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Offseason Hypotheticals: Kirk Cousins to the Broncos

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What would it look like if the Broncos signed the Redskins QB in free agency?

Washington Redskins v New Orleans Saints

As the discussion in Broncos Country turns to the looming offseason, Kirk Cousins’ name has been a common sight in quarterback conversations. There’s a wide range of opinions about him among Broncos fans, and large groups both for and against pursuing him this offseason.

There’s also been quite a bit of confusion about Cousins, though. Why wouldn’t there be? He’s (currently) an NFC quarterback, playing for a team the Broncos rarely face and which makes the news more often for its various scandals and controversies than it does for its football. No wonder Broncos fans aren’t very familiar with him.

So let’s get to know Mr. Cousins, and take a look at what a potential contract for him might look like.

Background

Kirk Cousins is currently 29, turning 30 on August 19th. He played highschool football at Holland Christian High School in Holland, Michigan. An injury set him back in his junior year, but he finished high school with 3,204 passing yards, 40 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions.

After a redshirt rookie season at Michigan State, Cousins spent 2008 as the backup to Brian Hoyer. He went 6-7, 11-2, and 11-3 over the next three years, and his Michigan State teams earned a share of the Big Ten championship in 2010 and played in the first Big Ten Championship game in 2011. He finished his college career with an average completion rate of 64.1%, 9,131 passing yards, 66 touchdowns, and 30 interceptions.

Arizona Cardinals v Washington Redskins Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Backup to a Glass Cannon

The Redskins then drafted Kirk in the 4th round, 102nd overall, in the 2012 NFL Draft. Two days earlier, the Redskins had drafted 2011 Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III with the 2nd overall pick. Griffin was the team’s starter from the outset, but Cousins played well in the preseason and took incumbent Rex Grossman’s place as the backup QB.

Cousins appeared in 3 games during his rookie season, including an impressive performance against the 2012 Baltimore Ravens team that would go on to win the Super Bowl that postseason. Coming off the bench for the final drive of the game after RG3’s injury, he threw the necessary touchdown and ran a 2 point conversion in himself and the Redskins won in overtime.

The 2013 & 2014 seasons brought just 8 more starts, as the Redskins hoped RG3 would repeat his sensational rookie season. He didn’t, and eventually the mobile but fragile QB was shut down in both seasons and Cousins got his shot. Amidst organizational turmoil and the dismissal of the entire coaching staff between the two seasons, it didn’t go all that well. Cousins threw 13 touchdowns and 16 interceptions total during those seasons.

Starting Years

But 2015 marked Cousins’ emergence as the full time starter for the Redskins, beating out Robert Griffin III for the job. Consistent opportunities to start brought good things, and Cousins threw for 4,166 yards with a 69.8% completion rate and a 29/11 Touchdown/Interception split. In doing so, he broke several Redskins team records and came close to breaking several others. He led his team to a 9-7 record and an NFC East division title. They encountered Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in their sole postseason game, and the defense gave up 35 points on the way to the loss. Cousins passed for 329 yards and a touchdown, and ran for another touchdown.

Wild Card Round - Green Bay Packers v Washington Redskins Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Cousins’ 2016 season ended in disappointment, after an 8-7-1 record resulted in a near miss with a wildcard spot. Cousins had another nice season, passing for nearly 5,000 yards (4,917 total), breaking the team record he set the previous year by over 750 yards, and threw 25 TDs versus 12 interceptions.

2017 has been another good year for Cousins, despite major issues for the team around him. He’s thrown for 3,636 yards and 24 TDs vs 9 interceptions, and is maintaining a top 10 QB rating for the third consecutive season. That’s not bad at all, considering he’s taken 38 sacks behind a mangled offensive line. For contrast, Broncos QBs this season have suffered 43 sacks and thrown just 17 touchdowns versus 19 interceptions.

The Redskins have 20 players on injured reserve, and lost their offensive coordinator (Sean McVay, Rams HC), #1 wide receiver (DeSean Jackson, Buccaneers), and #2 wide receiver (Pierre Garcon, 49ers) to other teams. Unfortunately for Cousins, a major chunk of the team’s injury woes have occurred along their offensive line. 3 out of the original 5 starting offensive linemen are among the players on injured reserve, as are two other offensive linemen and the team’s starting tight end, five RBs, and the new #1 WR (Terrelle Pryor). Others have been or are still injured. At 6-8, the team is very unlikely to make the playoffs

Various Stats

Let’s take a look at Cousins’ work as a full time starter and how often he’s hit various benchmarks:

400+ Passing Yards: 2 out of 46 games

300+ Passing Yards: 19 games

Games with 3+ touchdowns: 14 games

QB Rating:

  • 2015: 101.6 (5th among QBs with minimum 8 games started)
  • 2016: 97.2 (7th)
  • 2017: 98.8 (8th)

Comparison:

Let’s take 16 quarterbacks and compare their aggregate stats from Week 1 of the 2015 season until now. (With one exception: Aaron Rodgers will get 2014-2016 due to his small 2017 sample size.) Table sorted by QB rating- take a guess at who the top 5 are.

