In July 2017, Kirk Cousins became the first quarterback to play under the franchise tag for the second consecutive year. The Washington Commanders took Cousins in the fourth round of the 2012 draft to backup Robert Griffin III, who they selected second overall that year. Griffin suffered a career-altering injury in 2014, and Cousins replaced him as a starter. Cousins took over and threw for 4,166 yards in 2015, but Washington offered him $16 million per year ($24 million guaranteed). That offer reportedly did not sit well with Cousins, so the Commanders opted to franchise-tag him for the 2016 season.
Then they did it again. Here was former Washington team president Bruce Allen’s statement:
Our goal was to sign Kirk to a long-term contract with the final objective of having him finish his career with the [Commanders]. On May 2, right after the draft, we made Kirk an offer that included the highest fully guaranteed amount upon signing for a quarterback in NFL history ($53 million) and guaranteed a total of $72 million for injury. The deal would have made him at least the second-highest-paid player by average per year in NFL history.
But despite our repeated attempts, we have not received any offer from Kirk’s agent this year. Kirk has made it clear that he prefers to play on a year-to-year basis. While we would have liked to work out a long-term contract before the season, we accept his decision.
It’s hard to blame Cousins for wanting to go year to year with Washington. The Commanders are one of the worst-run organizations in the NFL, and Dan Snyder may be the league’s worst, most corrupt owner. Furthermore, and perhaps more pertinently, they don’t win. Cousins led Washington to an NFC East title with a 9-7 record in 2015, but the Green Bay Packers beat them 35-18 in the wild card round. They haven’t had a winning season since then. Their last playoff win? 2005, when Joe Gibbs’ team eliminated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first round.
Whatever you think of Cousins, give him this – he understands leverage. Cousins not only secured the highest fully-guaranteed contract ($84 million) with the Minnesota Vikings, but he joined a winning team. The Wilfs are committed to winning, Rick Spielman was a long-term incumbent, and Minnesota was coming off a 13-3 season. The only problem? Mike Zimmer was never sold on Cousins because he took up cap space that the Vikings could have used on defense.
In 2020, he signed a two-year, $66 million extension, then tacked on another year and $35 million last offseason. The Vikings have to extend Cousins again this offseason; otherwise, he takes up 16% of their cap space. The bigger surprise is that it reportedly won’t be another one-year deal. Cousins is entering his age-35 season and signed a lucrative one-year deal last season. He could go year to year because he will have leverage so long as he puts up stats. A team with a worse quarterback situation will always take Cousins on.
However, Cousins has repeatedly stated his desire to retire with the Vikings. A long-term deal increases the likelihood of that. Furthermore, this might be the first amicable situation he’s been in. Kevin O’Connell coached him in Washington and has actively backed him. As a result, Cousins played better situational football and led Minnesota to a 13-win season. Why wouldn’t Cousins want to remain with the Vikings? And why wouldn’t they want him to stay?
As with anything, it starts with money. The Vikings need to pass on an extension if Cousins demands too much cap space. They must fill out a defense and pay Justin Jefferson and T.J. Hockenson. Furthermore, Cousins is in his mid-30s and is likely to decline physically. Despite his improvements this season, a lot still has to go right for Minnesota to contend with him under center. Cousins meticulously prepares and thinks the game well, but he has a low risk tolerance and is predisposed to make the safe play over the right one.
The Vikings need cap space to build around Cousins. If he plays hardball and demands all the money he can leverage, the front office has to let his contract expire and move on. That’s a risky proposition for next season. How do they improve the league’s 31st-ranked defense from last year without cap space? What does that mean for Jefferson and Hockenson’s extensions? And what about other expensive veterans they’d like to keep on the roster?
It also means Minnesota goes from a high-floor solution at quarterback to uncertainty after this season. But it helps the Vikings in the long term. They will have more cap space to fill out the roster, and they can bring in comparable quarterbacks like Derek Carr or Jimmy Garoppolo at a lower rate. Still, they risk losing out on quarterback musical chairs and having an inadequate signal-caller tossing wounded ducks over Jefferson’s head.
Signing Cousins to a three-year deal benefits the Vikings if they can get him at a reasonable cap number. It still means a lot of money for a quarterback who does not drive winning, but it does provides stability. Plus, Minnesota has some leverage here. They’re a stable organization with dynamic offensive weapons, two star tackles, and an offensive-minded head coach who Cousins likes. Cousins has over $200 million in earnings but had a .500 career record until last season. Outside of signing with the San Francisco 49ers, where is he going to go where he has a better shot at winning a Super Bowl? Most contenders already have a quarterback.
From Minnesota’s standpoint, they retain a quarterback who O’Connell likes and can get Jefferson the ball. Furthermore, they can work on a succession plan while Cousins is the incumbent. Any quarterback they draft will be a project, given that they are implementing a competitive rebuild and not tanking for a top pick. Therefore, they will need to draft multiple quarterbacks in hopes of landing someone they can eventually have take over for Cousins. Developing that player will take years; by signing Cousins long-term, they have time on their side.
It’s a win-win situation for both sides, assuming Cousins is willing to make a concession on salary. He hasn’t historically, but this is the first time he’s been in a favorable situation. Money walks and talks, but sound organizations and talented rosters win championships.