The first rule of trying to judge quarterback salaries is: don’t. They rarely make sense, because the realities of the league rarely allow them to. Jay Cutler got more guaranteed money when signing his current deal than Aaron Rodgers got when signing his. Matt Ryan and Alex Smith got the same $30 million guaranteed in their most recent deals. Brock Osweiler got money, period. The best quarterbacks are often comically underpaid and the mediocre ones who have leverage often get far more than they should. As such, today’s NFL is short on quarterback deals that seem sound for all parties.
And so in that sense, history was made Tuesday: In putting the exclusive franchise tag on Kirk Cousins and setting him up to earn $24 million in 2017, the Washington Redskins did something that makes sense for everyone.
Cousins’s future was a constant topic of debate this past NFL season, but in the short term, he was never going to wind up anywhere but D.C. In a league where Mike Glennon is considered a hot free agent this year and Osweiler was last year, Cousins is far too competent to ditch. Trade rumors continued to circulate despite that reality, and as recently as Tuesday morning, ESPN reported that Cousins’s preferred destination was San Francisco. But even a trade that netted Washington some nice picks would have left the team in the same place it’s been for most of the past 20 years: looking for a capable quarterback.
Even some long-QB-deprived Washington fans might find the $24 million price tag steep, but players like Cousins are expensive because reliable quarterbacks are so rarely available. Franchising Cousins was the only move to make. Washington — which, as I’ve mentioned before, hasn’t fielded the same leading passer in four consecutive years since 1993 but should change that in 2017 — didn’t have to give Cousins a megacontract that would eventually hurt the franchise (Hello, Joe Flacco’s $25 million cap hit!). Handing out a contract worth $22–25 million annually over five seasons is a recipe for cap hell, unless a team has a quarterback whose play can overcome the roster holes that pop up as a byproduct of the franchise paying massive money to one guy. Cousins has shown skill, especially when playing good teams:
Now, after two decent years from Cousins, Washington gets an extra season to see what he can do before making any long-term decisions.
Cousins, for his part, has said that he’s fine playing on the tag, and he showed good spirit after the news broke:
And no wonder: Factoring in last year’s franchise tag, he’s essentially been on a two-year, $44 million deal for 2016–17. That’s a boatload of money, and if he maintains his production, he’ll get even more very soon. He’s being well compensated to bide his time. Former Eagles and Browns executive Joe Banner recently told The Washington Post that he’s never seen a player with so much control over negotiations: Cousins doesn’t have to sign with Washington for anything less than a long-term deal that makes him one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL.
After a November win, Cousins famously asked general manager Scot McCloughan, “How do you like me now?!” The answer, as we knew it would be, is that Washington likes Cousins quite a bit. Tuesday’s move ensures that both sides now have a little more time to gain a little more clarity on what Cousins is really worth — and what he should demand.