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Kirk Cousins fully exploited franchise tag; Mike McCarthy debate

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:

» The kind of money star backs like Le'Veon Bell and David Johnson realistically command.

» Is Mike McCarthy the reason why Aaron Rodgers only has one ring?

But first, a look at how Kirk Cousins made the franchise tag work for HIM ...

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It's always interesting watching NFL players react to the big-money contracts NBA players sign in free agency. The whopping deals inked by marginal-to-mediocre hoopers not only elicit envious responses from gridiron greats, but these massive payouts seemingly make the collective rethink contractual viewpoints, particularly when it comes to the amount of guaranteed money included.

While it will likely take a hard-line stance from the NFLPA to revamp the Collective Bargaining Agreement when it expires in 2021, the players should take a long, hard look at how Kirk Cousins has manipulated the system to put himself in a position to receive an NBA-like contract. Whether that deal occurs before the July 17th deadline is somewhat inconsequential because the Washington Redskins' QB1 has shown the football world how a player can parlay the dreaded franchise tag into a king's ransom.

Before I take a deep dive into how Cousins gamed the system, I believe it is important to understand both sides of the deal and why the Redskins were right to hedge their bet on the plucky quarterback when his rookie contract expired at the end of the 2015 season. Despite showing promise as the team's unexpected starting quarterback following Robert Griffin III's implosion, Cousins was a former fourth-round pick with a game that put him squarely into the game manager category. Sure, he completed 69.8 percent of his passes for 4,166 yards in 2015. He also posted a 29:11 touchdown-to-interception ratio and guided the Redskins to the NFC East title. Still, despite all of that, he didn't necessarily look like a quarterback who could put an offense on his back and lift everyone's play. Cousins sported an 11-14 regular-season record through the 2015 campaign, and his team had failed to win a postseason game under his guidance.

Thus, at this time last year, the Redskins were wise to value him in the $16 million range when it came to a long-term deal, as a solid starter in the league. Remember, Aaron Rodgers is widely viewed as the current gold standard at the position, and his $22 million average topped the NFL in 2015, according to The Redskins reportedly offered Cousins a deal at the time that would've placed him among the likes of Andy Dalton ($16 million) and Alex Smith ($17 million). Considering Cousins' production and performance to that point, I believe it was a reasonable valuation of the young quarterback by the team. He certainly didn't belong in the elite category of QBs earning $20-plus million per year, alongside Super Bowl champs like Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees. So, the Redskins were smart to slap the franchise tag ($19.95 million) on him and force him to play on a "prove it" deal that would allow the team to see if he is really a franchise quarterback or a system player who shines in a scheme that masks his deficiencies as a player.

In theory, the one-year deal protected the Redskins from overpaying for Cousins' services long term, while allowing the emerging field general to essentially audition for the quarterback-needy teams around the league. Although the team would be forced to pay big bucks to Cousins if he played at a high level -- via a long-term deal or through the reapplication of the franchise tag (compensation is equal to 120 percent of the previous salary -- the risk was well worth the reward at that point.

Now, it is easy to suggest that the Redskins should've opened up the coffers one year ago, because Cousins posted another impressive statistical season in 2016. He nearly made it to 5,000 yards passing (4,917) and finished with a 25:12 TD-to-INT ratio as the point man for an offense that ranked third in total yards (403.4 per game) and second in passing yards (297.4).

So, now the Redskins should be compelled to break the bank for a quarterback who is seemingly on the rise, right?

Not so fast.

Despite his individual success and the offense's spectacular production, the Redskins finished the season 8-7-1 and failed to make the playoffs largely due to a disappointing slump down the stretch. The team lost four of its final six games, with Cousins faltering in key bouts against the Cardinals, Panthers and Giants. With a 19-21-1 career record also raising doubts about his ability to help a team play at a championship level, the Redskins were in quite a predicament when trying to determine whether to marry their franchise quarterback or continue dating him without a ring in sight.

