Kirk Cousins will be the biggest name on the looming NFL free-agent market -- assuming he gets there.
Many complicated factors surround Cousins' situation. For the third year in a row, the Washington quarterback enters the final month of the season without a contract for the year to come. For the third year in a row, his team has the ability to keep him from hitting the market if it doesn't mind paying him a hefty one-year salary.
This year carries a greater chance than ever that Cousins will reach unrestricted free agency -- and for a healthy, productive quarterback in his prime, that could mean a contract worth more than $30 million a year with around $70 million in guarantees. But it's never that simple with Cousins' situation, and there's still a ton of uncertainty about how it'll all turn out.
So, with a month left in the season and three months until the start of the 2018 league year, here's a look at what has and hasn't changed about Cousins' situation since July, when he and the team failed to reach agreement on a long-term contract extension and the rules required him to play out the 2017 season on a one-year, $23.9 million franchise player tender.
What has changed
The price: Washington can still keep Cousins off the market if it wants to, through the use of the franchise player designation or the transition player designation. But those things carry increasingly heavy costs and risk for the team.
Franchising a player for a third year in a row, which Washington would be doing in this case, requires a one-year salary equivalent to 144 percent of the previous year's salary. That means franchising Cousins and keeping him off the market would cost Washington more than $34 million of fully guaranteed money in 2018. Even with the salary cap expected to keep escalating, that's a huge price. Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr is scheduled to make $22.5 million in 2018, and that's the highest scheduled cash outlay for any single player. Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford's 2018 salary cap figure of $26.5 million is the highest in that category. A $34 million guaranteed salary (and cap figure) would dwarf both of those, and might not be feasible.
Using the transition tag instead could make some sense for Washington. That would cost "only" about $28.8 million for 2018, but it would allow another team to offer Cousins a long-term contract. So Cousins would get to play the market, and if another team offered him the long-term deal he seeks, Washington would have the right to match that deal and keep him. This strategy makes sense if Washington has decided it's willing to pay Cousins top-of-the-market long-term money but wants to let the market set the price. Basically, they'd be saying, "You think you're worth $30 million-plus on the open market? Go prove it, and if you're right, we'll match it." The risk is that, if a team makes an offer Washington can't or doesn't want to match, the team is not entitled to any draft pick compensation and would lose Cousins for nothing.
Jared Goff is good now, and the 49ers traded for Jimmy Garoppolo: Prior to the start of the season, the two most likely free-agent destinations for Cousins would have been the Los Angeles Rams, where former Washington offensive coordinator Sean McVay is the coach, and the San Francisco 49ers, where former Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is the coach. Cousins has strong relationships with both of those coaches, and they think highly of him. The 49ers also were projected to have more than $100 million in salary cap space for next year, ranking them alongside the equally cap-rich Cleveland Browns as the team most capable of breaking the bank for Cousins on the open market.
But McVay and the Rams are 9-3 with the highest-scoring offense in the league, and they're not looking to replace Goff, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft, anytime soon. And just before the trade deadline, the 49ers traded for former New England Patriots backup Jimmy Garoppolo, leading most people around the league to believe they see him as their quarterback of the future and won't bid on Cousins.
There are people close to the situation who say the door isn't necessarily closed for Cousins in San Francisco. It's still possible Garoppolo doesn't show enough over the final few games and Shanahan decides Cousins is still the better bet. In that case, they could part ways with Garoppolo, either by letting him leave in free agency -- they haven't signed him long-term -- or by trading him if they do sign him to an extension. The acquisition of Garoppolo gives the 49ers options, and a valuable asset, and protects them in case Washington doesn't let Cousins hit the market. But while all of that might be true, objectively, the addition of Garoppolo seems to make it at least less likely that San Francisco ends up being an option for Cousins.
Some new teams could be in the mix: Several quarterback situations around the league look a lot different than they did in July. The Buffalo Bills clearly aren't sold on Tyrod Taylor as the long-term solution. The New York Giants don't seem to have any idea what they'll be doing with Eli Manning, and they could have a need if they don't pick a quarterback high in the draft. The New York Jets don't look as if they'll have as high a pick as they expected to have, and they haven't looked at their young guys in games because they have started Josh McCown. The Minnesota Vikings and Miami Dolphins are total mysteries in terms of what they'll do at the position in 2018 and beyond. The Cincinnati Bengals are a team to watch, due to the potential for a coaching change and the ability to move on from Andy Dalton's contract if they decide they want to do that. The potential market for Cousins might have lost an obvious team or two, but it could have gained more.
