Kirk Cousins and the Cost of Trading for a Backup Legend

Driving in today I flipped over to Mike and Mike on ESPN and heard them having a discussion about Kirk Cousins the backup QB of the Washington Redskins and how valuable a piece he is to the Redskins. The discussion centered around a comment made by Peter King that insinuated that a team drafting in the upper half of the first round should consider giving up their pick (I believe the number they used was 7) for him. I immediately thought that would make an interesting discussion.

Cousins has clearly fallen into the “backup legend” category where we all get so enamored with the position and the prospect of finding a great talent to start for our team. This time last season Cousins was almost an afterthought. Cousins was drafted with the 7th pick in the 4th round of the 2012 draft. This wasn’t Geno Smith falling from the top half of the 1st to the 2nd round as Cousins was projected to go anywhere from the late 2nd to the early 4th, which is exactly where he went. The scouting on him was pretty consistent: efficient player but will never be more than a game manager.

The draft pick itself was considered questionable at the time because the Redskins had just given up a draft fortune to select Robert Griffin III with the 2nd pick in the draft. To select another QB when you had just parted with so many picks seemed like a poor use of limited assets. Cousins began to create a little buzz in the preseason where he completed nearly 58% of his passes at over 13 YPC, but when Cousins was elevated from 3rd string to 2nd string over Rex Grossman more than just a few were surprised.

Once RGIII got injured Cousins got his regular season opportunity and yet another “backup legend” was born. Cousins first led a comeback against eventual champion Baltimore Ravens and then was terrific in his lone start throwing for 329 yards against the Cleveland Browns. Last night Cousins went 6 of 7 for 52 yards in a preseason game which sparked the discussion about his upside.  How quickly everyone forgets just where the young QB was a year ago as he battled for a backup job.

The best comparison one could probably for Cousins would be the career of Matt Schaub. Schaub was drafted with the 27th pick of the 3rd round in the 2004 NFL draft by the Atlanta Falcons. Schaub was brought in to be a backup to Mike Vick. Vick was a phenomenon at the time. The 1st overall pick in 2001, Vick was the most electric player in the NFL and had a reputation that far exceeded the actual play on the field. There were also questions about his durability making a backup seem like a bigger need than for other teams. Schaub was good in the preseason  and got one start in his Atlanta career where he threw for 298 yards against the Patriots. Schaub became the “backup legend”.

The price for Schaub was nothing like was being suggested on Mike and Mike. The Texans gave up two second round draft picks to acquire him. Schaub has gone on to have a solid but unspectacular career and has also been dogged by injuries at times. But he has probably been the most successful of the star backups. Other recent names who turned preseason and less than one season samples into starting jobs have been Kevin Kolb, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Derek Anderson, Matt Cassel , and AJ Feeley.  None were successful.  Kolb, Cassel, and Feeley were all acquired via trade while Fitzpatrick and Anderson were signed off their samples.

Trading a high first pick for a backup QB is a recipe for disaster. Part of the benefit of the top 15 pick now is the slotted pay scale. It allows teams an opportunity to mold a cap friendly roster around a number of potential superstar young talent. When you trade that draft pick for a “backup legend” it’s not just a draft pick being given up, but often large sums of money. Assuming a team was to trade for Cousins next season they would only have Cousins under his rookie contract for two seasons. If they waited one more season it would only be for one. After that he hits free agency.

When you make that trade commitment a financial one goes along with it. In essence you have traded the new rookie wage scale for the old one. For the group above here are the awarded salaries of the more recent backups to riches stories:

 

Player

Total

3 Year Cash

Kolb

$63,500,000

$32,000,000

Cassel

$63,000,000

$40,500,000

Fitzpatrick

$59,000,000

$29,800,000

Schaub

$48,000,000

$30,000,000

Anderson

$24,000,000

$24,000,000

 

Of all the deals Cassel was far and away the worst, which was just a sign of how inept the Chiefs front office was. Cassel has almost no pedigree at all (he was a 7th round pick) and they gave the farm away for him. At least in Fitzpatrick’s case there was no trade involved and the three year money total was smaller.

Of course the other question is whether or not a team would even consider giving up the first round selection for him. This is not the Bears trading for Jay Cutler. Most of the teams that would consider trading for Cousins are those same teams that have a scouting department that gave him a 3rd round or worse grade.  Maybe he has done enough in the preseason and limited game action to up that grade but it’s unlikely without an extensive look that a teams’ scouts would recommend giving him a 1st round grade, let alone a top 10 grade, especially factoring in the cost. Plus there are going to be teams that say Mike Shanahan runs a very QB friendly offense that turned players like Brian Griese and Jake Plummer into adequate players.

