The Washington Redskins are staring at a big-time decision when it comes to Kirk Cousins this offseason.
The franchise was roundly criticized when they drafted Cousins in the fourth round, having already taken RGIII with the second pick of the 2012 draft, and traded a boat-load of compensation to make that pick happen. As it turns out, it’s just as well they did, because RGIII is all but done in the capitol, and they need a new franchise quarterback. Unfortunately, the Redskins waited so long to see what they had in Cousins as a full-time starter that they are now left with the unenviable task of deciding if he is worth big-time money, without being sure if he’ll ever justify it.
Cousins had started just nine games before this season, so though it isn’t his rookie season, we are essentially seeing the first real play of his at the NFL level. Even after starting all year, he still has fewer career starts than RGIII.
He ended the 2015 season 16th in PFF’s QB rankings, with an overall grade 75.6. That means that—by the skin of his teeth—he finished ranked in the top half of all starting QBs in the league. In most positions, this would be pretty good for a first-year starter, but the issue with quarterback is that at any given time, there are only 10-12 players that teams are genuinely happy with as starters, safe in the knowledge that they can take them as far as they need to go. Even of that list, guys like Matt Ryan take no end of criticism for simply not being Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady.
Though there has been a promising influx of young talent at the position over the last couple of seasons, teams are still facing a quarterback-starved league, and a situation where if you have a guy you’re even halfway happy with, you need to commit big money to him.
Jay Cutler has a $126.7 million contract. Colin Kaepernick has a $114 million deal (albeit one that can be cut loose at pretty short notice, with little harm to the team’s cap situation). Alex Smith signed a five-year, $76 million contract.
The market dictates that quarterbacks cash in with huge money, and Kirk Cousins is next in line to be paid.
Washington is in a similar boat as a few previous teams, staring down the barrel of a contract with this many zeros attached to it, yet no real idea of where the player’s ceiling and floor actually lie.
This season, Cousins was broadly impressive, but still massively inconsistent. Using PFF grades as an example, we can see he graded in the green (above +1.0) five times, and in the red (below +1.0) five times.
His two worst games were at least as bad as anything good he did on the other side. The same story shows up looking at other numbers across his season.
His completion percentage fluctuated from a low of 55.0 to a high of 85.2 percent game to game. He had 10 games where he did not throw an interception, but four where he threw two. He actually had more games in which he threw multiple picks than just one.
Fundamentally, Cousins looked like an inexperienced, talented young quarterback. His passing profile fits that template, right down to his performance in the face of pressure. Cousins had a passer rating of 114.7 when he was kept clean this season, throwing 23 touchdowns to just four picks, and completing 76.8 percent of his passes. These are fantastic numbers, and good even by “not under pressure” standards, but the issue is what happened when the heat was applied—his numbers tumbled, with a 53.9 completion percentage, seven scores to seven picks, and a passer rating of only 72.3. This isn’t unusual—as I said before, it is the standard template for all young passers—but it represents a big unknown to his future development.
The best quarterbacks pick up their play against pressure, but some never improve in that area. His play against the blitz, something which can mitigate those pressure stats, was hit or miss. His numbers against the blitz look relatively healthy, but his PFF grade does not. These are big indicators of a quarterback’s potential success, and with Cousins, they remain a muddy roadmap.
The league has recent precedent in signing these types of quarterbacks to big-money/team-friendly contracts. Kaepernick is a great example. His headline dollar-figure is huge, but the deal is structured in such a way as the team can easily walk away at any point with very little downside. As long as Kaepernick is/was worth starting, he was worth paying. Andy Dalton signed a deal that has some of the same flavor.
What the Redskins may need to do is use the franchise tag on Cousins, tying him down to a one-year, guaranteed figure somewhere in the region of $18.5 million, but giving both parties the chance to work out the structure of any long-term deal.
Cousins has certainly shown plenty of upside, and when you look at what is around him in Washington, there is no doubt his supporting cast could be upgraded to try and improve his environmental factors; however, committing $100 million to him would be a total projection and desperate gamble, unless it is structured in such a way as to give the team plenty of outs.