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Making Cousins Work

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Kirk Cousins Season In Review Benefiting Dream Center Photo by Brian Stukes/Getty Images

With the pending trade of Alex Smith to the Washington Redskins it is a foregone conclusion Kirk Cousins will not be playing in Washington this fall. The New York Jets are one of the teams considered most likely to make a serious push for Cousins. The Jets are one of several NFL teams with an urgent need for a quarterback, and the team has plenty of cap space with which to fit what is expected to be a record deal for Cousins. The question is, would such a contract be a good idea for the Jets, and if so, under what conditions?

Let’s begin to formulate an answer to that question by making explicit the goal in entering into such a big contract. Jets fans have not seen the playoffs for seven long years, so for some the goal may simply be to become a legitimate playoff contender. If that is the mission then signing Cousins can probably go a good way towards accomplishing that. He has not had a large amount of team success as a starting quarterback, but Cousins is probably good enough that just fielding an average-ish team around him should make December games meaningful most years. If being a playoff contender is your goal you probably will not regret signing Cousins.

How about if you aim higher? For many the goal isn’t just to hang around as a wild card contender. For many there is only one goal: win a Super Bowl. Achieving that goal with Cousins is a more problematic question.

The debate of whether or not the Jets would have a good chance to win a Super Bowl largely centers around two issues: is he an “elite” quarterback, and can the Jets afford to build a Super Bowl roster around him with the money from his expected mega deal on the books. I’d like to cheat a little here and side-step the elite question, largely because it’s been discussed to death, yields no easy answers, and nobody is likely to change their position on this issue based on what I can add to that discussion.

Let’s then see if we can’t tackle the second question, and maybe in so doing we can shed some light on whether it is perhaps not necessary that we come to complete agreement on the first question. The question we’ll try to answer here is, can the Jets reasonably expect to be able to build a Super Bowl roster around Cousins?

To begin to answer that question we first have to sketch out the parameters of a Cousins deal. The suggestions of how much it will cost to sign Cousins range from around $27 million per year to perhaps as much as $32 million per year or more. That average annual figure, however, is largely dependent on the guaranteed money in the deal. A five year $150 million deal with $100 million guaranteed is not close to equivalent to a five year $150 million deal with $30 million guaranteed. At the risk of stating the obvious, the more money is guaranteed the less total money is needed to sign the player.

Let’s assume that Cousins will have multiple suitors which will bring the value of his deal above the recent going rate for quarterbacks roughly in his talent class. The most recent comparables are Mathew Stafford and Derek Carr. We can argue about whether these are perfect analogs (they aren’t) and which guy should get more money and how much, but these are the best recent comparables we have, and they probably are fairly close in value. Stafford signed a five year, $135 million contract a few months ago, with $60 million in guaranteed money. Carr signed a five year, $125 million contract a few months before Stafford, with $40 million guaranteed. Based on these two contracts the going rate appears to be around $25-$27 million a year, with approximately 30-45% of that guaranteed.

Of course, neither Stafford nor Carr hit free agency, with multiple bidders potentially driving up the price. Let’s make an arbitrary assumption that Cousins having multiple suitors will drive up the price to around $30 million per year assuming the same roughly 40% rate of guaranteed money. That may prove off by a couple of $million on either side, but it should be close enough for our purposes. This gives us a winning bid for Cousins’ services in the five year, $150 million, $60 million guaranteed range. Let’s hold that thought for a few minutes as we explore another facet of this proposed deal.

Assuming the winning bid for Cousins is something close to what we’ve outlined above, there remains the question of whether we can reasonably expect the Jets to be able to build a Super Bowl caliber roster around Cousins if he’s under contract at that price. There has been much debate in the abstract about whether this is something we can reasonably expect to do. On the one hand proponents of signing Cousins say the Jets will still have giant gobs of cap space even after signing Cousins, so the Jets won’t be prevented from still signing plenty of good players with Cousins in the fold. Opponents point out that cap space is not infinite, that it tends to fill up quickly, and that no matter how you look at it, committing $30 million a year in cap space to Cousins inevitably means the team will be able to afford $30 million (minus the cost of whatever quarterback is signed in lieu of Cousins) less in other areas of the roster.

Let’s put aside the debates in the abstract for a moment and talk about what has actually worked for the 23 Super Bowl winners in the salary cap era. While there is no magic formula in terms of structuring a roster under the cap and it is no doubt possible to construct a Super Bowl roster in a way that has never been seen before, at a minimum looking at how it has been done in the past should shed some light on what is proven to work. It also allows us the luxury of talking about these issues with real numbers rather than arguing in the abstract.

