Three years ago he was a quarterback wondering about his future who wanted to compete for a starting job. Now, after two franchise tags, Kirk Cousins will be looking to cash in in free agency and has become a case study. But while some view his situation as one that will change how teams do business, most see his situation as an aberration -- unless he receives a fully guaranteed three-year deal.
At the scouting combine, the former Washington Redskins quarterback -- who could become the game's highest paid player within a few days -- was a topic of discussion.
"I can tell you what I heard over and over again," an agent said at the combine, "is that this will go down in history as what not to do with your quarterback. The lesson learned here is people will be really worried about using the tag on quarterbacks going forward. How much better would they have been if they had offered just a little more money early in this process? Yeah, I've heard that from other teams. I think people will be really reluctant to do that going forward."
Since 2007, teams have tagged quarterbacks six times -- two were for Cousins. No quarterback had been tagged since 2012 when the Redskins did it to Cousins in '16.
One former executive said he thought Cousins' situation influenced Jimmy Garoppolo's deal with San Francisco. The 49ers ended up paying him the average of the tag numbers over a three-year period ($27.5 million).
Before Cousins, many players would not have dared to take this route. Agents will give teams a three-year average they'd want for their player, with a hidden threat of three one-year deals via the tag. But teams know most would not travel this path three straight years.
"Cousins went out and did it," the former executive said.
Lesson for agents
Another former executive said the lasting impact should be agents learning how to best maximize the value of a player. That would be a long-lasting one -- as it would be if Cousins signs a three-year deal fully guaranteed. That would alter the landscape. Cousins and his agent, Mike McCartney, parlayed his situation into $44 million in guaranteed income over the past two years. Some estimates have him getting nearly $90 million in guaranteed money once he signs with a new team.
His total guaranteed take over a three-year period will ultimately dwarf what the Redskins offered. Not everyone in the game thinks the Redskins made a mistake by not going that high, saying Cousins isn't enough of a game-changer to warrant that sort of deal.
Still, in 2016 Cousins' side proposed a three-year deal for $19 million per year with all of it guaranteed. It led to an impasse and, ultimately, the franchise tag. And once the tag became involved, a long-term deal became unlikely.
"It's a benefit to the players now to use the tag as leverage," another agent said. "Maybe teams will make more of an effort to get the quarterback done two years earlier, but I feel teams were making a big effort before [Cousins]. This is an exceptional case. Once the Ravens let Joe Flacco get to the end there and then he became the highest paid player ... it seems teams look at that and want to avoid that at all costs. It's interesting this one got to where it did."
The Redskins weren't about to extend Cousins a year before his contract was up. It's hard to imagine Cousins wanting to do so, either. At the end of the 2014 season -- with one year left on his rookie deal -- Cousins was a backup who made it clear he just wanted to compete for the starting job. Otherwise, he'd ask to be traded. With Robert Griffin III still under contract, and with the team about to pick up his fifth-year option that offseason, a long-term deal was unlikely. Also, Mike Shanahan, who drafted him and remains one of Cousins' biggest supporters, had been fired the previous offseason.
After the Redskins named Cousins the starter in August of 2015, then-general manager Scot McCloughan told team officials they should extend him. But with Cousins still unproven -- and with some wondering if Griffin would somehow reclaim the job, the Redskins weren't ready to do business. The offer likely wouldn't have been high -- maybe $8 to $10 million per year -- so it's hard to say that would have gotten it done. By the time there was a desire on the Redskins' part that December, it was too late, and Cousins was eyeing free agency or the franchise tag.
The lasting impact of Cousins' situation won't be known for a while. For teams, if he receives a contract worth $30 million per year, can a team still build around him or sustain what it has? Several executives and coaches said unless a quarterback is among the top two or three in the game, it's hard to justify going that high. That wasn't unanimous, though, as another coach said it was worth it just to lock in a good player at the game's most important position. For agents, the three-year guaranteed deal would be a game-changer.
The Redskins clearly believe it was too much, which is why they traded for Alex Smith and his $17 million cap hit this season and didn't tag Cousins a third year at $34.5 million. Some in the organization believe they should have tried to trade Cousins last offseason rather than tag him a second time, which led to another year of questions about his desire to be here long-term.
Still, from a business perspective, Cousins will financially benefit greatly by his maneuvering. What it means for others remains to be seen.
"It's more of an aberration. As the numbers get higher and higher for quarterbacks, the tag gets higher and higher," another agent said. "That's the bigger issue than anything. It's not really the Cousins situation. To play off the tag for two years to lock in that money and have it go like that ... that's the ultimate strategy."