Yes, Kirk Cousins, drafted in the fourth round in 2012, the same year his team traded up to take Robert Griffin III with the No. 2 overall pick. The same Cousins who sat behind Griffin during the latter's brilliant rookie season but ultimately took his job. Cousins, whose current financial circumstances and contract leverage are unique in NFL history, because his team hasn't yet been willing to make the long-term commitment to lock up its franchise quarterback.
Is Cousins a franchise quarterback? This is a topic for debate. What's not is that Cousins is an incredibly wealthy young man (he made almost $20 million last year) who's about to become much wealthier. Because Cousins is Washington's designated franchise player, the team faces a July 15 deadline to sign him to a long-term deal. If no deal happens by then, he will play out the 2017 season on a fully guaranteed, one-year, $23.9436 million contract and become eligible for unrestricted free agency in March. Because of that, and because of the size of the numbers, Cousins' case is being watched closely and with great anticipation by people in all corners of the NFL contract landscape.
Agents -- especially those with top quarterbacks whose contracts are up soon -- want Cousins to break the bank. The NFL Players Association, which loves to see the market move upward, would love to see Cousins get to free agency and have teams be able to bid for his services. Quarterback-starved teams such as the San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns yearn for the chance to make those bids. NFL owners will watch to see whether Washington decides to set a new precedent for guarantee structure.
At the center of it all is Cousins, who stands to benefit regardless of how this turns out.
While he waits for a resolution, let's take a look at the different ways this could break and which groups are rooting for which outcomes. After consulting with sources around the league, I broke down the two main possibilities and potential offshoots of each:
If Washington does not sign Cousins before July 15
The first questions will be: Why not? Did the team not offer enough? Or did Cousins decide he would rather hit the market?
The latter possibility isn't as crazy as it sounds. If Cousins does not sign, the soon-to-be 29-year-old will have made a total of $43.8966 million in fully guaranteed money over the fifth and sixth years of his NFL career. As one agent I interviewed for this story pointed out, that's pretty sweet for a fourth-round pick whose team's draft-day hope was that he would never have to play for them.
You could argue that he has made enough that he doesn't need any more and that playing out this year and chancing an injury that costs him his long-term deal is a risk he can afford to take.
Another agent told me it's important to factor in the psychology that goes with these kinds of deals. The Oakland Raiders' Derek Carr, for example, is slated to earn $1.153 million in 2017, the final year of his rookie contract. If Oakland were to offer him $24 million a year and say "take it or leave it," he almost certainly would take it. But Cousins is already at $24 million for this year, fully guaranteed. It's going to take a lot more than that to blow his mind.
Which means he might be better off waiting, because the agents for Carr and Matthew Stafford are looking for extensions this summer and would want to work off (read: beat) Cousins' number. Which means he might not be the highest-paid player for more than a couple of weeks. But waiting until next spring, after the Carr and Stafford deals have moved the market, could end up being more lucrative.
If you're the NFLPA or the agent for someone such Matt Ryan (two years left on his deal) or Aaron Rodgers (three), you would love to see a star quarterback hit the open market and have teams bid on him. That has really happened only twice in the franchise-player era, and both of those cases (Drew Brees in 2006 and Peyton Manning in 2012) came with special, injury-related circumstances. The franchise tag was basically established for the purpose of keeping star quarterbacks off the market.
But the franchise rules in the new collective bargaining agreement require a 44 percent pay raise if teams want to use it a third straight year, which is what would happen in Cousins' case. That means franchising him again in 2018 would cost Washington $34,478,784 -- fully guaranteed. Even in an era of rising salary caps, that's a prohibitive figure. The highest-paid quarterback in the league in terms of average salary is Andrew Luck at $24.6 million. The highest quarterback salary-cap figure in the league is Joe Flacco's $24.55 million.
"I can't see them giving Cousins a third franchise tag in 2018," said one league source familiar with NFL contracts and the salary cap. "That's just suicide [from a cash perspective], forget cap for a second."
If Cousins plays out the 2017 season on the tag, Washington would have to sign him between the end of its season and the start of the league year. Otherwise, it would end up in a bidding war with the 49ers (whose new coach is former Washington offensive coordinator and noted Cousins fan Kyle Shanahan), Browns, Cardinals, Jets and maybe the Rams and Jaguars -- and name a team that's going to be looking for a quarterback next year and has a ton of cap room to spend. Washington would have to give Cousins a top-of-market quarterback deal to keep him from turning free agent, because hitting the market and sparking a bidding war could drive up his price into the range of $30 million per season.
If you look at Rodgers' 2013 extension in terms of percentage of the salary cap, his number this year would be $29.869 million. And the cap is expected to shoot up again next year, from $167 million to something in the $180 million range. A quarterback on the open market with multiple teams bidding would sail past $30 million a year.
"It feels like a mistake for Washington to let it get this far," another source said. "If they're going to end up making him the highest-paid player, they should have done it by now. It's costing them more to wait."
The answer to that is, possibly, that Washington doesn't want to make Cousins the league's highest-paid player because it doesn't think he's that good. That gets to the issue of who's making the decisions in Washington, and things might have changed with general manager Scot McCloughan getting fired in March and owner Dan Snyder having taken a larger role in the Cousins negotiations this offseason.
