There is, at first glance, some merit behind the notion that the Washington Redskins could apply the franchise-player tag to quarterback Kirk Cousins to trade him.
The Redskins already have lined up a trade for Cousins¡¯s replacement, Alex Smith, and Cousins seems poised to land the richest contract in league history on the free agent market. So why wouldn¡¯t the Redskins capitalize on all that interest in Cousins among quarterback-needy NFL teams by getting something in return for him rather than allowing him to walk away in free agency?
On further examination, though, such an approach by the Redskins could be highly problematic, potentially leading to a clash with Cousins under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement or a stare-down with him that could weigh heavily on the team¡¯s salary cap.
NFL teams can begin franchise-tagging players Tuesday. That is the opening of a two-week window that closes with the deadline to tag players on March 6 at 4 p.m. If this year¡¯s activity follows the usual pattern, there will be little-to-no movement until the final days or even the final hours before the deadline.
In the Redskins¡¯ case, this would be a third straight franchise tag for Cousins and it would cost the team about $34.5 million on a one-year deal. The Redskins already have decided that Smith, not Cousins, will be their quarterback next season, having agreed to send a third-round draft choice and cornerback Kendall Fuller to the Kansas City Chiefs for Smith, the league¡¯s top-rated passer this past season. The trade cannot become official until March 14, also the day that the free agent market formally opens.
A franchise-tagged player can be traded and teams can work out any compensation they like; they can deviate from the two first-round draft picks that a franchise-tagged player¡¯s new team must give to his previous team if the player is signed to an offer sheet not matched by his previous team. So it might be tempting for the Redskins to take the tag-and-trade approach with Cousins. The idea would be to get back more for Cousins that the compensatory draft pick in 2019 (possibly a third-rounder) that would result from him leaving in free agency.
The San Francisco 49ers dealt a second-round selection to the New England Patriots during the 2017 season for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The Cleveland Browns were prepared to send second- and third-round choices to the Cincinnati Bengals for backup quarterback AJ McCarron; that trade-deadline deal fell through when the Browns failed to file the necessary paperwork with the league office. The Smith trade landed a third-rounder and a promising young cornerback, in Fuller, for the Chiefs from the Redskins.
That would be the prospective upside for the Redskins. Cousins, coming off three straight 4,000-yard passing seasons, certainly has value, enough to believe that his next contract will surpass the record-setting five-year, $137.5 million deal that Garoppolo just signed to remain with the 49ers. If the Redskins could get teams that are potential landing spots for Cousins ¡ª such as the New York Jets, Denver Broncos, Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings ¡ª bidding for Cousins in a trade, the return could be substantive.
But the potential problems with that strategy could outweigh the prospective benefits.
First, there is the prospect that Cousins and his representatives could file a grievance alleging that the Redskins would be in violation of the CBA if they tag Cousins to trade him. The CBA says that a team which extends a tender offer to a player, as with a franchise-player deal, must negotiate with that player in good faith.
¡°A Club extending a Required Tender must, for so long as that Tender is extended, have a good faith intention to employ the player receiving the Tender at the Tender compensation level during the upcoming season,¡± the labor agreement says.
But it¡¯s not altogether clear that tagging Cousins to trade him necessarily would represent a violation of the CBA. That determination would be left to an arbitrator.
The CBA says it is a violation for a team to insist, while a tender offer is outstanding, ¡°that such a player agree to a Player Contract at a compensation level during the upcoming season below that of the Required Tender amount.¡± But it also says that particular provision ¡°shall not affect any rights that a Club may have under the Player Contract or this Agreement, including but not limited to the right to terminate the contract, renegotiate the contract, or to trade the player if such termination, renegotiation, or trade is otherwise permitted by the Player Contract or this Agreement.¡±
There also would be a practical impediment to the Redskins tagging Cousins to trade him, however. Such a maneuver would require a degree of cooperation by Cousins that Cousins almost certainly would not provide.
It¡¯s unlikely a team would want to trade for Cousins ¡ª and give up something meaningful in exchange for him ¡ª and then merely inherit his one-year, $34.5 million deal. That would be cumbersome to the new team¡¯s salary cap and would provide no guarantee that Cousins would be more than a one-year rental player. Any team trading for Cousins almost certainly would want him to agree to a new contract as part of the deal.
But why would Cousins do that? Why would he cooperate to facilitate a tag-and-trade approach by the Redskins? He would be better off being on the free agent market, free to sign with the team of his choosing without the Redskins being involved. Why would he help the Redskins, especially given that it¡¯s clear his side would regard a tag-and-trade strategy as spiteful?
The result could be a standstill. The Redskins could tag Cousins to trade him. He could refuse to sign his franchise-player deal. That would keep the Redskins from trading him, since an unsigned player cannot be traded. He could tell any team interested in signing him to an offer sheet while he¡¯s franchise-tagged that his 2018 value is, in his view, $34.5 million. Meanwhile, Cousins would be counting against the Redskins¡¯ salary cap, hindering their attempts to upgrade their roster.
But, for all the threats and demands Cousins and his representatives could make, so long as he is under the tag, he would remain in limbo. Who would blink first? Would Cousins sign an offer sheet that would amount to a new contract with another team ¡ª a team that would be willing to work out trade parameters with the Redskins? Or would the Redskins, in effect, surrender by rescinding Cousins¡¯s franchise tag to get the $34.5 million off their salary cap?
If and when Cousins were to sign his franchise-player deal, his $34.5 million would become guaranteed. So even if Cousins were to sign his franchise-player deal relatively quickly, the Redskins still would face the issue of needing to work out a trade with a team that probably would want Cousins to agree to a new long-term, cap-friendlier contract.
For the Redskins, the easiest thing is to let Cousins leave in free agency, collect their future compensatory draft pick and get ready for their new era with Smith at quarterback.
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