What hasn't changed
Washington's ability to control the situation: As addressed above, Washington could simply keep Cousins from reaching free agency if it decides it can afford to pay him what the rules require. And this could keep happening in perpetuity. There's nothing in the collective bargaining agreement that says what happens if a team wants to franchise a player for a fourth year in a row, so hypothetically, if Cousins were to play out 2018 on a $34 million franchise tag, and Washington wanted to franchise him again in 2019, they'd probably have to have some sort of hearing on whether they're allowed to do that and what it should cost. Hypothetically (and we're really stressing that word here), another 44 percent salary increase would make Cousins' 2019 franchise tag about $49 million.
As for the transition tag, there are no limits on how many years in a row that can be applied -- as long as the team can stomach annual 20 percent raises. So if Washington were to use the transition tag on Cousins in 2018 and he didn't get the long-term deal he wanted and played for $28.8 million, it could transition him again in 2019 for $34.6 million and again in 2020 for $41.5 million and on and on until the end of his career (assuming, of course, those rules don't change in the next CBA, which would start in 2021).
This isn't to say Washington will do that, of course, or even that it could afford to. But it's to underline the fact that -- for a significant cost -- Washington can continue to control this situation and keep Cousins as its quarterback whether he likes it or not.
Cousins' attitude about all of this: Cousins insists he's not bothered by the idea of continuing to play on one-year deals, and who could blame him? As Washington's fourth-round pick the year they traded up to take Robert Griffin III at No. 2 overall, Cousins was never even supposed to play for this team, let alone be its franchise quarterback. As it stands, he has earned almost $44 million over the past two years, and his worst-case scenario for next year appears to be another $28.8 million. He has shown that playing without a contract extension doesn't bother him, as he's on pace for a third straight season of more than 4,000 passing yards and more than 25 touchdown passes.
Surely, Cousins would enjoy hitting the free-agent market, sitting down with other teams' coaches and GMs and talking about opportunities outside of Washington. But he's clearly OK -- emotionally and especially financially -- if that never happens. In many ways, this season -- in which Washington's offensive line fell apart and its receiving corps never seemed to come together -- has showcased Cousins' ability to function in a difficult environment. That's something any franchise should want its quarterback to be able to show, and if Washington still isn't sold, that probably says more about its franchise than it does him.
The need: We mentioned a few of the teams whose need at the position might be greater than originally thought, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. In addition to the teams named above, the Jacksonville Jaguars, Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos all will enter the offseason looking for quarterback help. Depending on what happens with their older veterans, the New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers could, too. There should be at least a half-dozen teams bidding if Cousins gets to the market, and that number could potentially reach double digits.
What we still don't know
Whether Washington's perspective has changed: The rules state that, if a team doesn't sign its franchise player to a long-term deal before mid-July, it can't negotiate a long-term deal with that player again until after the season. So there have been no further negotiations between Cousins and Washington since July 15, and therefore Cousins doesn't know whether Washington will be willing to offer a deal enticing enough to keep him from trying free agency.
Washington can begin negotiations with Cousins as soon as its season ends. Since it appears Washington will not make the playoffs, that means it can start negotiating Jan. 1, which would give the front office a two-month head start on the market. But after all that has happened, all the money he has already made, and now that he sits closer than ever to real free agency, the team probably can't lock up Cousins in January or February for anything less than what he expects to get on the open market. No hometown discounts here.
That probably means, as we discussed up top, a deal in excess of $30 million per year with something like $70 million in guarantees -- a deal that would dwarf the contract extensions signed last offseason by Carr and Stafford, who weren't open-market free agents and were negotiating only with their current teams.
Since the franchise player rules were created, no healthy top quarterback in his prime has hit the open market. The two biggest-name quarterbacks who did were Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, and both were available only because of injuries. Cousins' situation would be unprecedented, which is why the numbers likely would get so high. The only question is whether he gets the chance to hit those numbers.