Thanks to an interesting new book Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions by Zack Moore, one of the guys at Overthecap.com, we can begin to build a model of how Super Bowl champions manage the cap. Unfortunately I have not yet obtained the book, so I can’t delve into detail on the subject, but Zack has been kind enough to share a couple of tidbits. One item that stands out as relevant to our inquiry is as follows:

The most any Super Bowl champion has ever spent on the cap hits of its highest two paid players is 21.6%, spent by the 1994 San Francisco 49ers for two Hall of Fame players, quarterback Steve Young and wide receiver Jerry Rice. That 21.6% translates to $38.5 million and $41.1 million under the projected salary cap in 2018 and 2019, respectively. The average Super Bowl champion spent 16.3% of its cap on its top two players.

As a check on whether the upper limits laid out above still apply, all four of the 2017 semi finalists in the 2017 NFL Super Bowl tournament were under the 21.6% top two cap hits upper limit in 2017, and all four will be under that limit in 2018 and 2019 barring an unexpected gargantuan free agent acquisition. It would appear that this is a favorable way to structure an NFL roster.

Now let’s turn back to our Cousins projection and see what, if anything, this 21.6% limit implies for the Jets. Our projected annual cap hit for Cousins is $30 million. If we take a simplistic approach and just plug in a $30 million cap hit each year what does that imply for 2018 and 2019? For 2018, if the Jets were to stay under the 21.6% limit for the top two cap hits, the second highest cap hit on the roster would have to be no more than $8.5 million. The Jets are already over that number with Kelvin Beachum at $9.5 million. That means the Jets would have to blaze an unprecedented trail in cap management in 2018 to have a shot at a Super Bowl title, even without signing any premium free agents.

Of course signing Cousins wouldn’t just be about 2018; few expect the Jets to be ready to compete for a title next year. Let’s explore a more realistic contract structure and the implications for 2019. With most of these large deals the cap hit is smaller in the first year and larger as you go further out in the deal, a consequence of prorating the signing bonus money. Let’s assume a Cousins contract would include a $50 million signing bonus. That would produce a cap hit of $10 million a year for five years. If the remaining compensation is in the form of $100 million base salary, what teams often do to make the first year hit more palatable is reduce the first year salary, let’s say to $12 million. That leaves $88 million for the remaining years, or $22 million per year. That produces a cap hit of $22 million in 2018 and $32 million for each of the next four years. Now 2018 looks affordable, but with the consequence of an even larger hit in subsequent years. This is a simplistic example; things like roster bonuses and workout bonuses often come into play. But the basic cap hits are probably close to what the contract will involve.

Assuming a cap hit of $32 million for Cousins in 2019, and an upper limit of $41.1 Mil, as discussed above, for the top two players, the second highest cap hit in 2019 would have to be $9.1 million or lower. We are again faced with the dilemma of a roster already exceeding upper limits for a Super Bowl champion, as Kelvin Beachum is currently on the books for $9.5 million in 2019. Beachum may not be with the Jets by then, but we still are left with trying to build a Super Bowl roster in 2019 with nobody other than the quarterback accounting for more than $9.1 million in cap space. Essentially the Jets would have the choice of being shut out of the market for the top free agents, with a roster somewhat lacking in impact young players unless the 2018 draft is wildly successful, or signing top free agents and attempting to build a Super Bowl winner in a way that’s never been successfully attempted before. 2020 doesn’t get a whole lot better. At that point the highest the Jets could be expected to go for their second highest paid player would be approximately $11.3 million. By then Leonard Williams will be a free agent and the Jets would have the choice to retain his services at market value and likely exceed the upper limit for top two cap hits or let him walk. This doesn’t even contemplate acquiring other top free agents.

Recall that under the proposed scenario we are already writing off the 2018 season as likely too soon for a Super Bowl victory. We then come to an uncomfortable conclusion: it will be almost impossible to fit Kirk Cousins under the kind of contract we are projecting and build a team with any top free agents as upgrades to the current roster. The Jets can of course attempt to do what has never been done before and blaze a new trail in roster building under the cap. There is no iron clad law saying it can’t be done; we only know that it hasn’t been done. But consider this: that upper limit of 21.6% for the top two players of the 1994 San Francisco 49ers produced All Pro wide receiver and arguably the greatest of all time Jerry Rice, still at the top of his game and leading the NFL in receiving yards, and Hall of Fame, All Pro quarterback Steve Young at the peak of his career. There is no chance the top of a Jets cap headed by Kirk Cousins and whatever $10 million-ish player you want to plug in behind him has any chance to produce at a similar level. That means even in the case of the Jets pushing the top of the roster to the limit they will fall far short of what that limit produced for the champions that played with it, and the Jets will be forced to find greater bargains lower down the roster. Considering how difficult it is to find players that even match their expected productivity in free agency, planning on finding enough free agent bargains to make up for the Jets talent deficit at the top does not seem a promising avenue to explore.

A more realistic avenue might be trying to work within the limits of the average Super Bowl winning roster. Kirk Cousins is probably a bit worse than the average Super Bowl winning quarterback. But to keep things simple let’s just call Kirk Cousins an average Super Bowl winning quarterback, and let’s say that implies to win a Super Bowl with Cousins the Jets probably need to therefore shoot for something more like the average Super Bowl winning cap structure, not the extreme top where the Jerry Rices and Steve Youngs abide. What do things look like then?

