An Analysis of Contract Negotiations Between Redskins and Kirk Cousins

WASHINGTON — A deadline is fast approaching for the Redskins and quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Washington has until July 15 — next Friday — to sign Cousins to a long-term contract extension. Otherwise, he will play the 2016 season under the franchise tag ($19.95 million). That would leave the organization’s future at quarterback uncertain, at best. Here’s an analysis of the negotiations and how they will play out over the next week.

Who does the status quo benefit?
Cousins. Right now he is guaranteed $19.953 million. That’s the offer Washington tendered him after the season and the one he quickly signed. If Cousins has another strong season and the team has to use the franchise tag again then he will make roughly $23.94 million for 2017. If the Redskins blanch at that price for whatever reason, they can simply let Cousins hit the open market. But given that Houston just gave quarterback Brock Osweiler — who had started seven games in his career — $37 million in fully guaranteed money this offseason, Cousins is probably okay with that scenario.

The gamble? Obviously, Cousins could struggle this fall. And that would cost him some of the money he’d be guaranteed if he agreed to a deal right now. But it doesn’t appear the Redskins are willing to break the bank for him this summer, either, so any potential loss is mitigated. Maybe Washington’s stance changes as the July 15 deadline approaches.

For now, Cousins can bet on himself and assume the $44 million he would get in back-to-back franchise tag years as his base line in negotiations. At least in terms of fully guaranteed money, that money would match Baltimore’s Joe Flacco and trail only Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers ($54 million) and Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck ($47 million).

Why fully guaranteed money matters
Forget the circus numbers. What matters to an NFL player is how much money he will absolutely make. A six-year contract for $110 million isn’t worth a damn if the organization has an easy out after two or three years.

Let’s look at Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton. He started 48 consecutive games to begin his career and helped the Bengals to the playoffs three years in a row. Was he a perfect player? No. But he put up good numbers and did enough to keep Cincinnati competitive. That led to a six-year, $96 million contract before the 2014 season.

But the only fully guaranteed money was a signing bonus ($12 million), the first-year salary ($986,027) and a roster bonus ($5.1 million). The contract was structured so the Bengals realistically couldn’t part ways with Dalton in 2014 or 2015, but would have just $7.2 million in dead money if they cut him this summer.

Dalton is healthy and took Cincinnati to the playoffs again last fall so that’s not an issue. And now the contract is even more team-friendly. Next year that dead-money number drops to $4.8 million and again to $2.4 million in 2018. It’s the classic pay-as-you-go deal that NFL teams love.

At the time he signed, Dalton was a third-year player with another season left on his rookie contract at a paltry $1.42 million salary. Cousins’ agent Mike McCartney is negotiating off an astronomically higher price point. Still, it’s a lesson in what matters: the fully guaranteed money. The more leverage a player has, the higher that number needs to rise. So even if you think Dalton is a better player, when the two men negotiated their deals matters more.

Cousins’ motivation?
Athletes have a limited window to make as much cash as they can. But being around Cousins the last few years, it’s clear something else matters to him, too: commitment. He began his career in Washington playing second fiddle to Robert Griffin III. As recently as last spring, Cousins didn’t think he’d ever get a fair shot at being the starting quarterback in Washington.

Griffin faltered and Cousins took advantage. The Redskins like him. Coach Jay Gruden essentially tied his job security to Cousins. General manager Scot McCloughan supported him. But Cousins did have a bumpy start to last season. The final 11 games he was wonderful — a franchise-record for passing yards (4,166) and 24 touchdown passes to three interceptions if you include the playoff loss to Green Bay. Is that track record long enough for Washington to make a serious commitment in years? Because that will be a major part of his ask. If the Redskins aren’t prepared to offer a deal with some security in it then Cousins has no reason to accept a contract of four, five or six years.

What is a good deal for Cousins?
Something that guarantees him more than the $44 million he can expect to get between this season and next on the franchise tag. Of course, Cousins isn’t at the level of Aaron Rodgers ($54 million fully guaranteed). And he doesn’t have the upside of Andrew Luck ($47 million) — though that recent contract raises the bar for all quarterbacks around the league. But Osweiler ($37 million) has even less of a track record than Cousins so why would he take less fully guaranteed money on a four-year deal in this market?