"He is what he is," an NFC pro scouting director told me. "He is a solid starter capable of winning games when surrounded by supreme talent in that system, but I don't think he is a difference maker. ... I would have a tough time paying $25 million for a guy that I don't believe can carry us to the Super Bowl."

While Cousins has put up the numbers needed to command a hefty salary, there are some holes on his resume (sub-.500 record and zero playoff wins) that should make the Redskins pause.

Remember, Cousins thrived with DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon serving as his top two receivers. Say what you want about their individual flaws -- Jackson is one of the most prolific big-play receivers in NFL history and Garcon is an established chain mover with outstanding running skills. In a Jay Gruden offense that's built around the premise of accumulating "YAC" (yards after catch) on quick-rhythm throws, that duo made Cousins' life much easier in the pocket.

Now, I know those statements will paint Cousins as a "system quarterback," but the veteran passer can't overcome that stigma until he wins at a high level as the driving force of the offense. It was only three seasons ago that Cousins was benched in favor of Colt McCoy, and I'm sure that it is hard for some officials in the organization to see a $20 million difference between the two when it comes to talent. During a six-game run in 2014, McCoy completed over 71 percent of his passes with a 4:3 TD-to-INT ratio and a 96.4 passer rating. Those numbers are nearly identical to Cousins' production as a starter, which gives credence to the suggestion that the Redskins will be fine if their current QB1 moves on following the 2017 season.

That brings me back to how Cousins perfectly played his hand when the team questioned his potential as a franchise quarterback. Instead of settling for a low-ball offer that would've lumped him into the position's middle class, Cousins opted to sign the franchise tag immediately in 2016. This move guaranteed the former fourth-round pick nearly $20 million -- after he had earned just $2.6 million on his four-year rookie deal. In addition, the quick signing allowed him to continue to work on his game with his teammates during OTAs (organized team activities) and minicamps at the Redskins' facility. He knew the team would ultimately use performance and production on a "prove it" deal to set the bar on a long-term deal. The decision to come in and build chemistry with his teammates put Cousins in a position to play at a high level during the regular season.

From a financial standpoint, the decision to play on the original franchise tag gave Cousins an opportunity to sign an additional tag (at a boosted rate) this offseason. With that amounting to about $24 million, he now stands to pocket $44 million on essentially a two-year deal -- or he could break the bank on a long-term extension with the Redskins.

Fresh off his first Pro Bowl season, Cousins has not only done enough to earn a big paycheck from the Redskins, but he has convinced a number of teams that he is at least a mid-to-upper-echelon starter. Given that the new standard for elite quarterback compensation sits around the $25 million mark (Derek Carr, $25 million; Andrew Luck, $24.6 million, Drew Brees, $24.3 million), Cousins sits in the catbird seat with a hefty long-term deal on the horizon or the prospect of a third franchise tag (or transition tag). With a third franchise tag likely valued around $34 million and the transition tag coming in at about $29 million, Cousins could earn $72 million to $78 million over a three-year period. Considering those numbers, why would he ever entertain the possibility of signing a long-term deal that doesn't give him oodles and oodles of guaranteed money?

When I look at the situation, it reminds me a lot of Joe Flacco's gamble in Baltimore before the 2012 season. The Ravens' QB1 elected to play out his rookie deal instead of signing the team's low-ball offer prior to the season. He ended up winning Super Bowl MVP and signing a six-year, $120.6 million deal (with $52 million in guarantees) that reset the market for quarterbacks. Although the Ravens have only posted one winning season in the four years since Flacco inked the deal, the veteran signal caller is compensated like a franchise quarterback.

With that in mind, it will be interesting to see how the Cousins situation plays out for both parties. The quarterback can command top dollar -- as a franchise-quarterback candidate poised to hit the market in his prime -- but the Redskins must decide whether he is really a championship-caliber field general capable of helping them hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

Regardless, the situation will stand as a compelling case study for players (and executives) on how the franchise tag can be leveraged.

RB SALARIES: Le'Veon Bell, David Johnson eyeing major payday?

