By this time next week Kirk Cousins’ contract status will be settled.
Normally, the franchise tag deadline would be in just a couple days, on July 15. Because that day is a Saturday this year, the league bumped the deadline to July 17. Either way, this is the home stretch.
A deal remains unlikely. If one does happen, though, then feather in the cap to all those, Cousins among them, who have issued reminders of a certain adage in negotiations.
“Deadlines do deals,” Cousins said after a May 24 workout. “That’s just kind of a rule in negotiating, so why would something happen way before a deadline?”
As with most clichés, there is some truth at the core of that phrase. As with most clichés, it paints with a broad brush.
This year, four of the seven players who got the franchise tag – Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short, Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, Chargers outside linebacker Melvin Ingram and pass rusher Chandler Jones – have signed long-term with their clubs.
They all happen to be defensive linemen or linebackers. It’s not a coincidence. Elite defensive players, particularly pass-rushers, were premier players back before the explosion of the passing game began a bit less than a decade ago. In 2011, three of the top five-highest cap hits were spent on defensive linemen or linebackers, while only one went to a quarterback (Mark Sanchez).
While four of the five top cap hits for 2017 are quarterbacks, elite pass rushers are still of great importance. The salary cap has gone up, as have their salaries, and the market has followed a steady, stable pattern of growth. In general, it’s easier to negotiate under those conditions because the starting points for both sides are closer together.
Chandler Jones’ tag would have paid him $14.1 million for 2017. On his new deal, he gets an average annual salary of $16.5 million. Jones gets a raise and the Cardinals keep a player on a non market-setting deal – third among outside linebackers in annual value, ninth in cap hit – they can happily live with. Short, Pierre-Paul and Jones signed deals that were similarly good, but non-disruptive.
The three franchised players who aren’t elite pass rushers – Cousins, Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson and Steelers tailback/scampering sorcerer-wizard Le’Veon Bell – are also the three who are heading toward the deadline without long-term deals. Their markets are also all decidedly unsettled.
Bell, though he has not signed the tender, would earn $12.12 million if he plays on the tag in 2017. That’s over $4 million more than the next highest-earning running backs, Carolina’s Jonathan Stewart and Buffalo’s LeSean McCoy, who will make $8 million each. Bell has an easy argument to make that he should be the highest-compensated player at his position in the league, but not by 50 percent.
Johnson, who was tagged for the second-straight year, is set to be the NFL’s highest-paid cornerback in 2017 at $16.74 million, close to $2 million more than Josh Norman’s $15 million. An 11.6 percent difference between the highest-paid and second-highest paid player at a position is a lot, making Johnson’s tag above market value for a top cornerback, and even further above market value for Johnson himself.
(One note: it is much more telling to look at the guaranteed money in an NFL contract than annual value but in this case, because the franchise tag is for one year and fully guaranteed, it serves as a good comparison.)
According to multiple reports, there has been little progress toward a deal between the Steelers and Bell and there is almost no chance that the Rams and Johnson will reach one. The starting points for both sides were just too far apart, which brings us to Cousins.
Quarterback value has increased dramatically because of increased reliance on the passing game and rules changes that make it harder to defend. Quarterback salaries, though they have increased, have not gone up as rapidly, mostly because good, healthy quarterbacks in their prime years almost never hit free agency.
“Yeah, quarterback is hard,” said Andrew Brandt, columnist at The MMQB and a former Packers executive and player agent. “You have sort of the elite group that did deals a few years ago, [Aaron] Rodgers and [Matt] Ryan, [Eli] Manning, and now you sort of have a new tier with [Andrew] Luck but there’s no real – this Derek Carr deal, you can look at it a couple different ways but yeah, it’s not a set market.”
Put Cousins on the auction block, Sotheby’s style, give each team a bidding paddle, and have the owners go at it. (In this scenario they all represent teams with blank-slate rosters). What would someone give him in annual value? $35 million?
It sounds crazy, but NFL teams are not as hard-up for salary money as they want you to think. Teams rolled over $293.77 million in salary cap room from last year to this year according to the NFLPA. The average team rolled over roughly $9.2 million. The Redskins rolled over $15 million.
Given the importance of quarterbacking in this era, any of those teams should be glad to devote that extra money to a very good passer. Quarterback salaries in general, as eye-popping as they may seem, are owner-friendly, not player-friendly.
Even if Cousins became a free agent, the situation would not be as dramatic as the one described above. There would be fewer bidders, and even a whopper of a deal might look more like five years, $150 million with $100 million guaranteed. Yes, those are huge numbers. It would still be a relative bargain.
The Redskins, however, don’t want to go there. They’d rather argue that they should be negotiating Cousins’ contract as if it were an extension — after all, they have him locked up for the time being. Brandt, by the way, thinks that something along those lines is much more likely to get done than the general consensus indicates.
All this illustrates the same point: that, for the Redskins and Cousins to reach a deal, someone will have to make a significant financial concession from their ideal negotiating position. Those deals are hard to do, and that’s why they often come down to the wire.
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