Barring a complete disaster of a season or a major injury, Cousins isn’t dropping very far below that $19.953 number no matter what. Too many teams are desperate for help at quarterback and will pay him well in 2017. But there is something to be said for security. If Cousins can peg the average annual value of his salary at $20 million, climb over that $44 million threshold in fully guaranteed dollars and top $60 million in likely guarantees with a potential value of $100 million then he’s achieved a lot. That would push him into the top 10 among all quarterbacks in those categories and lift him above some big names even if the rising cap makes the deal look reasonable by 2018.

What is a good deal for the Redskins?
Clearly it’s one that allows them to escape with relatively little pain if Cousins regresses. A team’s actions tell you what they really think internally. You can’t hide that. A year ago Cousins was trading backup reps with Colt McCoy. Nine months ago his performance was fluctuating wildly as a first-year starter. He finished strong and that was a good sign. But paying a premium after 11 games will give any front office heartburn. Cousins turns 28 next month. He’s entering his fifth pro season – his third with this coaching staff. Washington has a good gauge by now of what he is and what he can still become.

If the Redskins can get Cousins under contract for four years at a reasonable price they are willing to roll with him. But can they keep that fully guaranteed money somewhere in between what San Diego quarterback Phillip Rivers ($37.5 million) got this spring and what Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo ($40 million) negotiated in 2013? Do they match Atlanta’s Matt Ryan ($42 million) or Baltimore’s Joe Flacco ($44 million)? You can’t argue Cousins has reached that level yet and the team seems reluctant to go there with him.

But the NFL salary cap is also at $155 million and rising. The next wave of quarterbacks from the 2014 and 2015 draft classes (Derek Carr, Blake Bortles, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota) is hurtling toward free agency in 2018 and 2019. The price isn’t going down. It might be best for the Redskins to swallow hard and get a deal done now. Their options are limited.

What’s realistic?
The Redskins probably won’t love this answer. But Cousins knows he can make that $44 million total between 2016 and 2017 just by having a solid season. And you can argue that’s Washington’s best solution, too. To give Cousins the security he wants and yet still keep his salary-cap number in line might require a signing bonus that would blow past more established quarterbacks.

Is it fair that Cousins could make more in fully guaranteed money than Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger? No. But Cousins struck gold in his contract year and there are almost no comparables in the NFL with a similar combination of limited track record and a high salary based off one great year. The Redskins would have been crazy to sign Cousins to an extension last spring. They didn’t even think he would play after Gruden had iced him for the final nine games of the 2014 season.

Now? He’s making $19.953 million and the team is just hoping to keep his salary-cap number in that range. That will save them money on next year’s expected raise under the franchise tag, provide cost certainty and give both sides stability for around, say, $40 million in fully guaranteed money. Cousins and the Redskins both have to relent some to get there, though.

What will happen?
Conventional wisdom — and basic reporting — indicates Cousins and the Redskins are too far apart to get a deal done by July 15 and that he is comfortable playing on the franchise tag. It makes sense on both ends. He gets a chance to raise his value even higher. The team doesn’t have to commit long term to a player they like, but aren’t sure is worth top-end quarterback money.

That’s a little too easy, though. It’s in McCartney’s best interest to make everyone believe his client is totally fine playing on a one-year deal. This is still the NFL and injury is a massive risk. If Cousins suffers a herniated disc in his neck then even the backup quarterback money we all assume he could make for years in a worst-case scenario could disappear. Meanwhile, Washington has no reason to bow to Cousins’ demands before July 15. What’s the point? The Redskins have to hold fast now and see if McCartney — or his client — blinks. Security is tempting, after all. They have limited leverage given the timing of Cousins’ breakthrough, but you don’t just throw away what you do have.

Washington didn’t want to use the franchise tag on Cousins, but did so because the risk of losing him on the transition tag ($17.696 million) for nothing was far too great given the limited savings and the market. The front office thought ahead. Here, too, it understands the downside in waiting to get a deal done. In the end, Cousins and the Redskins will come to a long-term agreement on or before July 15.

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