If 2016 was all about Kirk Cousins proving it to the Washington Redskins, 2017 may be the other way around.
As expected, Monday's deadline for signing franchise players to long-term deals passed without a pact between Cousins and the Redskins, whose continued insistence on giving themselves an out from any contract after two years proved an insurmountable difference in negotiations with a player already guaranteed almost $24 million this season.
Now Cousins is one step closer to hitting the open market, eventually. And as the Redskins begin staring at the very real possibility of tagging Cousins a third time in 2018 at an even more astronomical figure, Cousins has played his way into a position where he can afford to assess the state of the franchise as much as the franchise is assessing him.
On Monday, I asked personnel executives from five teams that played the Redskins last season where they'd rank Cousins among NFL quarterbacks. All five had him as a top-15 QB; three put him in or on the border of the top 10. That's a small sample, but it shows how far Cousins, who turns 29 in August, has come in some scouts' minds. This is not some low-ceiling, system guy everyone thinks will fall on his face eventually. Even the Redskins, for all the trepidation they've shown, upped their offer from around $20 million a year to one of the NFL's highest averages on a multiyear deal when they made their best offer in early May (though how good that deal really was depends on whom you ask).
As one high-ranking NFC executive who said Cousins belongs in the top 10 put it: "He's really accurate, has really good timing, touch. He's not a great athlete. He's not the biggest. Former [Redskins coach Mike Shanahan] thought he was Drew Brees. Whether he is or not, I don't know -- but similar attributes. Not the best arm, obviously not as big as you want, but really good rhythm, touch, timing within their offense. Has made some bonehead mistakes. Didn't make as many last year. But he's a good point guard, knows where to go with it.
"I never was sold on the guy too much, and then last year watching him -- I know the money's just getting ridiculous, but that's what guys are getting."
Meanwhile, the Redskins are in transition at several levels. They fired GM Scot McCloughan -- a respected evaluator who always seemed lukewarm on Cousins, a fourth-round pick in 2012 by the Shanahan regime -- and promoted Doug Williams to oversee the football operation. Bright, young offensive coordinator Sean McVay left for the head-coaching job with the Los Angeles Rams, replaced by former Redskins QBs coach Matt Cavanaugh. Both of Washington's 1,000-yard receivers from a year ago, DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, departed in free agency, putting the pressure on Jamison Crowder, newcomer Terrelle Pryor and Josh Doctson, whose rookie season was mostly lost to injury, to fill the void.
The Redskins did extend coach Jay Gruden's contract in March. But all the other changes weighed into Cousins' decision not to take the team's best offer -- one that Redskins president Bruce Allen touted in a statement immediately after Monday's deadline as including "the highest fully guaranteed amount upon signing for a quarterback in NFL history ($53 million)" and $72 million total for injury. In reality, those figures include the franchise tag number of $23,943,600 that already was fully guaranteed for 2017. So, taking that offer would've meant gaining about $29 million and one year's security in exchange for giving the Redskins his rights through 2022 (and preserving their option to bail any time after 2018, barring injury). Not exactly the commitment that would erase whatever memories Cousins might have about how the Redskins handled their previous franchise QB and his draft classmate, Robert Griffin III, before that marriage fell apart. Allen also claimed the offer would've made Cousins "at least the second-highest paid player by average per year in NFL history," but that was before the Oakland Raiders re-signed Derek Carr for a record $25.05 million a year and, setting aside Brees' void-laden one-year extension last year, basically just means they offered him more than Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco's $22.13 million average.
The five-year, $125.025 million extension signed last month by Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr had a similar structure. (Carr has over $47 million fully or functionally guaranteed in 2017 and '18, with rolling injury guarantees into 2019 and '20 that give the club an out.) But Carr's downside was absorbing the risk of playing out the last year of his rookie contract for $1,152,519. He'd made about $4.4 million in his career before signing the extension; by the end of this season, Cousins will have made more than 10 times that. Cousins' downside is a two-year take of nearly $44 million (including $19,958,070 under the tag in 2016), no matter how he plays. His upside is a third tag -- over $28.7 million on the transition tag, $34.4 million on the franchise tag -- or a massive long-term deal with the Redskins or someone else in 2018.
Is Cousins putting pressure on himself by playing on yet another one-year deal? Of course. There were plenty of people during Cousins' rocky two-week start to last season who thought the pressure was counterproductive. He needed to breathe. But Cousins rebounded in fine fashion, leading a Redskins offense that rolled up over 400 yards a game and had a thin margin for error because of an undermanned defense on the way to an 8-7-1 finish.
A rising salary cap and competition on the open market could well push Cousins past Carr's record $25.05 million average next year. And Cousins would have some leverage -- if he decides he's not happy with what he sees around him -- to refuse to negotiate on a long-term deal and push for the Redskins to trade him while they still can maximize the return.
That's still seven or eight months away, but the short list of suitors seems obvious. There's Cousins' old OC and Mike Shanahan's son, Kyle, who's entering his first year as the San Francisco 49ers' head coach with journeyman Brian Hoyer as a placeholder. The Cleveland Browns have a battle royal ahead in training camp and have indicated an interest in Cousins in the past. The Rams bear watching, too, given that last year's No. 1 pick, Jared Goff, remains unproven and there's an obvious Cousins tie with McVay. Said an executive for a different team who ranked Cousins in the 8-10 range among starters: "There are about 15 teams that would love to have him."
Cousins has shown what he can do. Every QB has holes, and he has to keep proving himself every year. But the Redskins may well have more to prove to Cousins going forward.