After playing the 2016 season under the franchise tag, Kirk Cousins is less than a month away from reaching free agency.
Of course, Washington has a chance to keep the quarterback around by either negotiating a long-term deal with Cousins or using the franchise tag to lock him down for another season.
The problem is that after more than a year of trying to broker a long-term deal with Cousins, Washington has seemingly made no progress. And with free agency coming on March 9, the only way to make sure Cousins doesn’t leave is to give him the franchise tag for a second consecutive season, which would pay him a little more than $23.9 million guaranteed.
It’s a sticky situation for Washington, which doesn’t want to lose its starting quarterback but also doesn’t want to submarine its salary cap situation for one player.
Cousins is worth paying even if he isn’t elite
Quarterback is a position a team can’t be without in the NFL. For years, the Houston Texans have been on the doorstep of something big but haven’t been able to find even halfway competent quarterback play.
No matter what your opinion of Cousins is, there’s no doubt he’s far better than halfway competent.
In his two seasons as a starter, he’s completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 9,083 yards with 54 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. His 99.3 passer rating over that span is behind only Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, and Russell Wilson, and it’s just ahead of Aaron Rodgers.
Still, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. While he’s racked up the stats of an elite quarterback, he’s benefited from one of the best supporting casts in the NFL. And despite so many weapons to work with, Washington was outside the top 10 in points scored and Cousins struggled to capitalize in the red zone.
Inside the opponents’ 10-yard line, Cousins completed 31.6 percent of his passes in 2016. Only Bryce Petty, Nick Foles, and a few other quarterbacks who played limited time were less efficient.
But would Washington be better off without him? Absolutely not.
The other options on the roster are Colt McCoy and Nate Sudfeld, the team likely won’t find its Super Bowl savior with the No. 17 pick in the NFL draft, and the best options in free agency are likely going to be Tony Romo, Jay Cutler, Tyrod Taylor, or Colin Kaepernick.
Cousins is Washington’s best bet by a mile.
Letting Cousins hit the market would mean he’s as good as gone
According to Albert Breer of The MMQB, Washington was “of a mind to let the market decide what Cousins is worth.” But that’s about as trustworthy of a plan as investing in South Park Bank.
“We’ll just let Kirk Cousins hit the open market to figure out how much we’ll pay him aaaaaand he’s gone.”
Or at least, that’s how I imagine it would go.
What changed Washington’s mind about the strategy, according to Breer, is that the last two offensive coordinators who worked with Cousins are now head coaches and could provide perfect landing spots if he hits the open market.
Prior to leaving to take the Cleveland Browns’ offensive coordinator job in 2014, Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator in Washington for Cousins’ first two NFL seasons. Now he’s the head coach of the quarterback-needy San Francisco 49ers, who are second only to the Browns in cap space.
For the last three seasons, Washington’s offensive coordinator was Sean McVay, who recently became the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams.
The Rams are still only one year removed from taking Jared Goff with the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL draft, so landing Cousins now might not be feasible. But if Washington gives him the franchise tag for another season, Los Angeles could be a logical landing spot for Cousins in 2018.
But even if it isn’t the 49ers or Rams, there are other teams in need of a quarterback of the future with cap room to make the move happen. Just making a commitment to Cousins in a way that Washington never did could be enough to pull him away.
Does Cousins even want to stay in Washington?
Ever since Jay Gruden named Cousins the starter prior to the 2015 season, the team has talked about him as the quarterback of the future.
“We have been real clear that we think [Cousins] is the future, and we want him to be our quarterback into the future,” team president Bruce Allen said last May, via the Washington Post. “[Cousins] has been as clear saying he wants to be here. Now it just has to work out the details of that. Sometimes it takes a little bit longer than usual, but we’re still 100 percent on board with that.”
But after more than a year of failing to make progress on a long-term deal, the warm and fuzzy feelings between the two sides may have worn off.
For the past couple of years, former Redskins officials who know Cousins have said he really doesn't want to be in Ashburn. He wants tag.— Jason Reid (@JReidESPN) February 16, 2017
If Cousins isn’t interested in coming to the table for a long-term deal and only wants the franchise tag, Washington may be looking at the inevitably of the quarterback’s departure.
Either pay him about $23.9 million for one season or just let him walk now and keep the money in pocket. Neither are particularly appealing choices.
Washington has no real alternative at quarterback if Cousins leaves in free agency, so unless the quarterback is so disgruntled that the team decides it’s better just to move on, the likeliest scenario is that he’ll get the franchise tag before the March 1 deadline.
But he’ll have all the leverage and no incentive to take any deal from Washington that isn’t one of the biggest in NFL history.
A year ago, it was a tough sell for Washington to commit long-term to Cousins after only one season as a starter. Now it looks like the team may have missed its chance to keep him around at all.