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What will happen to Kirk Cousins?

The future is Murky for Kirk Cousins. Ben Howell outlines the situation and details some potential suitors for the disgruntled Redskins QB.

Kirk Cousins Future

In perhaps the least surprising move of the off-season, Kirk Cousins and Washington did not reach a long term deal. What was surprising though, was owner Bruce Allen’s public bashing of Cousins. This clouds Cousins’ future and makes it a near certainty that he entertains contract offers from other teams in the spring of 2018. Before taking an in depth look at Cousins and potential suitors, I’d like to take a moment to point out how poorly Washington has operated their QB position.

In retrospect, Washington’s 2012 NFL Draft should be the gold standard of QB drafting. Washington traded a boatload of picks to the Rams for the right to select Robert Griffin III at #2 overall. Griffin won Rookie of the Year and lead Washington back to the playoffs, where he hurt his knee. RGIII’s rookie dominance was never recaptured again; leading to a messy divorce in Washington, but there was a silver lining.

With Kirk Cousins, their 2012 4th round pick, it seemed Washington had found another franchise level QB. Cousins saw his first extended action in 2015 and threw for 4,000+ yards while leading Washington to the playoffs. Washington then franchise tagged Cousins, not wanting to commit long term to a starter with 1 year of experience. Cousins responded by approaching 5,000 passing yards and was rewarded with a 2nd franchise tag worth $24 million. Washington drafted two franchise QBs in the same draft; ruining one with injuries and potentially alienating the other against management in one of the worst treatments of an NFL star. Enough of that, let’s talk about Kirk Cousins and what his future could look like.

Cousins’ 2016

Kirk Cousins had one of 2016’s least appreciated fantasy seasons. He turned in his 2nd straight top 9 fantasy QB finish, at 5th overall and 6th on a per game basis. His season long performance absolutely blew away his 2016 redraft ADP of QB 14, which came on the heels of a QB 9 finish in 2015.

Cousins’ success and improvement hinged on the deep ball. His 94 passes (5.9/game) of 20+ yards led the NFL, with a completion percentage of 45.7% that was 5th. That means that six times a game, Cousins took a game changing shot and he connected on nearly half of those attempts. That’s the type of fantasy matchup changing ability few QBs possess and that every NFL/fantasy team covets. Now, DeSean Jackson was a huge part of this. Jackson is the premier deep threat in the NFL and had 56 catches for 1,005 yards, 21st in the NFL. For the third time in his career, Jackson led the NFL in Yards per Catch, this time at 17.9.

DeSean Jackson is the best at what he does, but not the best in the red zone, just like Kirk Cousins. The other QBs with 4,900+ passing yards, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan, had 37 and 38 TDs respectively. Cousins had a measly 25. The likely culprit? Red zone efficiency. In 2015, Cousins had a 60.7% completion percentage in the red zone on 84 attempts. In 2016, on 87 attempts, he completed a disappointing 46% of his red zone passes.

With Jordan Reed injured late in the season (missed 4 games; limited post-Thanksgiving), Washington lacked a consistent red zone threat. Pierre Garcon and Jackson received 13 and 11 RZ targets apiece, catching 5 and 4 inside the 20. They were even worse inside the 10, only catching 1 of a combined 10 targets for 1 yard. Jordan Reed was, once again, good in his small sample while Jamison Crowder was average. When you don’t have a WR taller than 6′ 0″, it’s tough to be successful in the red zone.

There is a new light in the red zone for Cousins, which leads us to his 2017 outlook; notably marked by a few key additions.

New Arrivals and Departures

Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson

Both Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson left Washington seeking greener pastures. Garcon headed to San Francisco to reunite with Kyle Shanahan while Jackson headed south to Tampa Bay. The two combined for 214 targets, 135 receptions, 2,046 yards, and 7 TDs in 2016 and were Cousins most productive WRs. Typically this isn’t a good thing for a QB, but Washington is uniquely situated to replace their lost production.

Terrelle Pryor

One of the confusing things about how Washington has entered contract negotiations with Cousins is his situation. Washington has given Cousins all the players he needs to be successful yet refuses to pay him the big bucks. They set him up for success, but don’t want to reward him for meeting (or exceeding) reasonable expectations. Keeping with that bizarre theme, Terrelle Pryor is Kirk Cousins’ newest toy.

