Should Washington Just Sign Kirk Cousins to a Long-Term Deal Already?

Cousins received the franchise tag for the second season in a row. Is it a good move, or should the Redskins get serious about locking up their quarterback?

Another offseason, another conundrum surrounding Washington and what they should do with the contract of Kirk Cousins.

Last offseason, Cousins was scheduled to become a free agent, but Washington gave him the franchise tag, which Cousins immediately accepted. At the time, that deal made a whole lot of sense for both sides. Washington wanted to see a bigger sample of successful play from Cousins, and by signing, the quarterback was going to from making $660,000 to $20 million in base salary in just one offseason while getting another year to prove his long-term worth.

Since the franchise tag covers only one season, we entered this offseason at a similar crossroads again. With no progress on a long-term deal, Washington again tagged the quarterback at a price tag somewhere around $24 million.

Even with that additional season played under the first tag and another tag on the way, little has changed in the stance of each side. Cousins still believes he should be paid like one of the top quarterbacks in the league on a multi-year deal, and Washington’s official response to that request appears to be somewhere around “eh.”

Both parties have a point, which is what continues to make this situation difficult -- and intriguing -- even with the tag applied for the 2017 season.

The Case for Signing

By both raw and advanced stats, like our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, Cousins has looked like one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL since taking over as the full-time starter.

There have been 26 quarterbacks to attempt at least 615 passes combined over the past two seasons -- a cutoff intended to get a sample of quarterbacks who played significant time in each of the last two seasons. Among those players, Cousins ranks third in completion percentage, fourth in yards per attempt and total passing yards. He’s been above average in just about every category.

Statistic Cousins Rank (of 26)
Attempts 1149 7th
Comp% 68.32% 3rd
Yards 9083 4th
Yards Per Attempt 7.91 4th
Touchdowns 54 12th
Touchdown Rate 4.70% 16th
Interceptions 23 t-12th
Interception Rate 2.00% 10th

According to our metrics, Cousins has been one of the league's best quarterbacks over the past two seasons. Among passers with 100 drop backs in 2015, Cousins ranked seventh in Passing NEP per drop back, and he ranked sixth in Passing NEP per drop back in 2016. He joins Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger as the only signal callers to finish in the top 10 in Passing NEP per drop back in both of the last two years.

By Success Rate -- the percentage of plays which positively impact NEP -- he was seventh in 2015 and fourth in 2016. Our numbers make it pretty clear -- Cousins has produced like a really good quarterback.

Accounting for all of those measures, Cousins has outperformed many other quarterbacks who have received long-term deals over the past two seasons, such as Ryan Tannehill, Brock Osweiler, Tyrod Taylor, and even Andrew Luck. In an era when teams are desperate for quarterbacks, locking up any who show even a hint of decency, Cousins has continued to get strung along by his team.

Should Cousins play out 2017 on the tag, he will essentially have played 2016 and 2017 on a two-year fully-guaranteed $44 million contract. That’s right around the guarantees in the contracts of Tannehill, Alex Smith and Joe Flacco.

At this point, Washington could have conceivably offered Cousins a long-term deal with that much money guaranteed and have some built in options on the backend like some of the recent quarterback contracts. Washington could have had the same -- or less -- money guaranteed to this point and still had outs at the end of the contract should they still want to explore those options. Now if a long-term deal isn’t reached before July, Washington would be looking at more than $30 million tag price for 2018 -- something that isn’t likely to happen.

The Case for Washington’s Hesitance

Everything said about Cousins above isn’t reflective on Cousins alone. All of those stats and figures must be taken in context of the Washington offense, with both the scheme and the surrounding talent. Cousins has been in a good situation -- both in terms of scheme and surrounding talent -- in each of the past two years, arguably better than any other quarterback in the league.

Washington has done an excellent job of creating an offense that allows Cousins to succeed without having to do anything extraordinary, and he hasn't shown much ability to transcend the offense if needed. It was part of general manager Scot McCloughan’s plan as he stated to Bleacher Report last offseason something he told Cousins: “And we’re going to build this roster to where you can be average and still be good.”

During his tenure as a starter, Cousins has been surrounded by pass-game weapons like DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder, Jordan Reed and an offensive line that kept the quarterback clean and gave him the eighth-highest average time to throw among 39 quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts in 2016.

Washington wanted to see Cousins sustain success for longer than just the 2015 season, which is why they put the tag on him last offseason. Most of the same supporting cast returned for 2016, and Cousins basically played to his 2015 level. But if the team was concerned about Cousins keeping a high level of play when everyone returned, there should be even more concern going into 2017 with so much set to change for Washington.

We already know the team will be without offensive coordinator Sean McVay, who is now the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams. The team could also be without Jackson and Garcon, both of whom are set to be free agents. Cousins has not played a game without Garcon in the lineup, and when Jackson has been sidelined over the past two years, Cousins' yards per attempt drops more than a full yard. (Per game stats courtesy the RotoViz Splits Tool.)

Last 2 Seasons With Jackson Without Jackson
Games 24 8
Completions/Attempts 24.5/36 24.62/35.62
Touchdowns 1.71 1.62
Interceptions 0.71 0.75
Yards 295.92 247.38
Yards Per Attempt 8.44 7.41

Aside from always being on the field, Garcon was one of the most productive receivers in the league last season. He ranked fifth in Reception NEP per target among receivers with at least 100 passes thrown their way and led the team with 114 targets.

Without Jackson and Garcon, Cousins is losing the intended target on 214 of his attempts last season, and Washington’s top pass-game options are now Crowder, Josh Doctson, who played just two games in his rookie season due to an Achilles injury, and the oft-injured Reed. It’s a big change from what Cousins has been apart of over his last two full seasons as a starter, and it makes for a little uncertainty going forward.

What’s Next

The tag was always the likely play for Cousins, so there should be nothing surprising about Washington's decision. What comes next will tell us more about how this relationship will shift going forward.

Washington using the exclusive designation as opposed to the non-exclusive tag takes away the ability for an outside team -- say, the San Francisco 49ers -- to make Cousins an offer sheet in exchange for two-first round picks if Washington decided not to match. Even though Cousins was slapped with the exclusive tag, the possibility of a trade is still technically on the table. Washington could allow Cousins to negotiate a deal with another team and work out a trade that goes for something other than the required two first-rounders with the non-exclusive tag.

But however Washington feels about Cousins, they should feel more strongly one way or the other at this point. It made sense to place the tag on him last season when he only had a year of quality play under his belt. In back-to-back seasons, Cousins has put up numbers consistent with being one of the better quarterbacks in the league. That doesn't necessarily mean he's a top-10 talent, but teams have committed to lesser quarterbacks for much worse play.

If Washington is fine with paying Cousins $24 million for 2017, they must like him enough to commit that type of cap space to the quarterback. With this second tag, Cousins now has tons of leverage heading into long-term contract talks due to the incredible hike his salary would take if tagged for a third time. At this point, Washington should know who they have at quarterback and even if they're not 100 percent sold, a compromise on a multi-year deal could be the best solution for both parties.