While we often all buy into the fantasy aspect of the NFL and the throwing away of draft selections it has been some time since teams decided to throw first round picks at lower regarded talent. I believe the last two big ones were Rob Johnson in 1998 and Trent Green in 2001. Johnson was a 4th round pick with only one start under his belt which led to the Bills trading a 1st and 4th for his services. It is a trade so bad that it is still talked about to this day. Green was a journeyman type QB who was displaced by injury and replaced by Kurt Warner. At the time I think the feeling was that Green was just as good and that the Chiefs were getting a steal for a 1st round pick. Green would have a decent career with the Chiefs, who really have gone overboard with the trading for QB’s dating back to Joe Montana.

Really unless you have the exceptional pedigree teams are not going to throw away a first rounder and all that money on a player.  Here are some of the potential starter  trades since the Green trade to Kansas City.

 

Name

Draft Round

Games Started

Trade Package
Jay Cutler

1

37

two 1’s, a 3rd, and Kyle Orton
Drew Bledsoe

1

123

1st* round pick
Carson Palmer

1

97

1st* and 2nd*
Donovan McNabb

1

142

2nd and 4th*
Alex Smith

1

75

2nd and 2nd/3rd*
Kevin Kolb

2

7

2nd* and DRC
Matt Schaub

3

2

1st round swap (2 slots) and two 2nds
Charlie Whitehurst

3

0

2nd round swap (20 slots) and 3rd*
AJ Feeley

5

7

2nd round pick
Matt Hasselbeck

6

0

1st round swap (7 slots) and 3rd
Matt Cassel

7

15

2nd (plus Mike Vrabel to KC)
* means actual slot unknown at time of trade

 

The marketplace really has been the 2nd round for players that do not have that elite pedigree. Of the younger talent, Cutler, who came from a Shanahan system and looked like one of the greatest prospects on the planet, is the only one to garner a fortune in compensation, losing the 11th and 18th pick in the 1st round. Kolb cost a 2nd and a player which is more or less the equivalent to the two 2nd rounders traded for Schaub. Alex Smith could be the same.

So it would be stunning, based on pat history, if any team in the NFL drafting in the top 10 would even consider trading for Cousins at that price. I tend to think that there may be more reservation as well due to the recent series of bust signings on questionable players with the small sample sizes. Over the next two seasons Kolb, Cassel, Fitzpatrick, and Matt Flynn will carry $23,950,000 in dead money for their respective former teams.

Flynn, who had backed up Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay and flashed in relief, expected to be involved in a bidding war of sorts when the Packers let him hit free agency. Teams were much more cautious with Flynn, a 7th round selection, than they had been with other players. Eventually he signed with Seattle for a base value of $19.5 million over three years. That was still good money, but not Kolb or Cassel money. Flynn of course was traded after just one season when unheralded rookie Russell Wilson outplayed Flynn by a significant margin in training camp and the preseason.

But right now I think many of us are going a little overboard on the expectations for Cousins in the trade market. Players don’t go from being 4th round draft picks to top 10 commodities based on a start and some preseason games. Maybe if he had close to a full season of work someone with a late 1st round pick might make a move, but the market is really a 2nd rounder and that’s assuming teams have not grown cold to the prospect of trading for someone else’s bench player rather than just  drafting one themselves. The financial commitment can be so large when you trade for a QB and is there really that much that separates Kevin Kolb from Blaine Gabbert?  Gabbert is certainly cheaper. Neither has been very good.  Gabbert had and probably has more upside.

I would think applying the Schaub test is really the right way to look at Cousins. Schaub has been the QB on two teams that made the playoffs and has twice gone to the Pro Bowl. He has started 79 games in 6 years and won 44 of them. Just a year after signing an extension many fans can’t wait to get rid of him because they feel the flaws, more or less the lack of physical tools that helped push him to the late 3rd round in the first place,  will keep them from winning a championship. In hindsight would you have been happy giving up the 7th pick in the NFL draft and somewhere around $60 million dollars for Schaub?  Probably not.

Now none of this is to say that Cousins can’t be better than Schaub. For all I know Cousins may be the next Tom Brady, who the Patriots wisely chose to stick with over Bledsoe in 2001. But as a teams’ GM or cap manager you have to weigh the risks associated with such a trade. You are losing four low cost seasons of a tremendous upside draft pick and replacing it with a high financial commitment for a player just a few years ago you felt did not have the tools to warrant a 2nd or 3rd round selection.  To pull that top 10 pick the player needs to be proven which means at least two years of significant meaningful game experience. Otherwise the 2nd round maximum is as far as a team should ever be willing to go.

 


 

 

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