In 2016, Terrelle Pryor had a 1,000-yard season; his first, at age 27. This breakout season prompted Washington to sign Pryor to a one year, $8 million deal. Pryor’s deal was for far less money than he anticipated, but teams may have been wary of Pryor having a 5th-year breakout. However, there are a few notable things about Pryor’s season; A) He was on the Browns, and B) It was his first full season at WR after converting from QB. Essentially, 2016 was Terrelle Pryor’s rookie year at WR yet some doubters remain.

Terrelle Pryor, somewhat surprisingly, was second to only Mike Evans air yards with 2,029. He wasn’t very efficient with those air yards, only posting 1,007 yards which were 20th in the NFL. The overriding factor in his inefficiency was due to the below average quarterbacking of Cody Kessler, Josh McCown, Kevin Hogan, Charlie Whitehurst and RG III. Kessler completed a respectable 66% of his passes, but he rarely pushed the ball downfield. Kessler’s yards per attempt and air yards per attempt were below average and both RG 3 and McCown were worse in both categories. Simply put: The Browns’ 2016 QBs were hot garbage, but then again, you probably knew that already.

One of the biggest keys to Cousins success has been the deep ball and his connection with DeSean Jackson. Cousins wasn’t afraid to air the ball out, leading the NFL with 3,121 air yards, when he knew he had the fastest player on the field tracking down his passes. The only difference in 2017? Size-speed phenom, Terrelle Pryor is going to be chasing down those passes. Based on his route charts, Pryor had plenty of intermediate to deep targets, roughly a third of which were completed. Cousins should provide a noticeable boost in that specific area while an overall improved QB situation can’t hurt.

Josh Doctson

Josh Doctson isn’t quite a ‘new arrival’, but he’s new enough. Washington’s 2016 1st round pick played just 2 games and had 6 targets so I’m basically disregarding any stats from 2016. To get a good look at Doctson’s potential, we need to return to his rookie profile and rely on college measurables and stats.

Doctson wasn’t extremely fast or agile at the Combine, but a 4.50 40 is something we can work with. After all, Michael Crabtree ran a 4.59 and he’s turned out pretty well. The key for Doctson is his Burst Score and Catch Radius, both of which are 97th and 96th percentile respectively. Doctson is a red zone weapon at 6′ 2″ with elite jumping and catching ability. One of Doctson’s biggest strengths was going up and getting the ball. His highlight reel is loaded with acrobatic catches on the sideline, in the end zone, or over defenders. The primary RZ targets are Reed and Pryor, but Doctson is a good 3rd option and a needed upgrade over 6′ 0″ Pierre Garcon and 5′ 10″ DeSean Jackson in the red zone.

2018 and Beyond: Potential Suitors

San Francisco

The Kirk Cousins to San Francisco rumors have already begun, whether it be through free agency or a potential trade. The reason: New San Francisco HC Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan was the offensive coordinator in Washington from 2012 to 2013. In San Francisco, Cousins would have a familiarity with Shanahan and his scheme. Except, that familiarity might not matter. In five games in 2013, Cousins completed 81 of 155 (52.3%) passes for just 854 yards, 4 TDs, and 7 INTs. Cousins was, undeniably, bad the last time Shanahan was his offensive coordinator, but he has evolved as a player in the 3 seasons since. Taking into account Shanahan’s work with Matt Ryan, Cousins would be much more successful than in 2013 if he makes his way to San Francisco.

It took Matt Ryan a year in the Shanahan system to really take off. In 2016, Matt Ryan more than doubled his TD % to 7.1% and halved his INT % down to 1.3%. The 2016 MVP also turned in one of the most efficient seasons in NFL history, posting the highest Yards Per Completion and the 3rd highest Adjusted and Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt rates in history.

Under Shanahan, the Falcons passed 3% less than 2015 and ran the 2nd most (Saints) red zone plays, 184, in the NFL. Those 184 RZ plays made up 18.5% of their plays in 2016, an astronomical jump of 4.43%, up from 14.06% in 2015. In these RZ situations, Matt Ryan passed 94 times, a rise of 4.68% from 2015, which helped Ryan to amass 38 TDs. Now, the 2016 Falcons had Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Taylor Gabriel, and an effective offensive line. The 49ers have exactly none of that.