But regardless, market scarcity drives these things. The facts are that there aren't enough quarterbacks to go around, and Cousins is 28 years old with 9,083 yards and 54 touchdown passes over the past two seasons.
So, if Washington can't get Cousins signed by July 15 and doesn't want to make him the league's highest-paid player, that leaves a few possibilities:
It could franchise him again next year.
This would keep him off the 2018 market and allow Washington to try to land its new franchise quarterback in a draft people seem to think will be stuffed with them. If that happens, Washington can rescind the franchise tag post-draft and make Cousins a free agent. The issues with this are that (A) he could thwart the plan by signing the tag and guaranteeing him nearly $35 million for 2018, and (B) Washington would have to carry his $35 million cap charge throughout free agency and would be hamstrung in its efforts to sign anyone else.
It could trade him during the season.
Let's say we get to the 2017 trade deadline and Washington is having a bad season. It could trade him to, for example, the 49ers, who have more than $70 million in 2018 cap space and might be happy to sign Cousins to a whopper deal in the time between the end of their season and the start of the 2018 league year. Knowing the relationship Cousins has with Shanahan, San Francisco could be reasonably confident of getting Cousins signed before he hits the market. And, worst-case scenario, it could afford to carry that $35 million cap charge if it had to franchise him to buy time for a long-term deal. Perhaps a team like that is willing to cough up a big package of picks to Washington at the trade deadline.
It could use the transition tag instead of the franchise tag.
This would cost "only" about $28.8 million, which means some cap savings in the short term, but it also increases the chances that a cap-space-wealthy team such San Francisco or Cleveland could offer a monster deal that Washington can't match. And again, the transition tag puts Cousins at the top of the quarterback market, which is a place Washington so far hasn't wanted to be.
If Washington does sign Cousins before July 15
The question then becomes: What does the deal look like?
One source with knowledge of the talks told me Washington is optimistic that it can get a deal done for something in the range of $22 million per year. But an agent to whom I mentioned that said Cousins would be crazy to do a deal for $22 million per year when he already gets $24 million this season -- fully guaranteed -- by signing the one-year franchise tag. So I said, "Well, what if he gets it all guaranteed?" And the agent said, "Yeah, then you could do that deal."
This is the white whale of NFL contract negotiations: the fully guaranteed veteran deal. Many agents and NFLPA types hoped Luck or Russell Wilson would take a stand and push for full guarantees in their recent deals, but neither did. Luck's deal, which he did prior to his fifth-year option season, was worth up to $122.97 million over five years, but only $47 million of that was guaranteed at signing. "Only?" you ask? Yes, "only." As in, $13 million less than the $60 million in full guarantees defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh got from the Dolphins when he reached the free-agent market in 2015.
Luck's deal is huge, and in terms of average annual value, it makes him the league's highest-paid player. But he agreed to it at a time when the Colts had at least two more years of cost control over him, and he never maximized his leverage. Holding out for a fully guaranteed deal -- at a time when he already was guaranteed a $16.155 million salary for 2016 and it would have cost the Colts $21.268 million to franchise him in 2017 -- could have made Luck a historic figure in the NFL. But he's not alone in failing to see that as motivation.
"When you put numbers like that in front of guys, it's hard to sell them on, 'Oh, but take yourself to the open market and it'll be even more,'" one agent said. "When the teams are offering $40 million guaranteed, you're not going to find too many 'Norma Rae' types."
Could Cousins buck the trend? Another agent suggested that if Washington wants to do the deal at $22 million per year, Cousins should tell them, "Sure, as long as it's all guaranteed." Something like $66 million for three years or $88 million for four. Or if not a full guarantee, a historically significant percentage. Perhaps three years, $70 million (which the team can sell as a relative bargain at $23.3 million per year), with $60 million guaranteed (which the player, agent and union can celebrate as a record). If he beats Luck's deal, the market will take off, because surely the more accomplished Stafford (with one year left on his deal) can go to the Lions and demand more than what Cousins received. If Cousins gets a fully guaranteed deal, the effect on NFL contracts could be even more major.
The NFLPA hears criticism because its players don't have guaranteed contracts, while players in the NBA and MLB do. But multiple NFLPA sources pointed out that nothing in the NBA or MLB collective bargaining agreements requires guaranteed contracts, just as nothing in the NFL's prohibits them. Those other leagues got guaranteed deals because, at some point, a player with leverage took a stand and his team agreed. That has yet to happen in the NFL, but the union and the agents can hope. Cousins, who is in a unique position of leverage and already has made money that exceeds his wildest dreams, could be in a position to deliver that kind of landscape-altering history.
Since Rodgers signed his current contract in 2013, the NFL's salary cap has risen from $123 million to $167 million -- a 44 percent increase. The top quarterback salary has risen just 5.9 percent over that same period of time.
Cousins could be a part of helping kick-start that critical part of the NFL salary market. Whether it's by July 15 or by March, he has a strong chance to be the highest-paid player in the NFL. If he doesn't end up becoming that, it's almost certainly because he didn't want to be.