QB Comparison

Player Passing TDs Interceptions Fumbles Lost Yards Thrown Completion Rate Aggregate QB Rating:
Player Passing TDs Interceptions Fumbles Lost Yards Thrown Completion Rate Aggregate QB Rating:
QB 1 92 13 5 12,487 66.1% 106.32
QB 2 109 20 11 12,630 64.0% 102.77
QB 3 90 33 6 13,928 69.9% 102.07
QB 4 77 34 11 13,025 67.2% 99.27
QB 5 78 32 12 12,719 67.7% 99.14
QB 6 85 30 5 11,912 64.6% 98.61
QB 7 60 20 4 10,726 66.7% 97.25
QB 8 81 32 11 12,509 66.3% 96.31
QB 9 76 43 2 11,782 65.4% 93.98
QB 10 50 16 4 8,372 62.7% 92.65
QB 11 80 29 8 11,037 62.6% 92.32
QB 12 86 44 8 13,016 63.1% 91.84
QB 13 79 40 13 11,532 63.0% 88.22
QB 14 75 36 8 10,308 57.5% 86.83
QB 15 48 39 5 9,809 64.6% 82.11
QB 16 56 53 7 11,351 59.5% 77.92

That’s a set of very basic statistics, but they’re still important due to giving us an idea of each QB’s production over the last 46 games. So who is QB 1, up at the top? No, it’s not Cousins. It’s Tom Brady (Puke buckets are off to the left. Feel free to take a moment.). After him come a couple more of the usual suspects: Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. QB4 is the reigning NFL MVP, Matt Ryan. QB 5? Kirk Cousins. And rounding out the top 10 we have Russell Wilson, Alex Smith, Matthew Stafford, Ben Roethlisberger, and Tyrod Taylor.

The final six are Derek Carr, Philip Rivers, Eli manning, Cam Newton, Joe Flacco, and last, and very much least... the Broncos’ various quarterbacks from 2015 through now. Ouch. On the other hand, put Cousins in orange & blue and the Broncos will have a strong argument at having the best QB in the AFC West again.

Cousins is keeping some pretty lofty company there. Of the top 6 QBs by QB Rating over the last three years, he’s the only one that hasn’t been in a Super Bowl so far. Notably, he’s also had by far the fewest opportunities to try and get there, with just three shots at it so far.

Some other notes from that data:

  • Cousins has the 2nd highest completion percentage over the past 3 years, within this data set.
  • He’s 4th in total passing yardage within the data set.
  • He’s in the middle of the pack for both touchdowns and interceptions thrown.
  • He’s lost the second most fumbles among these QBs, just behind Eli Manning and just ahead of Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, and Matt Ryan.

Am I saying that this proves Cousins is better than, say, Russell Wilson? No. There’s obviously a lot more than just this that goes into evaluating and comparing quarterbacks. But look at the quarterbacks that he’s in the same general neighborhood as, and compare his (current) organization to theirs’. The guys around him on the list are from the Patriots, Packers, Saints, Falcons, and Seahawks. These are some good organizations, and at least two of them are definitely among the top 5 franchises in the NFL. Now contrast that with the Redskins, who can’t stay out of the tabloids and ran their last GM out of town for alcoholism. Their peer group among the various NFL clubs is the Browns, the Colts, and the pre-John Lynch/Jimmy Garropolo 49ers. Isn’t it intriguing to wonder what Cousins might capable of with a club that’s not so dysfunctional?

Buffalo Bills v Washington Redskins Photo by Larry French/Getty Images

I’d also look at his production and compare it to the other guys who’ve been paid in the last year. Derek Carr and Matthew Stafford both got paid in the salary range Cousins will be looking for. Is he worth what they got in the current QB market? Yep.

