Making Sense of the Unlikely Scenario the Redskins Tag-and-Trade Kirk Cousins

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When the Redskins traded for Alex Smith this week, it looked like the team’s three-year game of chicken with Kirk Cousins was coming to an end. Washington had its new quarterback and Cousins was headed to unrestricted free agency. Everybody was moving on and a sticky soap opera had been resolved.

But things are never that easy in Ashburn.

According to people with knowledge of the Redskins’ thinking, the team is discussing the possibility of tagging and trading Cousins to prevent him from hitting the open market. The benefit to Washington? In the unlikely event they could swing a deal for the former pro bowl passer, they could receive more than the third round pick the team is currently going to net when Cousins walks.

Based on everybody I’ve talked to around the league, tagging and trading Cousins will not be easy for the Redskins, however. For a lot of reasons. Here are three of them.

(1) If the team uses a franchise tag ($34M) or a transition tag ($28M) on Cousins to help facilitate the trade, Washington would open free agency having to set that much cap space aside. That’s $34M you can’t use to sign defensive starters or a wide receiver. That would be $28M in cap space you cannot use to upgrade your roster. And if Cousins waits to sign the tag for a couple weeks — which he should and presumably would — it could mean two weeks of free agents signing with other teams while the Redskins sit on the $34M or $28M they’d be unable to use until Cousins got traded.

(2) It is hard to imagine a trade partner giving much up for Cousins now. You would be in inheriting a massive cap hit for a player you’d only be renting for one season. Say the Cleveland Browns want to trade for him. Cleveland would have to trade Washington a couple high-round picks for Cousins’ one-year contract at $34 million. Cousins and his agent could tell the Browns they have no plans on doing a long-term deal. So the Browns would have to decide they want to trade for him despite that, giving up picks to rent Cousins for a season of performance in a likely sub-.500 season? Most of the teams with the cap space to add Cousins aren’t projected to be contending in 2018. I have a hard time believing a team would send Washington an impressive package of picks or players for one year of paying a good quarterback the highest salary in the sport.

(Also of note here: If a team trades for Cousins, they would be able to tag him next season to keep him around. So if the Browns traded for Cousins’ one-year, $34-million deal they could then tag him in 2019 and keep him for multiple years. But to do that, they’d have to place a transition tag on him because he will have been franchise tagged three times. Also, his transition tag rate would climb another 20% from this year’s tag number, meaning he’d be paid about $40 million against the cap next year. That’s insanity. So they’d be taking on Cousins at two-years for $74 million by trading for him while planning on tagging him).

(3) Cousins is not going to help Washington. Why would he? Let’s just say for the sake of example that he wants to play for the Denver Broncos. He’d rather sign with them in free agency than be traded to them. If you’re Cousins you’d rather your new team keep its picks and best players and sign you on the open market than give up a pick or two and a veteran player, three assets that could help you win when you get there. In other words, there’s no benefit to he or his agent to help Bruce Allen. The only way a team is going to trade for him is if they can work out a long-term deal in advance and there is zero incentive for him to do that. If he were open to doing that it would only deplete his new club in a trade, and help a Redskins team he has no incentive to help. For what? Weaken your new team to give the Redskins a gift, thanking them for six awkward seasons? Not to mention he’s been waiting for free agency for years and he is weeks away from achieving it.

Those three reasons make it nearly impossible to see the Redskins working a tag-and-trade. But because the team is apparently kicking the tires and other teams are buzzing about the fact that Washington is going to try to get creative, let’s play out a couple of possibilities.

If the Redskins transition tag Cousins…

The team would have to slap the tag on the player on March 6th. The new league year begins on March 14th. As long as Cousins doesn’t sign the transition tag, he would become a free agent with limited rights on March 14th. Make no mistake about it, he would not sign that transition tag before the start of free agency. What does this mean? Cousins and his agent could go seek a long-term deal from another team. Let’s say he gets a five-year, $125-million deal from Denver. Washington could not and would not want to match that. He would then become Denver’s new starting quarterback. The kicker here, though, is that the Redskins would then likely lose that third-round pick they are currently getting back for him if he walks in free agency. So they’d get nothing back for him. Also, the Redskins wouldn’t be able to spend the $28M committed to Cousins on the transition tag until he finalized his deal in Denver. I’d assume he wouldn’t be in a rush.

I don’t see how this is an option.

If the Redskins franchise tag Cousins…

The team would have to slap the tag on the player by March 6th. The new league year begins on March 14th. Cousins would not sign the franchise tag right away very likely. If he did, it would allow Washington to trade him at one-year and $34M to another team. By not signing the tag, Washington would have $34M committed to Cousins and well over $50M committed to the quarterback position against their cap. That wouldn’t change until they traded Cousins, if they were able to. It also would mean a lot of key free agent starters they may want to sign wouldn’t be affordable because their cap space would be taken up by Cousins until he was moved.

This option would give the team more leverage than the transition tag, because Cousins and his agent could not talk to other teams or seek a new contract. But the Redskins would be risking their ability to have the free agency period that would allow them to make major strides around Alex Smith.

The fact is, as much as the Redskins would probably like to give Cousins a petty parting jab on his way out the door and as beneficial as it would be for the club to get more than a third-round pick back for the three-time 4,000 yard passer, it just doesn’t look that likely.

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Grant Paulsen

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