Why Both Kirk Cousins and Sam Bradford's New Deals Make Sense
Yesterday was a nice day to be a quarterback looking for a new contract in the NFL.
Even for those who didn’t get paid on Tuesday, things are looking up. Brock Osweiler, after the Denver Broncos put the franchise tag on Von Miller, will hit the market and should be in line to get a team to pay him an amount of money to make Scrooge McDuck jealous. Ryan Fitzpatrick, too, should be fairly eager for his next contract.
But the quarterbacks of mention on Tuesday were Kirk Cousins, who was franchise tagged by Washington, and Sam Bradford, who signed a two-year, $36 million deal to remain with the Philadelphia Eagles. Both deals were significant for the quarterback market and what teams will do to avoid the unknown at the game’s most important position.
Let's take a look at what each deal means, starting with the incumbent in Philadelphia.
Betting on Bradford
The raw numbers might seem excessive for the contract given to a quarterback who was not among the top performers last season -- or really his whole career. What it really shows more is fear of the unknown.
There were rumors and speculation linking Kansas City’s Chase Daniel to the Eagles’ starting quarterback job, he of the 77 pass attempts in six seasons. There was an easy link there with new head coach Doug Pederson and his previous job as the offensive coordinator for the Chiefs.
But the Eagles decided to stick with the quarterback they know -- a Chip Kelly roster move, even -- instead of hoping for the best between a career backup or rookie. That may seem like a shaky proposition for a quarterback like Bradford -- who even as a known quantity has been inconsistent -- but at market value, the deal might not quite be as bad as it seems.
The $22 million guaranteed for Bradford’s two years is just over $2 million more than the amount tied to the franchise tag for a quarterback this year, $19.9 million. For that extra $2 million, the Eagles practically franchised Bradford for the 2016 season with an option to keep him for another year should he perform well. In the way the contract is set up, the Eagles would still have $9.5 million in dead money on the 2017 cap should Bradford be let go, but the full investment would just be slightly more than one year for the franchise tag.
Should Bradford perform well in 2016, he’d likely get more on the open market for the 2017 season if he were to be a free agent after a franchise tag. The Eagles have some built in insurance should the quarterback hit another level of production in the upcoming season.
All of that is nice in theory, but judging by Bradford’s 2015 metrics, it’s a leap of faith to hope for an improvement in production. Among 46 quarterbacks who dropped back at least 100 times in 2015, Bradford ranked 25th in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back. For those unfamiliar, NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data.
Bradford’s production looks even worse when looking at how often his passes really mattered. Just 49 percent of Bradford’s drop backs resulted in a “success” -- a play that positively impacted NEP -- which ranked 22nd among 37 quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts. That, again, seems around league average, but when compared to his Completion Percentage, 65 percent, Bradford had one of the biggest drops from raw Completion Percentage to Successful Completion Percentage last season. He also had the fifth highest percentage of Failed Completions -- the amount of completions that failed to positively impact NEP -- among those quarterbacks.
Some of these production issues could be fixed in 2016, but to what extent is unknown. While Bradford was not the best in 2015, he wasn’t always helped out by his teammates.
Drops are a tricky statistic. It depends on the source judging and how they’re graded, but what we can use them for is a big picture. In other words, a team with sure-handed receivers isn’t going to rank as the worst team in the league in terms of drops, and vice versa. What we can tell is -- if the Eagles weren’t the worst team for dropped passes -- they were up there.
Bradford also gets the help of a new offensive system, one that looks similar to Bradford’s career playing style. While he’s never been a bad deep passer, Bradford has become averse to taking shots down field. Among full-time quarterbacks last season, he had the lowest air yards per attempt. Doug Pederson just had Alex Smith as his quarterback at his previous job and ran an efficient offense at times that succeeded while not taking many shots down the field.
It’s too late for Bradford to ever be the quarterback he was expected to be as a prospect, but in the current age of quarterbacks and this market, his new contract might not be quite as bad as it looks.
You Tag That
Kirk Cousins also isn’t leaving the division.
Washington placed the franchise tag on him yesterday after failing to come to terms on a long-term extension. For Washington, this is the route that always made the most sense.
Reports over the past week suggested the two sides were far from coming to an agreement on the quarterback’s worth over multiple years, which is no surprise. Then, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport threw out the transition tag might be in play for the Washington quarterback, which made little sense. With the transition tag, any team would be able to make Cousins an offer with Washington getting the right to match. But if Washington couldn’t agree with Cousins and his team on what the quarterback’s worth, it’s hard to imagine they would agree with another bidding team on the open market. That option was always inviting an outside long-term offer, one which Washington never seemed too thrilled with from the beginning of the process.
Instead, now Cousins and Washington are linked together for at least a year to see if they can build upon what happened last year. Cousins was seventh in Passing NEP per drop back in 2015, with the help of drastically cutting down his interceptions over the second half of the season. He also led the league in Completion Percentage, though he was just one place behind Bradford among the leaders in Failed Completion Rate last year.
Before this past season, Cousins had filled in time as a starter and the returns were below average -- in 2014, he was 18th in Passing NEP per drop back, and in 2013, he was 45th out of 46 qualified quarterbacks. He started 2015 at an average pace before ramping up his play over the second half. The avoidance of interceptions played a big part, but the amount of throws that could have been intercepted did not drop as much as the raw numbers would suggest.
Cousins has more to prove if he wants to stake his claim as an above average starting quarterback in the NFL. He’s the exact type of player the franchise tag makes the most sense for. If Cousins improves, Washington will have no problem committing to him for another couple of years. If he falls back to pre-2015 Cousins, Washington will be saved from being locked in to an underwhelming quarterback. 2015 was an important season for Cousins, but 2016 is going to have more on the line.