The Washington Redskins want to keep quarterback Kirk Cousins. They also want to have the ability to build a team that can win now and in the future if they do. Perhaps one playoff matchup this weekend allows the Redskins to see how their decision could pay off -- whatever direction they take.
The Redskins have made offers to sign Cousins long term, though none has come close to tempting him to sign. No matter what they offer, if he doesn’t want to be here, he won’t sign long term. Still, the Redskins must decide his worth and how much help he’d ultimately need around him to lead them deep into the postseason.
That’s why the New Orleans-Minnesota matchup might provide a glimpse into the Redskins’ future. Here’s how:
Let’s be clear: Drew Brees is a future Hall of Famer with a Super Bowl win; Cousins is a good quarterback with no playoff wins. There’s a difference between the two and this isn’t about comparing them as much as looking at how cap space is allocated. The Saints had to rebuild with an aging, expensive quarterback and were coming off three straight 7-9 seasons.
Clearly, Brees -- who also has a Super Bowl winning coach on the sideline -- needed more around him. Brees, at age 38, counted $19 million against the salary cap this year, but occupied 14.03 percent of the Saints’ cap (factoring in the dead money). In 2016, he counted only $17.25 million vs. the cap but took up 16.46 percent.
Cousins, meanwhile, took up 14.73 percent of the cap this past season. In 2016, it was 15.56 percent.
But New Orleans wasn’t bad because of Brees’ contract, the Saints struggled because of numerous bad decisions (safety Jairus Byrd). That led to massive amounts of dead money on the cap. The Saints had $43 million in dead money in 2016 and another $28 million this past year. The Redskins have managed the cap well and routinely rank among the best teams when it comes to the least amount of dead money.
But New Orleans was able to improve despite lacking a lot of room (as did Atlanta where Matt Ryan accounted for 18 percent of the cap; others such as Baltimore with Joe Flacco have failed in this regard). The Saints got better thanks to the draft, finding four quality starters. In fact, the Saints might have the NFL’s best rookie on defense (corner Marshon Lattimore) and offense (running back Alvin Kamara).
If the Redskins keep Cousins, they must build without spending a lot of money. To do so, they must hit on draft picks. With New Orleans, even if Brees can’t take them there by himself, he has been there, can clearly take over when needed and remains a top-10 quarterback. The decision to pay Brees was easy. Maybe the rookies would have helped New Orleans become a playoff team without Brees; the Saints are a Super Bowl contender because of him. The Redskins must decide if Cousins could do the same.
The Vikings didn’t plan on turning to Case Keenum. They had no choice. Teddy Bridgewater was recovering from his 2016 knee injury and Sam Bradford got hurt (again). They turned to Keenum, who has delivered with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The question remains: How far can Minnesota go with Keenum?
Still, the Vikings already have done more with Keenum than most would have anticipated. He counts $1.9 million against the cap after five lackluster years -- 24 starts with two organizations; 24 touchdowns and 20 picks.
Keenum is not a big quarterback (6-foot-1) and does not wow anyone with his arm. Rather, he makes good quick decisions -- and lets the talent around him do the rest. Minnesota has a terrific receiving corps, in part because it has drafted well (receiver Stefon Diggs; tight end Kyle Rudolph) and developed others (Adam Thielen, former undrafted free agent).
They not only were good enough to withstand the loss of Bradford but also an explosive rookie running back in Dalvin Cook. The Vikings have hovered around the top 10 all season in yards and points per game.
Also, the Vikings have built one of the top defensive units in the NFL. They rank first in both yards and points this season and were sixth in points and third in yards last year. The Vikings had six games in which the opposition scored 10 points or less (the Redskins were one of two teams to score 30 vs. them). The Redskins have had six games where they held the opposition to 10 points or less six times as well --but you have to go back to 2012 to reach that total.
While they finally have some young talent to build around defensively, the Redskins need more work to create anything close to Minnesota. And that’s the trick for Washington: If the Redskins lose Cousins, can they build this, using Colt McCoy or another lower-priced passer?
If they don’t use much of their financial resources on a quarterback, that money will go somewhere -- whether it’s well-spent or not remains to be seen. The Vikings grew their defense, with eight draft picks among their starters in the base defense. Money always helps, but their one high-priced free agent defensive signee was defensive lineman Linval Joseph. The Redskins high-priced free agent signing was corner Josh Norman; he counted $20 million on the cap this season.
As the Redskins look to the future, they can point to multiple examples to show why they spent big on Cousins or why they went another route.