Could Kirk Cousins be the Highest Paid Player in the NFL for the 2017 Season?
The 2017 offseason offers a relatively weak crop of free agent veterans quarterbacks. The only four “big” names on the list are Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor, Tampa Bay Buccaneers backup Mike Glennon, San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, and Washington Redskins Kirk Cousins. All of them suck and aren’t expected to draw an abundance of interest; however, the Redskins seem determined to keep Cousins, which could mean a nice payday.
How nice are we talking, though? How much is Cousins worth?
The 2012 fourth-round selection out Michigan State played second fiddle to No. 2 overall pick Robert Griffin III for the beginning of his career in the nation’s capital, but thanks to various injuries, benchings, and eventually the end of the RGIII era in D.C., Cousins has had ample opportunity to showcase his skills, starting all 16 games for the Redskins each of the past two seasons.
The 2015 season was, more or less, Cousins’ breakout year. Cousins finished 2015 with 4,166 yards, 29 touchdowns, and only 11 interceptions. Despite their dismal 9-7 record, the Redskins won the NFC East, losing to the Green Bay Packers in their Wild Card matchup. His 2015 performance led Washington to franchise tag him heading into the 2016 season, paying him a whopping $19.9 million for the season.
In 2016, Cousins drastically improved his yardage, finishing with 4,917 yards, 25 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. His completion percentage fell 2.8 percentage points, and his QB rating dropped below 100 for the third time in his career.
Despite Cousins’ massive yardage, the Redskins struggled, finishing 8-7-1 and missing the playoffs thanks in part to strong seasons by the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants.
But the franchise tag is up, and the Redskins need to decide if Cousins is their future or not. While they could continue to franchise tag the QB, it would get pricey. A tag in 2017 would require a 20 percent raise to $23.9 million. Another tag in 2018 would be an additional 44 percent more, bringing Cousins to nearly $34.5 million for the 2018 NFL season.
$34.5 million. For Kirk Cousins.
The NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement does offer the Redskins an alternative, however, in the form of a transition tag in 2018 (after a 2017 franchise tag). The transition tag would reduce Cousins’ 2018 salary to about $28.8 million as opposed to the $34.5M mandated by the franchise tag—a 20 percent increase instead of 44 percent.
Here’s the crazy part, though: if Cousins plays his cards right, he could be the highest paid player in the NFL come September. He could very likely be earning more than Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
The Indianapolis Colts pay Luck around $24.5 million a year. While it is unlikely that Cousins would be able to get the same $87 million guaranteed that Luck enjoys, he may be able to extort Washington for a better yearly salary than the top pick in his draft class.
Keep in mind, however, that while it is likely Cousins may surpass Luck, he’ll have to really time this thing right in order to end up as the highest paid. Derek Carr of the Oakland Raiders, Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions, and 2016 NFL MVP Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons are all expected to receive new contracts from their respective teams this offseason as well. Cousins doesn’t deserve a penny more than any of them, but it’s not about skill or results anymore (just ask Jay Cutler).
Let’s look at the leverage Cousins has in this situation, though.
Thanks to a rising salary cap and good timing, both Cousins and his agent, Mike McCartney fully expect nothing less than a $24 million annual paycheck—around the amount the Redskins will be paying Cousins in 2017 should they franchise tag him. Cousins knows that, should the Redskins tag him this season, they will not do so in 2018 because of the $34.5 million price. The transition tag would save the team about $6 million, but even $28 million is exorbitant for Cousins.
That means that if the Redskins can’t get a long-term deal done this offseason, Cousins will hit the open market next offseason, and he is free to demand whatever unreasonable salary he desires from some poor, desperate team.
Additionally, the longer the Redskins wait to give Cousins what he wants, the more they’ll have to give him. As Carr, Stafford, and Ryan sign new blockbuster contracts, they will only drive up the price of a starting quarterback in the NFL.
So, while Cousins shouldn’t be paid more than Luck, Carr, Stafford, Ryan, or half the other QBs in this league, it isn’t too crazy to think that he may be. What a sad day that would be.