At a time when the running back position is increasingly devalued in the NFL, I found it interesting that Cardinals RB David Johnson divulged that he's keeping an eye on what happens with Steelers star Le'Veon Bell during his contract negotiations.

"I hope that he gets the deal he deserves," Johnson said to the MMQB's Andy Benoit. "I hope it's going to be the type of deal that cornerbacks get and quarterbacks get."

Now, I certainly understand Johnson's desire to see his fellow RB1 get paid, but I think it's hard for teams in a pass-happy league to view running backs as marquee players on the team, particularly when it comes to compensation. When I talked to former Bills general manager Doug Whaley about building a team last fall on the "Move The Sticks" podcast, he told me that there were six core positions on every team, and he listed quarterback, left tackle and "playmaker" as the critical players on offense. Although he pointed out that the playmaker could be a wide receiver or running back, he suggested that the quarterback must have someone to throw the ball to, which indicates pass catchers (wide receivers or tight ends) are valued more than traditional running backs in today's game.

While that is certainly true in most cases, Johnson and Bell are hybrids at the position -- their ability to impact the game as receivers separates them from many other RBs.

"In today's game, the running back has to be able to contribute as a runner, receiver and blocker to be a viewed as a marquee player," an AFC executive told me. "Johnson, Bell and maybe (Ezekiel) Elliott are the ideal guys to man the RB1 spot because they are big backs with the size and speed to run between the tackles or on the edges, but they are also capable of being a big part of the game from anywhere in the formation (backfield, slot or out wide).

"With teams throwing the ball more than ever, you need your star running back to be more than a one-dimensional runner."

As a former college wide receiver turned running back, Johnson is the ideal hybrid at the position. He not only possesses the size (6-foot-1, 224 pounds) and speed to hammer defenses as a runner, but he is a polished route runner with soft hands and exceptional receiving skills. Johnson is the only player in NFL history to total at least 100 scrimmage yards in each of his team's first 15 games and narrowly missed out on joining the exclusive 1,000/1,000 club (1,000 rushing yards/1,000 receiving yards) during his second season.

"He should've had it (1,000/1,000) last year," Arizona Cardinals' head coach Bruce Arians said on NFL Network's "Good Morning Football." "I don't think there is a ceiling for him. He can run the football. He can start at wide receiver and looks natural doing it."

Looking at Bell, you can make the same argument, based on his unique talents as a runner/receiver in Pittsburgh. He just became the first player in NFL history to average 100 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards per game over the course of a season. Not to mention, his 157.0 scrimmage yards per game in 2016 was the third-highest mark ever, behind just Priest Holmes' 2002 number (163.4) and O.J. Simpson's 1975 figure (160.2). As a crafty player with a unique running style and spectacular route-running skills, Bell is a game changer with the potential to impact the game from anywhere on the field. Thus, he certainly qualifies as the kind of "playmaker" Whaley was referring to.

"I feel like, especially now, with the running backs that we have in this league, we're going to definitely change the mentality of the running back and those contract deals," Johnson told the MMQB. "We're definitely make it (understood) that running backs are more important than you'd think. Everyone thinks it's a passing league, but I think running backs are starting to show up and show out and prove that you need a good one to be a capable team."

Here's the problem.

Running backs are subject to big hits on nearly every play and it is hard to fork over big bucks to a player deemed a major injury risk. Although Bell has been one of the most productive all-around backs whenever he has been on the field, he has missed parts of three seasons due to injuries or suspensions.

Johnson has been fairly durable and reliable during his first two seasons, but he suffered an MCL sprain in the Cardinals' 2016 season finale that reiterated an RB1's vulnerability to injury.

In addition to the obvious injury risks that could impact the negotiations for each player, there are age considerations that could prevent teams from extending megadeals to the talented stars. Running backs age very quickly -- and the bottom can drop out at a rapid rate. While Bell isn't yet considered an old runner at 25, the cumulative effect of his injuries may make some executives wary of extending him a big-money deal. With Johnson slated to turn 27 at the end of his rookie deal, it will be hard for a team to determine his proper value.