The average Super Bowl winning team in the salary cap era spent 16.3 % of their cap on the top two players. For the projected caps for 2018, 2019 and 2020 that would imply the top two players would account for $29 million, $31 million and $33 million, respectively. With the contract outlined above, Cousins by himself would preclude anything more than a minimal salary player for the second highest cap hit on the team in 2019 and 2020, an obviously unworkable scenario. Things get only slightly better if the cap continues to rise in 2021 and beyond. Essentially signing Cousins under the kind of contract we’ve discussed would preclude the Jets from building a Super Bowl winner the way the average Super Bowl winner is built, and would make it extremely difficult to sign premium free agents even if the Jets were to build a team at the outer limits of what has worked in the past.

Is that it? Are we left to conclude the only way for the Jets to sign Cousins and have a shot at a Super Bowl title is to blaze an unprecedented path in roster construction under the cap? Maybe things are not quite so bleak as that. In the out years of any Cousins contract, if the salary cap continues to rise, it becomes easier to fit in premium players and still stay within the parameters of what has worked in the past. On the other hand, if the cap is rising, so too will player salaries, so the expected cap relief at the top may not amount to much.

There are still options that should be considered. The first option that comes to mind is giving Cousins a fully guaranteed deal. That of course increases the risk if Cousins is badly injured or simply does not work out as planned. The upside here is that it will reduce the total amount the Jets need to pay Cousins to win the bid. Let’s assume an all guaranteed deal with the same amount of total money as the Carr deal does the trick. Cousins can still be the second highest paid player in the game, his money is all guaranteed, more than twice Stafford’s guaranteed money, and the Jets get a total of $25 million over five years in cap relief. That kind of contract allows the Jets to construct a roster at the top that looks much more like past Super Bowl champions and current Super Bowl contenders, at the cost of having no escape from Cousins for five years. That’s a high cost to pay, but it is one way to avoid having to blaze an unprecedented trail in roster construction.

There is one more thing the Jets can consider here. It is basically never done, but nothing precludes it, so perhaps it should be considered. Let’s assume that no matter what, 2018 will not end with the Jets winning a Super Bowl. That may make some of you unhappy but just stick with me here for a second. If we simply don’t care about trying to win a Super Bowl in 2018, that frees the Jets to stuff the 2018 cap with excessive cap hits for one or two select free agents, including Cousins. Let’s go back to the idea of a $150 million contract with $60 million guaranteed. One thing the Jets could consider is to forego any signing bonuses and pay the guaranteed money in base salary, stuffing the most base salary into the first year. While there is no maximum that could in theory be stuffed into the first year, in practice we wouldn’t want the contract to be too skewed. As an example, suppose the Jets paid Cousins $80 million, $60 million in guaranteed money in 2018. That’s ridiculous, I know, but it illustrates a point. With that structure Cousins would only be making an average of $17.5 million the next four years, at the very bottom of the starting quarterback pay scale. That could produce a very unmotivated Cousins down the road. It might even induce him to take his money and retire. That kind of extreme approach comes with its own risks. But what if we scaled it back to say, $50 million fully guaranteed in 2018 base salary, with the remaining four years at $25 million each, $10 million of which is guaranteed in 2019? A structure like that still gives Cousins plenty of incentive to play the next four years, while allowing the Jets an out with zero dead money as soon as 2020. In addition, while it would make signing other premium free agents more difficult in 2018, by 2019 and beyond Cousins’ deal is more affordable, allowing the Jets to be players for the top free agents and still construct a roster consistent with past Super Bowl winners under the cap. It would have the added benefit of making Cousins a bit more tradeable, with a manageable cap hit for any acquiring team, should the Jets wish to draft a new quarterback and move on at some point after 2018.

This brings us full circle to the answer to the question we first attempted to answer: can the Jets reasonably expect to be able to build a Super Bowl roster around Cousins? The answer, as sketched out above, would appear to be probably not, if by “reasonably” we mean staying within the parameters of how past Super Bowl champions have been constructed and how many expect the Cousins deal to be structured. However, if we write off 2018, and if the Jets are willing to be a little creative in structuring the deal, and/or the Jets are willing to take on the risk of a highly or fully guaranteed deal, then the prospects become brighter. If the Jets take that approach, the endlessly debated question of whether or not Cousins is elite may not matter quite so much, because the Jets may be able to build a Super Bowl roster around him.

None of this answers the question of whether the Jets should pursue Cousins; I am only trying to address what the implications are if the Jets actually acquire Cousins. Of course, no matter what your answers to the questions presented by Cousins are, it remains for the current Jets management team to actually build a Super Bowl roster around whomever ends up being the starting quarterback. That daunting task will remain unless and until the Jets are fortunate enough to acquire the kind of quarterback that can almost by himself lift a team into Super Bowl contention.