Of all the players who could have decided to let their rookie contracts expire and play year-to-year since the NFL and NFL Players Association made it considerably more expensive to franchise-tag for a third time in 2006, Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins would have been low on the list of candidates.
But Cousins has become the year-to-year guinea pig (that swine is currently dining on filet mignon), primarily because Washington bungled its shot at getting Cousins under contract at a much more affordable rate before he cashed the last game check under his rookie deal, and the franchise-tag dance began. Two years later, Cousins has made $19.95 million, triggered another $23.94 million, and sits 16 games away from the doomsday scenario for D.C.: a cost of $34.47 million to apply the franchise tag a third time.
Others will now benefit from Washington’s mistake. In Oakland, the Raiders see what can (will) happen if they don’t break the bank now for quarterback Derek Carr, who wants a new deal before training camp opens or not at all this year. The unmistakable message: Oakland’s chance to avoid the Kirk Cousins scenario expires in a matter of weeks.
The situation also gives the Raiders a clear example of what’s behind Door No. 2 if they don’t sign Carr now before assuming the risk of a year-to-year scenario that could see Oakland (and eventually Las Vegas) shelling out far more millions later if they don’t marry Carr now.
Ultimately, the question becomes what will it take to get Carr signed? Given that the market for quarterbacks hasn’t grown at the same rate as the salary cap has mushroomed in recent years (it’s up 35 percent from 2013 to 2017), the Raiders can justify making Carr the highest paid player in year history at $25 million per year because, frankly, someone already should be making $30 million per year.
The deeper question is how hard of a bargain will Carr drive? Between Tom Brady’s notoriously team-friendly approach (if Mike Glennon is worth $16 million per year, how much could Brady get, if he wanted to push for every last penny?) and Peyton Manning’s f–k-you-pay-me strategy lies a balance where the player is more-than-handsomely compensated and the team is more than capable of putting a quality lineup around him, given the constraints of the salary cap.
At $25 million per year, Carr would be consuming only 14.9 percent of the current cap. In 2004, Manning signed a deal worth $14.17 million per year, the cap was $80.582 million, and the burden was 17.59 percent. (Two years later, he hoisted a Lombardi Trophy in a driving South Florida rainstorm.)
Any team that has found a young franchise quarterback, has no viable options for replacing him, and has no interest in hoping to get lucky with another roll of the dice on draft day needs to keep the player at any cost. Or, more accurately, at a cost much lower than the $78 million Washington could be paying Cousins from 2016 through 2018, with no rights to him for 2019 or beyond.
For the player, the zeal to squeeze a billionaire must be tempered by the risk of serious injury or ineffectiveness. But how many great young quarterbacks suddenly lose their ability to play great — and how many quarterback injuries are truly career ending? Other than Robert Griffin III, who had one great year, tore an ACL, and never saw his career recover, budding franchise quarterbacks tend to become (and remain) full-fledged franchise quarterbacks.
So Carr’s risk of not meriting the year-to-year franchise tag is small, Oakland’s eventual financial responsibility is significant, and if Carr will take $25 million per year the Raiders should print the contract and sign it now — before Carr realizes that he also should insist that he still will be paid 14.9 percent of the cap in 2019 and beyond.