Quick Hits

Just a few quick notes to try and clear up some misconceptions I’ve seen pop up here and there:

  • Cousins has been the Redskins’ starter for just three years. That means just three shots at the postseason, and many of the best QBs take far longer than that to reach a Super Bowl. (Peyton Manning, 7 years. Drew Brees, 8 years. Etc)
  • Cousins is being paid $23.9 million this year on the Franchise Tag, his 2nd year being tagged. The Redskins can tag him again next year, but it would cost a probably-prohibitive $34 million or so. Alternatively, they could Transition Tag him for $28 million and gain the right to match any other contract offered to him.
  • The Redskins did offer him a deal this past offseason, but he turned it down and let the franchise tag deadline expire rather than negotiating. The deal was reportedly for five years and was worth $25 million/year on average, with $53 million fully guaranteed and $72 million guaranteed for injury.

There’s so much more I wish I could write regarding Cousins. I had a lot planned out, but a mix of holiday preparations and getting sick have delayed this post by almost a week already, so it’ll have to be what it is.

What will add more new information and context to the discussion about Cousins here on MHR is what I’m including next: Ozark_orange’s hypothetical contract between the Broncos and Kirk Cousins.

Pro Bowl Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Calculating Cap Space

We’re working with a set of assumptions to calculate the Broncos’ 2018 cap space:

  • The 2018 cap increases from $167M to $177M based on the fact that the cap has been increasing by about $10M per year for the last several years.
  • The Broncos will have $11M to rollover from 2017. So that gives us a 2018 cap of $188M.
  • We’re using a rounded $154M in total current cap obligations for 2018 for 38 players (Stephenson's contract voids when the 2018 league year begins). So we’re starting at $34M in top 51 cap space.
  • We need to account for the top 50 cap hits (since signing Cousins would knock #51 out of the top 51): Tendering Barrett and Paradis at the 2nd round level will cost nearly $6M. We’re going to assume the other 10 in the top 51 when free agency starts are a mixture of ERFAs and future contract players with an average cap hit of $600K each, so $6M for all 10.

So we now have $22M in cap space to sign Cousins before any roster cuts, and before clearing money to sign draft picks.

Comparable Contracts

Next order of business: Look at other contracts that seem relevant, with the most relevant being Matt Stafford as the most recently signed big money QB contract.

Matthew Stafford: Signed last summer to a 5 year $135M ($27M average per year) deal. $60.5M was fully guaranteed at signing including a whopping $50M signing bonus. $92M in total guarantees (some money guaranteeing later) in the contract.

Those numbers will provide the overall template for Cousins, who we’re also going to go with a 5 year $135M contract for. We’ll guarantee $60M at signing, and have $90M in total guarantees, but we’re only going to use a $25M signing bonus. Compared to some of the other teams, the Broncos are a bit cash poor, plus big signing bonuses leads to big dead money later if things don't work out.

Washington Redskins v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Derek Carr: Signed last June to a 5 year $125M ($25M average per year) deal. $40M was fully guaranteed at signing including a relatively small $12.5M signing bonus (Raiders more cash poor than the Broncos, and Carr gave them a VERY team friendly deal). $70.2M in total guarantees.

Andrew Luck: signed in June of 2016 (Colts had him for 2016 under the 5th year option, and could have franchised him in 2017) to a 5 year $122.97M ($24.594M average per year) deal. $47M was fully guaranteed at signing including a $32M signing bonus. $87M in total guarantees.

Von Miller: (Included since it's the biggest contract to date under Elway). Signed in July of 2016 to a 6 year $114.5M ($19.067M per year average) deal. $42M was fully guaranteed at signing including a $17.5M signing bonus. $70M in total guarantees.

The Cousins Contract

This is going to be a 5 year $135M ($27M average per year, the same as Stafford) with $60M fully guaranteed at signing (including a $25M signing bonus, a 2018 salary of $15M, and a 2019 salary of $20M), and $90M in total guarantees. We’ll make it a VERY simple contract (no roster bonuses, workout bonuses, incentives, etc), with one exception: We’re going to make the 3rd year an option year that if exercised "buys back" the final 2 years of the contract. That way it can potentially be a 3 year $90M deal if the option is not exercised, Cousins would become an UFA in March of 2021, and he would potentially bring back a 2022 compensatory pick for the Broncos.

2018: Cousins would receive $40M consisting of a $25M signing bonus and $15M in fully guaranteed salary. His cap hit would be $20M ($5M in prorated signing bonus + $15M in 2018 salary. The dead money would be $60M. (Add the fully guaranteed $20M 2019 salary to the $40M).

