Redskins QB Kirk Cousins knows he must prove himself again

Redskins hoping Cousins builds on 2015 performance (1:23)

John Keim breaks down what the Redskins are hoping to see from Kirk Cousins. (1:23)

RICHMOND, Va. -- Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins will continue to ascend, building on his 2015 success. He’ll elevate his stature among quarterbacks, inching toward the top 10. And he’ll lead the Redskins to another division title.

That’s what the Redskins hope. That’s Cousins’ hope. But at this point, it’s all conjecture -- and even Cousins understands it means nothing. He knows he feels better about his game. What that means for 2016 is anyone’s guess. Was 2015 an aberration or a beginning? Stay tuned.

“There’s no doubt that you have more comfort when you’ve played and been the starter and been out there and had experiences,” Cousins said on Thursday. “What we went through last year has helped me now having confidence going forward. Hopefully it translates into a great offense and a lot of production, but it’s just talk right now until you go out there and prove it.”

And that’s the trick for Cousins this season. He proved he was capable of an excellent stretch to close the season. Now he must show he can do it again, becoming a consistent quarterback for 16 games. His development will continue to be scrutinized because of his contract situation. Cousins, of course, will play for the franchise-tag fee of $19.95 million, and his performance directly impacts his next contract. One week you might hear: Pay the man. The next: crickets. It’s better for the Redskins if they hear a lot more of the former.

Clearly, some in the Redskins organization need to see more from him to secure the long-term deal Cousins’ side wants.

“He doesn’t have to do a whole lot to get me,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “It’s about consistency. Great, he had one year -- there have been a lot of quarterbacks in the history of the league that have had good, solid one-year seasons. But it’s about having two, three, four years. Luckily for us, we’re in a position to look at him another year and he’s in a position to really put a stamp on himself.”

One defensive player said the biggest growth has come in Cousins' leadership. He compared Cousins to Drew Brees -- someone who compensates for physical flaws, be it arm strength or size, with the mental aspects of the position. Another point by this player: Cousins just has to master his playbook and get the ball to the right person. With talent such as tight end Jordan Reed and wide receivers DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Jamison Crowder around him, it’s good advice.

Cousins threw 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last year. With both Reed and Jackson on the field, his passer rating was 114.7, according to ESPN Stats & Information. But his game wasn’t terrible without them, owning a 93.8 rating (though nine of his picks came when both were off the field). Still, the point was to not overthink or force throws.

For Cousins, it’s not as if there’s one area he believes he has solved or won’t try to improve.

“I don’t know that there were all these areas where I was deficient last year,” he said, “and I don’t know that there were all these areas where I just feel like I’ve arrived.”

During practice Thursday, Cousins showed more of his veteran side: flashing a hand signal to Reed right before the snap on a short slant. Another time he hustled to the line for a quick snap (the play did not work). He didn’t throw any interceptions during 11-on-11 work. Once, he appeared to change the play at the line and created an opening. Cousins underthrew Reed on one deep ball -- was it on purpose, to allow Reed a chance to stop and come back, or simply underthrown?

Cousins’ focus remains on maintaining ownership of the team and the position. Teammates say he was more vocal in offseason meetings, knowing that in the past, it really wasn’t his place. He helped install plays, talked more to those in the passing game about what he expected on certain routes.

But the contract will accompany him all season, fair or not.

“The franchise tag says a lot,” Cousins said. “They didn’t have to tag me. In this league, it’s one year at a time -- whether you’re on a long-term deal, one-year deal or two-year deal. I had a four-year deal as a rookie but it didn’t feel like a four-year deal -- it felt like a one-day deal every single day I was here. I have got to go out there and prove myself each and every game of every season. When you do that, the rest will take care of itself.”

He’s betting that he will build on his 2015 performance.

“His confidence level obviously is at an all-time high, but he also understands he’s got a lot of work to do and he’s not afraid to put the work in,” Gruden said. “He’s studying the film, he’s a gym rat, he’s a film rat. The great quarterbacks are that way in their first year and in their 15th year. He’s got the mental makeup to be a great one. Now we just have got to make sure he continues to study and continues to get better.”