With those factors in mind, it is quite possible that LeSean McCoy's 2015 deal (five years, $40 million with $26.5 million in guarantees) will remain the gold standard at the position. The two-time first-team All-Pro was close to 27 years old when he inked the deal with Buffalo following a long run as a versatile playmaker in Philadelphia. Although he isn't necessarily in the same class as Bell or Johnson as a hybrid runner/receiver, McCoy has posted enough production as a receiver (four seasons with at least 50 receptions) to be used as a solid comparison.

That's why I would tell Johnson to temper his expectations for a significant change in the marketplace. Despite the $12 million franchise tag raising the standards on a one-year deal, it is hard to imagine teams pushing RB1s into the $10 million range (annual average) when the risks outweigh the rewards for even the special players at the position.

MIKE McCARTHY: Pack coach inadequate? Not so fast, Greg Jennings

When Greg Jennings decided to take a shot at his former coach, Mike McCarthy, I was a little miffed by his suggestion that Green Bay's head man has kept the Packers from winning more Super Bowls with Aaron Rodgers at the helm.

"I'm just going to flat out say it: If we had a lead, our issue wasn't the defense -- our issue was Mike McCarthy," Jennings said Wednesday on Fox Sports. "(McCarthy) would cuff us."


I can't hate on Jennings for offering up his opinion on why the Packers haven't claimed more titles during the Rodgers era, but I believe his point is misguided when he suggests that McCarthy has handcuffed an offense that consistently ranks as one of the most explosive units in the league. The Packers have averaged more than 26 points per game throughout McCarthy's tenure and consistently rank among the top 10 in total yardage. The team has racked up its top three single-season point totals under the direction of McCarthy. Not to mention, the Packers were the first team in NFL history to produce a 4,000-yard passer (Rodgers), two 1,000-yard receivers (Donald Driver and Jennings) and a 1,200-yard back (Ryan Grant) in back to back seasons (2008 and '09).

That's why I disagree with Jennings' belief that conservative play calling has been the reason for Green Bay's postseason failures. Sure, the Packers have lost some crazy games along the way, but the team's defense has been primarily to blame. Dom Capers and his staff have struggled to put together a championship-caliber defense to complement an offense that has played at a high level for years -- the unit's inability to consistently generate stops has been the biggest problem.

While McCarthy can certainly shoulder some of the responsibility for failing to hold the defense accountable, he undoubtedly has kept the offense operating at a winning level while breaking in a cast of newcomers on the outside. The team worked around the installation (and removal) of a new offensive coordinator in 2015 to make another playoff appearance despite the loss of No. 1 receiver Jordy Nelson in the preseason. Last season, the Packers woke up from a midseason slumber to emerge as one of the hottest offenses in football down the stretch due to some creative personnel deployment (SEE: Ty Montgomery at running back) and tactical adjustments.

"Their system has been the same for years," an AFC defensive assistant told me. "But they do a great job of getting guys open and creating big plays. Of course, it helps to have No. 12 (Rodgers), but McCarthy does a good job of stressing the defense with his personnel."

When I asked another defensive coach about McCarthy and his play calling, he called him a "stone-cold killer" with a tremendous feel for when to dial it up against the defense.

As a former Packer, I clearly understand the lofty standards that exist in Green Bay. But I don't know how a coach with a 114-61-1 regular-season record and a 10-8 postseason mark (plus a Super Bowl ring) could be viewed as an albatross in today's game. It is hard to win consistently in this league, yet McCarthy has done better than the overwhelming majority of coaches.

With the natives seemingly growing restless over a pile of Ws and only one ring, I would tell them to be careful before dismissing their coach for perceived shortcomings as a conservative game manager. To win the tournament, you have to be included in the field. And few teams can match the Packers' consistent success under their current coach -- despite a former player's suggestion otherwise.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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