CAPACCIO: Should Bills pursue Cousins? Complete analysis, breakdown, and verdict

February 1, 2018
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With the trade of Alex Smith from Kansas City to Washington, the predicted 2018 quarterback carousel has officially begun in the NFL.  The trade also signified the end of the Kirk Cousins era in D.C..  After playing on the franchise tag two years in a row, Cousins will now become a free agent on March 14 at 4 p.m..  

Of course, the Redskins could tag him again, then trade his rights to another team, and that new team could work out a new contract with him.  Either way, Cousins will have multiple suitors for his services in 2018 and beyond.  Many even believe the Bills are a team that will be interested in him, if they decide to move on from Tyrod Taylor.  But should they be?  Let’s examine the pros and cons of Cousins-to-Buffalo:


THE PLAYER

The Redskins invested a fourth round pick in Cousins in 2012, even after already trading a ton of picks to move up and select Robert Griffin III in round one.  And that investment paid off.  The Michigan State product started nine games his first three years in the league, then after multiple injuries to RG3, he began 2015 as the full-time starter and never looked back.  Cousins led the entire league in completion percentage that year, connecting on 69.8% of his passes, throwing for 29 touchdowns against 11 interceptions.  

As a starter, Cousins’ numbers have been fairly consistent, throwing 29, 25, and 27 TDs, respectively.  His interceptions have risen slightly in each of his three seasons under center, from 11 to 12 to 13 this past season.

Cousins has finished in the top-nine in the league in completion percentage every year as a full-time starter and his career 65.5-percent is second amongst all active passers, behind only Drew Brees.  

In fact, speaking of Brees, only the future Hall of Famer has a higher completion percentage (70.0 vs. 67.0) and more TD passes (92 vs. 81) than Cousins since the start of 2015 (stat courtesy @bergerhere).

Some other rankings for Cousins amongst active qualifying NFL passers: 

  • Passer Rating - 7th (93.7)
  • Passing yards/game - 6th (261.4)
  • Yards per attempt - 5th (7.7)
  • Yards per completion - 10th (11.8)
  • Completions per game - 8th (22.1)
  • Percentage of times sacked per attempt - 6th (4.81)

In his three years as the Bills’ starting quarterback, Tyrod Taylor has thrown for at least 300 yards only once, and that was in an overtime game.  In that same span, Cousins has 23 games of at least 300 yards passing, including three of those with over 400 yards.

Cousins will be 30-years old in August.  Since taking over a starting role in 2015, he has yet to miss a start, lining up under center all sixteen games each year, 48 straight contests.


HIS TEAM

Cousins has a below .500 record as a starting NFL quarterback (26-30-1) in Washington.  Since taking over as the full-time starter in 2015, he and the Redskins are 24-23-1.  They’ve made the playoffs once in that span, going 9-7 and winning the NFC East in 2015.  The Redskins lost that game, 35-18 at home to the Packers.  Cousins went 29-of-46 for 329 yards and a TD.

Washington’s record in Cousins’ time as starter has gotten worse each season, from 9 wins to 8 wins to 7 last year.

In 2016, with Cousins at the helm, wide receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson both posted 1000-yard receiving seasons.  Those are the only two players and times anyone has gone over 1000 yards with Cousins as the primary staring QB.  

Until an injury in 2017, Jordan Reed put together some of the best numbers for any tight end in the NFL for the first two years with Cousins starting, collecting 87 catches for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2015, then 66 receptions for 686 yards and nine scores in 2016, earning a Pro Bowl nod.


THE PRICE

The Redskins may decide to tag and trade Cousins.  If they can find a partner willing to do that, it will most likely cost them either a high draft pick, multiple picks, or both.  Smith was dealt for a third round pick and a cornerback who will start for them.  

With two firsts, two seconds, and eight picks in the first five rounds, the Bills certainly have the draft capital to make a move like that.  But they also have several other holes to fill and want to keep as many of those picks as possible to get players who might be contributors from day one.  And some of those picks are probably going to be used to help build talent around the very QB they’d be trading the picks away for.

If Cousins does eventually hit the open market, or even if a team trades for him, the next step is signing him to a long-term contract.  He’s played the past two years on the franchise tag, earning just under $20 million in 2016 and just under $24 million last year.  

A recent “calculated market value” for Cousins by the website Spotrac estimates his average annual value at $25.6 million.  Smith’s new contract in Washington is reportedly worth $94 million over four years, including $71 million guaranteed, for an average annual salary of $23.5 million.

However, Cousins is four years younger than Smith and because of that, as well as teams vying for his services, it’s possible that it cost the new team somewhere in the neighborhood of $26-27 million per year for Cousins on a four or five year deal.

Only two QBs currently make at least $25 million as an annual average, Matthew Stafford ($27M) and Derek Carr ($25M).  So, Cousins is probably in line to earn at least top-3 NFL QB money, if not more.  That's a steep price to pay, but also the evolution of contracts.  They go up ever year when new players become free agents and get “their turn” to cash in.

Can the Bills afford that?  Would they be willing to?

Both Spotrac and Over The Cap estimate the Bills to have roughly $30 million in salary cap space in 2018 after all of their 2017 rollover money and the annual raising of the cap figure by the league is factored in.  That also doesn’t include how much dead space Eric Wood’s contract will force them to account for once that situation is ironed out.  

The Bills also have 22 total free agents.  They’ll have to pay a combination of their own players and new players to fill roster spots.  The top-51 salaries on the team will count towards their salary cap beginning March 14 at 4 p.m.  It would be challenging to fit Cousins’ contract in while also filling the roster, but not impossible.

The Bills will have a lot more cap space open up in 2019 after Marcell Dareus’ (and possibly Wood’s) contracts are completely off the books.  The two sites referenced above estimate they’ll have anywhere between $85 - $100 million available, not counting new contracts signed between now and then.  That would place them among the top teams in the NFL, as far as available salary cap space in 2019.

So, if the Bills want Kirk Cousins - and he wants them - they would have to be creative with how they structure the contract, most likely giving him a lot of bonus money up front to spread out on the cap over the life of the deal, and try to reduce the cap hit in year one while spiking it in years two and beyond.

Of course by doing that there’s also plenty of risk down the road.  If Cousins isn’t the QB they had hoped for, and eventually want to move on, structuring a contract like that with that much money involved would make that extremely difficult without eating up a huge portion of their salary cap for at least a year and maybe two.


THE VERDICT

If the Bills do indeed move on from Taylor, I understand there aren’t many other terrific options that appear available for the team to take a step forward at quarterback.  But drafting one with pick 21 or 22, or trading up to get one in the middle of the first round, will allow them to pick their own player probably 6-7 years younger than Cousins and develop him how they see fit.  Also, due to the rookie wage scale, the cost of that QB on their cap (if picked at #21) starts at roughly $2.1 million and taps out at $3.7 million at the end of his first contract in four years.  That’s an extra $22-25 million per year they could spend on other positions to help put as many resources around their young, hopeful franchise QB.

That said, even though I like Cousins and will be the first to tell you he's an immediate upgrade at the position for them, I don’t think the Bills should pursue him at these prices.  Head coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane have done a good job sticking with their own plan and process of acquiring draft picks, building the team through the draft, shedding hugh contracts, and setting themselves up for a much better model for long-term success.  

Stick with the plan.


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