Kirk Cousins will become a free agent at 4 p.m. ET on March 14 and when he does, he’ll be one of the biggest names to ever hit the open market.
Quality starting quarterbacks rarely hit free agency in their prime and it’s especially uncommon at quarterback. Even when Peyton Manning hit the market in 2012 he was 36 and missed the entire season prior with a neck injury. Drew Brees was just 27 when he became a free agent in 2006, but had a shoulder injury so severe that Miami Dolphins doctors advised the team not to sign him.
Cousins, 29, isn’t a perfect player, but he’s an efficient quarterback with a Pro Bowl nod already under his belt and a clean bill of health. So how did Washington let Cousins slip through its fingers?
2012-2013 — Backup days
After a blockbuster deal with the St. Louis Rams for the No. 2 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Washington picked Robert Griffin III to be the team’s quarterback of the future. Three rounds later, with the 102nd overall pick, the team took Cousins to be his backup.
It was the first time since 1989 that a team drafted two quarterbacks in the first four rounds of the draft.
Griffin looked worthy of the lofty selection when he won Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012, but injury concerns bubbled up immediately. He suffered multiple knee injuries as a rookie — including an ACL tear in a playoff loss to the Seahawks — and dislocated his ankle in Week 2 of the 2014 season.
The injuries for Griffin meant Cousins saw the field in 14 games through his first three season, but he didn’t stand out much with 18 touchdowns, 19 interceptions, a 59 percent completion rate and a 77.5 rating.
2014 — Jay Gruden comes to town, QB controversy ensues
Washington fired Mike Shanahan after the 2013 season, and they hired Jay Gruden to replace him. The move had a major impact on Cousins’ career.
Griffin was still the team’s starting quarterback when the season opened up. He started the first two games before dislocating his ankle in Week 2. Cousins was the next man up, and the QB controversy started in earnest.
The Washington Post reported in September, a day after Griffin’s injury, that Gruden preferred Cousins as his starter. Gruden reportedly believed that Cousins would be a better fit than Griffin over the long-term for the offense he wanted to run in Washington.
In five starts, Cousins underwhelmed. He was replaced during a Week 7 start by Colt McCoy, who started one more week before Griffin returned to finish the season atop the depth chart. Nevertheless, the seeds of a QB controversy were sown.
2015 — Cousins ascendent
Griffin struggled in preseason, mostly due to punishment taken in an August game against the Lions that ended with the quarterback getting diagnosed with a minor concussion and shoulder stinger.
Days before the team’s final preseason game of the year, Cousins was named the team’s starter.
“He’s the best quarterback on our roster at this time,” Jay Gruden said. “He’s earned the right to be our starter for 2015.”
Cousins played up to the opportunity, finishing the year with 29 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a league-leading 69.7 completion percentage. He also made his first and only playoff start in an 18-35 loss to the Green Bay Packers. Cousins completed 29 of 46 passes for 329 yards, one touchdown and a 91.7 rating.
2016 — His first franchise tag
Washington attempted to reach a long-term deal with Cousins after his first season as a starter, but were reportedly far from coming close to agreeing on his value. On Feb. 16 — a full three weeks before free agency — the two sides broke off contact.
The problem was that Washington had seen just one year of Cousins as the team’s starter and wasn’t ready to pay him like the upper echelon quarterbacks in the NFL. And Cousins wasn’t willing to settle for less than top value when all the leverage was on his side.
With little reason for the quarterback to take anything less, Cousins and Washington unsurprisingly couldn’t agree to a long-term deal and he played the 2016 season on a one-year contract.
Cousins didn’t make negotiations any easier when he earned a Pro Bowl nod with 4,917 passing yards, 25 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
2017 — Tagged again, one last time
Another good year for Cousins gave the quarterback all the leverage he needed to push to become the highest-paid player in the NFL. But Washington never pulled the trigger and gave him the franchise tag again.
It meant a $23,943,600 salary for Cousins and again left the quarterback no reason to accept any deal less than a record-breaking one.
Trade rumors swirled at the beginning of March with reports that Cousins asked for one, but he was rebuffed by Washington. With a trade seemingly out of the picture, Cousins signed his franchise tender essentially guaranteeing he’d be back for the 2017 season.
No long-term deal was reached before the July deadline and Washington released a statement saying Cousins was offered a deal with $53 million guaranteed and a contract that “would have made him at least the second highest-paid player by average per year in NFL history.”
The gamble worked out just fine for Cousins who had another good year with 4,093 yards, 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. His statistically solid year came despite losing receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon in free agency and getting sacked a career-high 41 times in 2017.
2018 — Free agency, finally
The pair of franchise tags applied to Cousins in 2016 and 2017 meant re-signing the quarterback was going to be a long shot for Washington and the team likely needed to look elsewhere.
That was confirmed at the end of January when the team reached an agreement with the Kansas City Chiefs on a trade for Alex Smith. It also came with an agreed upon deal with Smith for a four-year, $94 million deal.
With a new quarterback in place, Washington reportedly considered using the franchise tag on Cousins for a third time to facilitate a trade. But that would’ve meant a $34.5 million guaranteed salary for the quarterback for the 2018 season that would have tanked his trade value and possibly ruin Washington financially.
Instead Washington did the smart thing and allowed Cousins to walk.
The path to free agency for Cousins was a long saga of disagreements between the quarterback and team on his value, but it worked out for the player. Now, a 29-year-old quarterback with a career passing rating of 93.7 will hit the open market and receive the blockbuster deal he never landed in Washington.