The investment in quarterback is the biggest investment a team makes. A mistake in judgement often sets a team back three years if not more. Teams usually get stuck chasing the potential of a player and the sunk costs of the contract. This was one of the big reasons for the push in the last CBA negotiations to eliminate the uncapped rookie systems. Teams would be stuck with big money players, typically quarterbacks, eating large percentages of the salary cap and budget who were failures. But teams would chase that investment trying over and over again to find a way to make it work. That is really the heart of the matter when looking at a contract offer for Kirk Cousins.
The league is filled with teams who have made the mistake of giving too much weight to one good season and the hope of potential. Ryan Fitzpatrick getting his big contract from the Bills after a few “hot” games in 2011. Matt Cassel hit gold with one season in New England. Jake Delhomme was once a big winner in Carolina. The 49ers are stuck in limbo with Colin Kaepernick. Even players with varying degrees of success like Jay Cutler, Chad Pennington, and Mike Vick clogged team’s salary caps and roster decisions for years based more on potential and a flash of being good than anything else.
The Redskins are right for looking to avoid getting stuck in those situations. If you look at Cousin’s history we have one good season and three seasons essentially as a benchwarmer and poor spot starter. He doesn’t even have the higher draft pedigree to fall back on. A team has to have a lot of faith to fork over $20 million per year on a long term deal based on that.
How difficult is it to produce in that short run in the NFL? Here are a few names that popped into my head and a seasons worth (except for Nick Foles since he had two partial years) of numbers that landed them a new deal.
Freeman was the only player on that list who completely flamed out before he would receive a second contract. The others were able to land decent deals and in each case the team was ready to move on within a year of signing it.
From the Redskins perspective you want to grab a list of somewhat comparable players when deciding on a commitment to Cousins. I went back to 1994 and looked for players with less than 40 starts in their first four seasons while also throwing for more than 5,000 yards. I felt these criteria would limit us to question mark type players like Cousins who don’t have a huge sample to go by. Here is the list of players:
You could limit this list further if you wanted by taking out some of the bottom names or higher draft picks that happened to see some bench time, but this should at least give a decent overview of the considerations on the Redskins end.
For some of the names the jury is still out but may look dim (Griffin, Kaepernick), but I think if we do a quick estimation I would say about 50% of the names ended up as backups level players, 15% came across as spot starters, 15% were average and 20% ended up above average.
If you took used those numbers to really generate the risk of the signing you would come out with something like this using the current salary ranges in the NFL as our tier baselines.
That basically means any offer over $8 million a season is a risk for the Redskins. The $8 million number gives an equal risk and reward for the four ranges of outcomes.
Now I think we all know that Cousins is not signing for that little (the Redskins have reportedly gone to $15M in their offers) since he is coming into free agency hot unlike a RG3 who is coming in ice cold. Let’s limit the pool to eliminate the lower backup levels since Washington, by engaging in talks for this type of contract, has already decided that they will take on the risk of assuming he is going to be a starter even if its of the high level backup variety like a Ryan Fitzpatrick or Josh McCown.
Here we get a max number of $14.2 million per year, which is more in line with what Washington offered. Again by going over this number they are assuming a bigger portion of risk in the contract than Cousins. $15 million is certainly a fair offer (unless structured very strangely) and Washington should not go much higher than that if they want to limit their risk in this investment.
If they can’t come to an agreement, if I were the Redskins I would probably use the transition tag on Cousins. That number will be around $17 million and be in the range of expectations for a season. Could he sign an offer elsewhere? It is possible but at least it lets a market decide how much risk they will absorb to sign a player like Cousins. The Redskins are not in danger of losing him because of frontloaded contract structures so that is also not a worry like there would be with other teams who might have cap problems.
If Cousins is firm on looking for a $20 million a year contract then there is almost no risk for the Redskins in using a tag this season. Unlike other positions, quarterbacks last long after they are 30 so losing out on one contract year is not as big of a deal as it would be on other positions where the returns begin to diminish so quickly. Though Andrew Luck is soon going to be due a new contract the market at the top is so bunched up than even if Cousins played out of his mind he wouldn’t earn more than $22 million. So if $20 million is the number there is not much more he can gain by playing it out.
There is, however, far more risk for Cousins. If Cousins was to take a $15 million per year contract I would guess he would earn somewhere around $32 million over the next two years and would be likely to reach $45-$48 million over three years. If he flames out on a franchise tag he will earn far less because of the steep price drop between a starting quality player and a high end backup.
In that scenario he would probably earn $19.5 million in 2016 and then drop all the way down to $6 million in 2017, and possibly less in 2018. Considering there is more of a likelihood in this scenario I’d estimate that the earning potential here is $26 million over two years and $31 million over three. That’s a far cry from a $15 million per year offer.
So once Washington pushes over the $14 million a year number Cousins really needs to think hard about accepting such a contract. While I am sure he is very confident that he is a top quarterback, so were many other players before him that ended up having careers that never went past the contractual level of being signed to compete for a starting job on a bad team. It is a big bet on himself to aim for that $20 million a year contract if no team bites this season and he lands on a tag.
In the past I would have expected Washington to just pay him the $20 million but this is a new front office and one that seems to be playing it more by the numbers. If they are smart they will continue that same approach with Cousins over the next few weeks.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.