Kirk Cousins closer to free agency, but 49ers must keep QB options open

Ad Pro Test Clip 7 - August 2017 (1:28)

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Quarterback Kirk Cousins took another big step toward 2018 free agency when he and the Washington Redskins didn't come to terms on a long-term contract by Monday's deadline for franchise players.

It's a situation that has been monitored closely in San Francisco, where the 49ers are in need of a franchise quarterback, have a boatload of cap space to carry into next offseason and have a head coach -- Kyle Shanahan -- who has a longstanding relationship with Cousins, whom he helped develop while he was Washington's offensive coordinator in 2012 and 2013.

Given those optics, many believe Cousins to the 49ers has become something of a fait accompli. But for a variety of reasons, things are far more complicated than that when it comes to San Francisco's search for a top quarterback.

Cousins will play 2017 under the franchise tag for the second consecutive season, earning a salary of $23.9 million. ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported via sources over the weekend that Cousins is open to doing a deal with Washington after the season, which means the door to stay in D.C. hasn't fully closed. That possibility might have taken a big hit Monday when Redskins president Bruce Allen decided to fire off a statement revealing details of the team's offers to Cousins.

Regardless, it seems unlikely Cousins would get that close to finally hitting free agency without seeing what other teams might have to offer. And even if he was open to a deal, it's even less likely he'd be willing to drop his asking price to what Washington has been seeking in previous contract talks.

Much of that could depend on how he fares this season, but Cousins is fourth in the NFL in QBR (71.3), sixth in passer rating (99.3) and fourth in passing yards (9,083) among all quarterbacks over the past two seasons. So even a little drop in production after losing top receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson to free agency isn't going to hurt his stock much, barring serious injury or a complete disaster of a season.

If Cousins doesn't re-sign before free agency, there are other ways Washington could keep him in the fold. The Redskins could opt to use the franchise tag for a third straight year at the eye-popping cost of nearly $34.5 million for a one-year tender offer. That would again prevent Cousins from being able to leave. The Redskins could also use the transition tag, which would cost a more palatable $28.7 million, but would allow Cousins to seek outside contract offers while also giving Washington the rights to match any offer sheet Cousins might sign elsewhere.

Under that scenario, the 49ers would be in position to make Cousins an offer that the Redskins would have trouble matching. The 49ers project to have more than $100 million in cap space next offseason depending on how much they end up using this season and then roll over to 2018. Washington's cap space ranks near the bottom of the league, but the Redskins will have a much bigger chunk available next offseason as other contracts come off the books.

All of that said, if Washington doesn't use the franchise tag on Cousins again or surprisingly sign him to a long-term deal, the 49ers would seem to have the inside track to land him based on his relationship with Shanahan and the team's copious cap space. There would, of course, be plenty of other suitors willing to pay Cousins big money should he hit the open market.

Which then raises the question of whether signing Cousins to a deal that would make him one of the league's highest-paid players (perhaps the highest-paid) is a worthwhile investment. Certainly, there is something to be said for adding your franchise quarterback without having to spend anything other than money to do so.

However, Cousins isn't the only appealing quarterback poised to potentially hit the open market next season. New England's Jimmy Garoppolo is less accomplished and would be more of a risk but won't be as costly as Cousins. Perhaps the biggest benefit of adding a quarterback in free agency is it would give the 49ers plenty of freedom to use their draft capital on receiving weapons and linemen to maximize their new quarterback's performance.

The 49ers have also put themselves in position to explore other avenues to find a quarterback for the long term. In addition to all that cap space, the 49ers have extra picks in the second and third rounds of the 2018 NFL draft on top of their usual picks in each of the first three rounds.

Coming off a 2-14 season, the 49ers aren't expected to be contenders in 2017 and will probably have a relatively high pick in the first round. Even if they improve, having five picks in the first two days of the draft would give them enough ammunition to move up for a top quarterback such as USC's Sam Darnold or Wyoming's Josh Allen.

Finally, the 49ers also have a full year to evaluate the quarterbacks they have on their roster. Brian Hoyer was signed to hold things down until the 49ers find their future at the position, but Hoyer is a competitor and his knowledge of Shanahan's offense could give him a chance to have a bigger-than-expected season, which would force the 49ers to reconsider spending huge money to make a run at Cousins or using a high draft pick on an unproven commodity. The team also spent a third-round pick on C.J. Beathard this year and will spend this season determining his upside.

On paper, Cousins to the 49ers still looks like a strong possibility, one that became more realistic in light of Monday's news. But it's still not a sure thing.

The 49ers spent much of this offseason positioning themselves to do what's necessary to get a franchise quarterback in 2018. What happens over the next seven-or-so months will go a long way toward determining whether that quarterback is Cousins or somebody else.