2019: Cousins would receive $20M in fully guaranteed salary AND on the 5th day of the 2019 League year, $20M in 2020 salary would become fully guaranteed. His cap hit would be $25M ($5M in prorated signing bonus + $20M in 2020 salary). If he were to be cut before the 5th day of the League year, the dead money would be $40M (the remaining $20M in prorated signing bonus + $20M in 2019 salary).

2020: The option year. The Broncos would exercise the option by paying Cousins $6M in option bonus before the beginning of the 2021 League year in March of 2021. It would prorate at $2M per year over 2020, 2021, and 2022. Cousins would receive $20M in 2020 salary. His 2020 cap hit would be $27M ($5M in prorated signing bonus + $2M in prorated option bonus + $20M in 2020 salary. AND on the 5th day of the 2020 league year, $10M of his $24M 2021 salary would guarantee. Prior to exercising the option, and prior to the 5th day of the league year, his dead money would be $35M. ($15M in remaining prorated signing bonus + the $20M in 2020 salary.

2021: If the option was not exercised, Cousins walks away in free agency. The dead money would be $20M ($10M in remaining prorated signing bonus + the $10M out of his $24M 2021 salary that guaranteed in 2020. If the option was exercised, Cousins receives $6M in option bonus (actually paid before the 2021 league year begins) and $24M in 2021 salary. His cap hit will be $31M ($5M in prorated signing bonus + $2M in prorated option bonus + $24M in 2021 salary).

2022: Cousins would receive $25M in 2022 salary. His cap hit would be $32M ($5M in remaining signing bonus + $2M in prorated option bonus + the $25M in salary). The dead money would be $7M (the remaining prorated bonus money).

The contract is back-loaded, with the highest cap hits toward the end. If Cousins turned out to be bad enough that we don’t want to keep him for the full length of the contract, the 2020 option gives the team an early out that, while painful, wouldn’t be too crippling.

If Cousins played really well and we wanted to extend his contract, John Elway could probably negotiate that extension during the contract’s 4th season to help mitigate those higher cap hits.

Washington Redskins v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Possible Cap Casualties

The $20 million cap hit that Ozark designed for Cousins in 2018 would slide in under the $22 million she calculated as the Broncos’ available cap space at that time. However, the rookie class will still need to be signed and most of them will be among the top 51 contracts.

According to Ozark, the Broncos will need approximately $3.6M of cap space to sign their draft picks. That’s the total cap hit of $7.2M for the 1st thru 4th round picks, minus $3.6M of contracts they’d push out of the top 51. Two contracts will be added back after roster cuts next offseason, for about $1M. The Broncos will also need about $1.7M for their practice squad, plus additional space for signing free agents midseason to replace injured players.

That adds up to $6.3M in space needed at minimum, with approximately $2M available after signing Cousins. The remaining $4.3M+ (perhaps around $8-10M total, including injury replacement reserves) will have to be gained by cutting players.

Here are some players who may find themselves on the short end of the stick this offseason as the Broncos work to clear that space:

  • Menelik Watson: Watson may stick around as OT depth, but it’s hard to imagine him remaining a starter. With cap savings of just shy of $4.8M available from cutting, the bell may toll for him.
  • C.J. Anderson: The Broncos have a couple of intriguing young RBs on the roster, as well as an expensive veteran. CJ has been having a pretty good year, but it’d be surprising to see him in orange & blue next season with young competition & a $4.5M cap savings available.
  • Derek Wolfe: The Broncos’ fiery defensive end is a beloved character on the defensive line & in interviews alike. I doubt the Broncos cut him unless they’re forced into it, but there’s also the chance that his neck injuries could result in retirement. If he goes, it’d bring back cap savings of just under $6.2M.
  • Aqib Talib: Talib’s name is one you’ll hear often when discussions turn to possible cap casualties. With $11M in possible cap savings and just $1M of dead cap from cutting him, it’s a possibility. But with what Talib means to this defense, I’d be suprised to see it happen.

There are others that could possibly be cut or traded or otherwise have their situation changed, but those four players offer the highest value in cap savings and are the natural focus of a discussion like this. Moving on from any two of the four would give the Broncos enough cap room to squeak through one tight season. The possibility also exists that the Broncos might move on from Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders during the offseason, with rumors about that swirling in the last week or two. We’ll see how it all pans out.

Post Game Note: Kirk Cousins’s stat line versus the No Fly Zone (sans Justin Simmons): 19 of 37 for 299 yards, 3 TDs, and 1 Interception. QB Rating: 94.13