MINNEAPOLIS --- Kirk Cousins stood in line at the Mall of America's Shake Shack on Wednesday afternoon, cap pulled low over his head with fans all around him, surely fully aware that he will soon be able to afford 100,000 Shackburgers, with room left over for fries and a shake.
The Washington Redskins' stunning agreement to acquire Alex Smith on Tuesday night set the table for Cousins to hit free agency unencumbered by the franchise tag or much competition in the market. He's in line to become the recipient of the richest contract in NFL history, a reality that will only further discredit one popular hot take following Washington's big trade.
The Redskins did not overpay to acquire Smith. The cost in trade compensation and the subsequent contract extension Washington agreed to for Smith is not surprising or out of line with market value. There were essentially two franchise quarterbacks available this offseason -- Cousins and Smith -- and at least seven teams looking to acquire one. Washington locked one of those quarterbacks down without coughing up an exorbitant price. In case this wasn't obvious, quality starting quarterbacks cost a lot, and I believe they are still underpaid.
Washington's front office deserves criticism for its lack of foresight in handling Cousins' contract negotiations starting back in 2016, when they could have locked him down long-term at a reasonable rate. But the organization never fully bought in on Cousins, as former general manager Scot McCloughan recently expressed. After a 2017 season that proved Cousins could lift the level of those around him, their assessment of Cousins is surprising. But Cousins recently indicated he wouldn't negotiate with the Redskins until after they decided whether to use the franchise tag on him, which would have cost close to $35 million. Cousins rightly wanted his freedom, held all the leverage and was all but gone from Washington after the season ended. The Redskins needed to ensure they had a starting quarterback in place.
Before diving into the winners and losers of this trade below, let's address a few key parts of the news that have been twisted in the post-trade analysis.
Smith's contract is fair: The "four-year, $94 million extension" number got a lot of attention, but it's largely meaningless. Even the $71 million in "guarantees" likely doesn't mean much. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported that $71 million of Smith's contract will be guaranteed for injury only -- basically three seasons -- which means the Redskins could still cut bait for performance reasons without paying all that money.
Based on past precedent and league scuttlebutt, the fine print will likely show this is truly a two-year commitment for Smith. What he makes over the next two seasons is almost all that matters in this deal. He'll surely make over $20 million per year over that span, possibly around $25 million per year. That's simply what veteran quarterbacks cost now, and he likely will be passed in compensation by a phalanx of quarterbacks in that time. Cousins is sure to be one of them and could double Smith in real guaranteed money. It won't be a surprise if Smith isn't even among the NFL's top-10 highest-paid quarterbacks by the time he leaves Washington. The salary cap is continuing to rise, and quarterbacks will continue to take a larger share of it. Deal with it.
I wrote in December that the Chiefs had a chance to trade Smith for a better package than they gave up for him five years ago, when they sent two second-round picks to San Francisco. The Chiefs wound up getting a similar deal in value. Smith's age (33) doesn't help his case, but the cost of acquiring quarterbacks has only gone up in the last half-decade. Rapoport reported there were multiple teams interested in Smith. At some point between now and the NFL draft, the Chiefs were going to find a fair deal for him. Too many teams are too desperate for starters. The Redskins likely paid a slight premium to square away their issues before February, secure in the knowledge they won't be joining the sad, wandering teams that don't have a quarterback.
On to the winners and losers ...
Kirk Cousins: Cousins is so much better off leaving Washington. The relationship with the organization had become strained, and his earning potential on the open market is almost unparalleled in modern free agency. Pro Bowl-quality quarterbacks almost never become available unless they are coming off a career-threatening injury, as was the case with Peyton Manning and Drew Brees in the past.
Cousins doesn't have nearly the upside or talent of Manning or Brees, but he would provide a huge upgrade for teams like the Broncos and Jets, as Chris Wesseling wrote on Tuesday. Cousins is a better quarterback overall than Smith, but they are both below the top tier of quarterbacks in the NFL. While Smith's new contract lines up with market value, Cousins is likely to set market value.
Redskins coach Jay Gruden has done a terrific job helping to maximize quarterbacks like Cousins and Andy Dalton (when Gruden was offensive coordinator for the Bengals) with sharp play-calling. Gruden can absolutely do the same with Smith. In Washington, Smith got yet another quality long-term deal in a career full of them. He's already earned over $106 million before this Redskins contract, as the rare player to get four long-term contracts in his career, including No. 1 overall pick money before the rookie wage scale went into place. So don't feel too sorry for him.
Patrick Mahomes: The Chiefs are his team now. The second-year pro will benefit from an entire offseason with coach Andy Reid's undivided attention. Reid has shown repeatedly he can build a creative offense around his quarterback's strengths, and Mahomes has plenty of them.
NFL fans: There simply aren't enough quality quarterbacks to populate the league. Mahomes should be a blast to watch with his ridiculous tools, so spreading Mahomes and Smith out on two different teams will raise the bar of your average Sunday watching Red Zone in the 2018 season.
Denver Broncos: Not only is Kirk Cousins going to be available, perhaps the two biggest competitors for his services have gone by the wayside. Neither the Redskins nor the Jaguars are afraid to spend, but they are out of the Cousins market for varying reasons (see below regarding the Jags). Broncos executive John Elway can sell Cousins on Denver's defense and championship pedigree. The other teams in the market for a quarterback, like the Bills, Jets and Cardinals, all have inherently tougher pitches to make.
Drew Brees: Cousins reaching the open market should have a domino effect on the entire quarterback position. After Cousins likely becomes the highest-paid quarterback in football when free agency starts, Brees, also set to be a free agent, can make the case to the Saints that he's worth more. After Brees' deal is done, the agents for Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan figure to go to work, too.
Washington beat writers: A tiring two-year saga debating Cousins' worth has finally come to an end.
Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Manusky:Kirk Cousins was not the reason that the Redskins missed the playoffs for the second straight season. Lackluster defense, a shaky offensive line and a rotating cast of skill position players all hamstrung the Redskins team. Those issues may only become more pronounced in 2018 after Washington traded away a pick and cornerback Kendall Fuller.
Fuller is a sensational young talent, coming off a season where he was one of the best slot cornerbacks in football. While some of the post-trade analysis that made Fuller sound like the second coming of Darrelle Revis was overwrought, there's no denying the Redskins have issues in the secondary. Starting cornerback Bashaud Breeland is also bound for free agency, and the team's safety position is weak. Redskins president Bruce Allen has a lot of work to do this offseason to help Manusky, who could be fighting an uphill battle again in 2018.
Jacksonville Jaguars fans: Jacksonville should have been the top team in the Cousins sweepstakes, with the resources and quality to attract him. Instead, it appears the Jaguars are stuck convincing themselves they can play around Blake Bortles' limitations for another season. Bortles' wrist surgeryall but guarantees his spot on the team's 2018 roster. The fifth-year option in Bortles' contract becomes guaranteed if he can't pass a physical by mid-March. Rapoport reported Tuesday that the Jaguars expect Bortles -- the same Bortles that told the CBS broadcast crew before the AFC Championship Game that he wasn't a natural thrower of the football -- to be their quarterback again.