Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins bet on himself in 2016, accepting a $19.953 million franchise tag for the season in hopes that his performance would lead to a long-term contract with the team he’s been with since 2012. And so far, it appears that Cousins gambled wisely.
The one-time fourth-round draft pick who was elevated to starter partway through the 2014 season currently ranks third in passing yards, at 4,045, is tied for the ninth-most passing touchdowns, with 23, has been intercepted only nine times and has the sixth-best passer rating in the league at 100.3. Behind an underrated offensive line, he’s taken only 18 sacks and his team’s 7-5-1 record has them just outside of the NFC playoff picture.
Given teams’ desires to find a franchise quarterback and to never let him go, there’s no doubt that Cousins will never reach free agency. Either Washington will franchise tag him again, to the tune of nearly $24 million in 2017, or offer him a contract. The going rate for such a contract is over the $100 million mark in total value and over $20 million in average salary per year. Though guaranteed money may vary, the quarterback market itself is dictating what these players are being paid, and not so much their actual performance. But when incorporating the current quarterback market rate with Cousins’ performance thus far this season, Washington will doubtlessly be opening its wallet early in the offseason.
There could be unintended consequences of keeping Cousins around, ones that Washington will have to deftly navigate so as to not have the quarterback’s contract go from a cause for celebration (“We finally found our guy!”) to an albatross dragging the team down (Brock Osweiler serving as a cautionary tale). While Cousins has already avoided the Osweiler pitfall, talent-wise, by playing well this season, he is also partially a product of the players around him.
— NFL Films (@NFLFilms) November 22, 2016
The good news is that none of the starters on the offensive line, which ranks fifth in run blocking and fourth in pass protection according to Football Outsiders, will be free agents in 2017. But a number of them will need new contracts in 2018, something that Washington will have to think about ahead of time. More immediately pressing are the statuses of receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, both of whom are unrestricted free agents at the start of the 2017 league year.
The 30-year-old Garcon is coming off of a five-year, $42.5 million deal he signed in 2012 and remains an integral part of Washington’s passing offense. So far this season, he has totaled 64 catches on 91 targets for 773 yards and three scores. Jackson, meanwhile, technically has one year left on his four-year, $24 million deal signed in 2014, but 2017’s payday voids should he remain on the roster five days after the upcoming Super Bowl. With Jackson accounting for 42 catches on 78 targets for 746 yards and four scores this year, though, Washington will certainly consider extending the contract and keeping him in the fold.
The two receivers have seen 169 of Cousins’ 495 pass attempts this year and have caught 106 of Cousins’ 334 completions. They account for 1,519 of his 4,045 yards and seven of his 23 scores. There’s no guarantee that current Washington players lower on the depth chart, receivers they may draft or free agents who could be signed at a cheaper price than Garcon and Jackson will yield the same results for Cousins and the offense. And that’s where things get tricky.
Washington has just under $16.2 million in cap space, most if not all of which they will end up carrying over to the 2017 season. Assuming the per-team salary cap rises by $10 million, as expected, then that adds another $165 million Washington can spend next year. Based on currently-contracted players, Washington already has just under $109 million in cap commitments for 2017. That leaves them with approximately $65.3 million to spend next year.
— Washington Redskins (@Redskins) December 11, 2016
That’s certainly enough space to give Cousins $25 million. Garcon and Jackson, meanwhile, are coming off of deals that paid them $8.5 million and $6 million per year, respectively. Those two amounts can certainly be flipped. Jackson’s per-year average rises because of his younger age and bigger role in Washington, while Garcon’s could drop relative to the fact that he will be 31 years old next season. Thus, the trio could cost as much as $39.5 million next season — or over half of Washington’s anticipated cap space.
This is both good and bad news. It’s good, because Washington does have the room to keep all three key offensive players on the roster through the 2017 season and beyond. But the bad news is that it does not leave a lot of cash for Washington’s other free agents they may want to retain, outside free agents they may want to sign as well as their rookie class. Further, averages per year are just that — averages — and do not necessarily reflect the year-to-year costs of these players. While Jackson, for example, may average $8.5 million per year on his next contract, that deal is likely to be front-loaded. Thus, he could cost Washington $10 or $11.5 million in 2017, with that number dropping in later seasons. As always, contracts in the NFL are never as straightforward as they may first seem.
Ultimately, Washington won’t have a difficult decision to make regarding Cousins. The front office will either come up with a contract that meets Cousins’ demands or else he will be franchise tagged again. Things only become complicated where the fates of Garcon and Jackson are concerned. Both could stay, but at a price that could cost Washington more than just dollars in the years that follow — it could dictate their freedom to expand and improve their roster. One may be forced to move on at the expense of signing the other. Or both could move on — the least likely scenario, but one that cannot be ruled out depending on how negotiations play out between the receivers and the team.
There is a domino effect at play any time a team decides to invest a significant chunk of salary cap space on a single player, and that will be the case this offseason with Washington.