The best offensive weapons the 49ers have are a 30, soon to be 31, year old Pierre Garcon and Carlos Hyde, who might not be the starter. With all the negative hype around Hyde before training camp even starts and an expiring contract, the chances are good Carlos Hyde doesn’t play for the 49ers in 2018. Garcon signed a 5-year deal and should be a 49er in 2018, but will be entering his age-32 season, where WRs start to fade.

One thing is certain in San Francisco, Kyle Shanahan will be around for a while. After signing him to a 6-year deal, he won’t be getting fired anytime soon. The Shanahan-Cousins connection may be the reason for Cousins eventual move to the Bay Area, but fantasy owners shouldn’t get too excited. As presently constructed, the 49ers are bare of impact fantasy contributors and Kirk Cousins is not an Aaron Rodgers-type who will lift his team to his level. Cousins needs help, like most QBs, to be a top 5 fantasy option, but San Francisco doesn’t have any easy way of acquiring that help.

Cleveland Browns

Ah, Cleveland. The most ridiculed franchise in the NFL of the last 5 years. With a 20-60 record, the Browns are the 2nd most losing franchise in the NFL since 2012. In that time, 5 different QBs have led the Browns in passing yards. Over those 5 years, the Browns have started 14 different QBs. As a result, Cleveland has always been looking for a franchise QB. However, second-year head coach, Hue Jackson, may have his man. No, I’m not talking about Brock Osweiler, but rather DeShone Kizer or Cody Kessler. The 2nd round rookie, Kizer is a prototypical NFL QB. Kessler is widely considered a ‘game manager’. Both Kizer and Kessler have flaws that may leave Jackson unsatisfied and chasing more from his QB. At the moment, Cleveland has $27 million in 2018 cap space, which would enable them to sign Cousins with a few timely cuts.

What exactly would await Cousins upon a potential arrival? For one, an extremely strong offensive line; Pro Football Focus ranked the Browns as the second best line heading into 2017 and their entire projected line is under contract in 2018. A healthy and excelling offensive line is paramount for Cousins. The Redskins’ 2016 offensive line was ranked 7th in the NFL. Without the benefit of a clean pocket, Cousins would be hard pressed to throw, and complete, as many deep passes as he did.

The Browns have assembled an interesting group of weapons on offense. Isaiah Crowell is a runner with great breakaway skill, but just as often runs into his own offensive line as he breaks an 80-yard run. Duke Johnson had the quietest 53 catch season of any running backs. Corey Coleman looked dominant against the Ravens with a 2-TD game, but only cracked 45 yards twice. Kenny Britt had a quiet 1,000-yard season with one of the worst rookie QBs ever and Case Keenum throwing to him. David Njoku is one of the youngest and most physically gifted TEs in the NFL. The pieces could be there, they just need some consistency and competency from under center.

Even if some of their players like Isaiah Crowell or Corey Coleman don’t quite work out, the Browns have a simple way to replace them. Draft picks. The Browns have two 1st round and three 2nd round picks, two of which are from the Texans, who might not be very good in 2017. Fantasy-wise, Cleveland is my preferred Cousins landing spot (outside of Washington). Cleveland has an offense-oriented HC, intriguing weapons, and a clear path to improvement, which most teams can’t boast.

Washington 

Washington is the safe spot for Cousins. It’s the team he’s been on his entire career with a HC, Jay Gruden, who won’t be going anywhere. Unless he gets fired, that is, and if Gruden is fired, that means Cousins probably underperformed. Jamison Crowder, Josh Doctson, and Jordan Reed are all under contract for 2018, but Terrelle Pryor is not. If Pryor leaves, Washington suddenly becomes a lot less attractive, because one of Cousins’ keys is matching up with his WRs strengths and if Pryor leaves, Washington could lack a high-end deep threat. It seems near impossible that Cousins will remain in Washington after 2018 with a third franchise-tag potentially costing $34 million. A long-term deal seems just as far fetched, with Washington’s owner releasing information to seemingly turn the public against Cousins.

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