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In Washington or Elsewhere, Kirk Cousins Is Going to Make NFL History

Cousins now can’t sign a new deal until next year, and when he does, it may alter the economics of the league

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Kirk Cousins is about to change the future of the quarterback market, and there’s still a debate over how good he is. He’s a Rorschach test of quarterbacks: You can look at him and see anything, and whatever it is you do see says a lot about you as a football observer. Is he a good quarterback, capable of delivering perennial playoff contention? Maybe. Is he a product of a souped-up era of quarterback statistics in which 4,000 yards is no longer extraordinary? Maybe a little bit of that, too.

But Cousins’s exact standing among quarterbacks doesn’t matter at the moment. He has reached the most sought-after threshold in the quarterback market: good enough. And from the perspective of bad teams, he’s about to reach the best possible status of any quarterback in years: available.

Cousins did not sign a long-term deal with the Redskins on Monday, and now he can’t until next year because of the league’s franchise-tag rules. That means he may change the economics of the sport. He will likely become the most coveted free agent since Peyton Manning in 2012, and unlike Manning then, Cousins will be entering his quarterbacking prime and his age-30 season. This is going to make Cousins an extremely rich man. He will either sign the biggest free-agent deal ever or the Redskins will franchise-tag him again next year for the third time, which will, according to Redskins reporters, give him around $34 million — or, about $9 million more than any other quarterback will make next year. (If the Saints pick up Drew Brees’s option, that number drops to $6 million.)

Until now, the quarterback market has been reset incrementally. Last month, Derek Carr signed for $25 million a year — about $400,000 more than Andrew Luck, who broke records in 2016. Cousins, if he’s using the $34 million franchise tag as leverage, could shatter that. (There’s a chance the Redskins use the transition tag on Cousins to keep him around for another year, but that needlessly complicated maneuver would cost Washington more than $28 million, still the highest salary for a quarterback in 2018.)

The trickle down would be massive. If, for instance, Aaron Rodgers signs an extension next summer with the Packers, it seems logical that he would ask for more than $30 million a year in a world where Kirk Cousins is bringing that home. Rodgers’s current average annual value is $22 million. Cousins’s financial success will drive the price tag up on any quarterback extension going forward and, depending on the final dollar figure for his deal, may lead more quarterbacks to try to reach free agency as Cousins is doing.

Now, it is absurd that this negotiation has reached this point. Cousins, like most of his generation of quarterbacks, is the NFL version of a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan: Stunningly expensive relative to every other price tag, and somehow just getting more expensive, so waiting to pull the trigger can only hurt. If you’re an executive who doesn’t want to eventually pay large sums of money for a quarterback, my suggestion is to try another sport.

The Washington Post’s Mike Jones makes the following point: “The only scenario in which the Redskins could benefit from failing to sign Cousins now would be if he takes a step backward on the field in 2017 and is forced to lower his asking price.” The dynamic isn’t new, but this is an amazing conundrum to face for a player who touches the ball on every offensive snap: If Cousins improves (or is the same), they will have to pay unheard-of sums of money to keep their quarterback because of the way they’ve handled contract negotiations — and the only way to get out of paying so much is to have the quarterback (and the team) get worse.

How’d we get here? Pro Football Talk reports that there’s “internal disagreement” over Cousins’s value. This “internal disagreement” has happened in most NFL front offices over their quarterback and it usually lasts about 15 seconds. Every single team has paid up for its above-average quarterback. And Cousins is definitely above average: He threw for 4,917 yards last year — the 15th most in NFL history. Only eight players have had better seasons in their careers. The Bears gave Jay freaking Cutler a guarantee of $54 million in 2014. After this season, Andy Dalton will have earned nearly $50 million on the extension, worth up to $96 million, he signed in 2014.

The alternative to locking up a signal-caller is entering the vicious cycle of chasing after one. Research suggests the hit rate for a first-round quarterback hovers around 50–50. And if the Redskins lose Cousins and then dip into the free-agent market, they will never find a player as good and will probably pay the new quarterback too much money anyway because this is a league where Mike Glennon is making $16 million this season

Provided Cousins becomes the grand test case for quarterback free agents, he will have plenty of quarterback-hungry suitors. The early favorite seems to be the San Francisco 49ers, coached by Cousins’s old offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan. Crucially, though, the bidding war will be impacted by there being a lot of crappy teams with crappy quarterbacks and a lot of cap space. The Jets, as of now, will have $56 million in cap space, the Rams will have $39 million, and the Niners will have $30.7 million. Unlike the NBA, where the numbers are all vaguely similar for top free agents and decisions mainly come down to where the player wants to play, Cousins’s decision will likely come down to which of these teams decides to overpay the most.

Bleacher Report’s Jason Cole reports Cousins will probably get $65 million guaranteed if he signs a new deal next year. That’s a conservative estimate, but it would still mean that Cousins will clear $100 million in guarantees since 2016. It is a great time to be a quarterback.