m at $44 [million] over two [years]. Then you throw basically another $34-and-a-half [million] in there, and I’m at $78 million, basically over three. Why would I do anything other than year to year when I can make over $26 million dollars that way [per year, on average] and then be free if I’m ready to walk next year?'”
If Washington did use the nonexclusive franchise tag in 2018, another team could court Cousins, but would have to part with two first-round draft picks to obtain his rights.
The transition tag is the more affordable route, because it means guaranteeing Cousins a salary of $28 million. But significant risk comes along with that. Another team could simply outbid the Redskins, giving the quarterback an offer too rich for Washington’s liking, and he could then sign with said team, and Washington would receive no compensation.
Washington will indeed likely face competition to sign Cousins if Allen opts for the transition tag route. Cousins has long been linked to first-year 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, who served as Redskins offensive coordinator from 2010-13. And teams are always looking for quality quarterbacks regardless of previous ties. Cousins would then simply cash in again.
“I would not rule out $30 million per year if you get the 49ers and some other team bidding for Kirk Cousins as an unrestricted free agent, or if there’s a transition tag,” Corry said. “Because you could put an offer sheet out there when you have $100 million in cap room like the Niners are going to have, and put out an offer that the Redskins won’t want to match or can’t match.”
If Washington opts to let Cousins walk via free agency, the organization would then have to turn to either holdovers Colt McCoy or Nate Sudfeld, or another quarterback on the market, and also possibly draft a quarterback. That would basically be the equivalent of starting over, after working to build a contending team over the previous three years.