The primary goal of the New York Jets offseason is to figure out the quarterback position. Mike Maccagan and Todd Bowles will not be here in 2019 if they do not find a satisfactory answer and the league’s third longest playoff drought will continue to drag along on a rope towed by journeymen castoffs and failed middled round picks. The first domino to fall in the quarterback chase will be Washington Redskins free agent Kirk Cousins, who is in line to become the highest paid player in the NFL when free agency opens. The debate about Cousins’ value and the intelligence of the Jets chasing him is going to be a staple of any offseason discussion around the team, so let’s break it down.
The PlayerCousins will be 30 years old entering the 2018 season. Over the past three seasons, he has been a full time starter (after being a spot starter and backup during his first three seasons). Over those 48 games (he hasn’t missed a single start), Cousins has compiled 81 touchdowns, 36 interceptions, 13,176 yards, an average completion percentage of 67.0 and an average YPA of 7.76. Washington is 24-23-1 over those 48 games with one playoff appearance and zero playoff wins. If you averaged his seasons together over that time span, you’d get the following stat line:
- 16 starts, 377/563 (67%), 4,392 yards, 7.76 YPA, 27 TDs, 12 INTs, 97.5 QB Rating, 107 rushing yards, 4 rushing TDs, 8 wins
If you dive a little deeper, over the past three years Cousins has the league’s fifth highest PACR (of players with a minimum of 500 pass attempts and 20 games started). A rough explanation is PACR is that it is an efficiency metric that measures how often a yard thrown in the air is converted into receiving yardage. It incorporates depth of target in its calculation. Since 2015, Cousins has the the sixth highest QB rating in the NFL behind only Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson. His touchdown to turnover ratio (94-47) also ranks sixth in the league during that time span. Big picture, is Cousins has been one of the 5-8 most productive quarterbacks in the NFL since 2015 in most major statistical categories.
A common criticism of Cousins has been his struggles against quality opponents. Cousins is 4-19 as a starter against teams with 9+ wins (2-8 in 2017) and 8-21 against teams with 8+ wins. Here is a run down of his performances against teams who were .500 or better this past season:
- 30-17 loss to PHI: 23/40, 240 yards, 6.0 YPA, 1 TD, 1 INT, 2 fumbles
- 27-20 win over LAR: 18/27, 179 yards, 6.6 YPA, 1 TD, 0 INT
- 29-20 loss to KC: 14/24, 220 yards, 9.2 YPA, 2 TDs, 0 INT, 38 rushing yards
- 34-24 loss to PHI: 30/40, 303 yards, 7.6 YPA, 3 TDs, 1 INT
- 33-19 loss to DAL: 26/39, 263 yards, 6.7 YPA, 1 TD, 1 INT, 1 fumble
- 17-14 win over SEA: 21/31, 247 yards, 8.0 YPA, 1 lost fumble
- 38-30 loss to MIN: 26/45, 327 yards, 7.3 YPA, 1 TD, 1 INT, 2 rushing TDs
- 34-31 loss to NO: 22/32, 322 yards, 10.1 YPA, 3 TDs, 0 INT
- 38-14 loss to DAL: 26/37 yards, 251 yards, 6.8 YPA, 2 TDs, 2 INTs, 1 fumble
- 30-13 loss to LAC: 15/27, 151 yards, 5.6 YPA, 1 TD, 1 INT
- 20-15 win over ARZ: 18/26, 196 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INT
A particular red flag is that Cousins was 1-5 in his division with 10 total touchdowns and 13 total turnovers. It is concerning because those are the defenses that know him best and play him most frequently. You have six divisional games every year no matter what and if you can’t perform in those games, it is a tough barrier to overcome. Cousins is 8-10 overall versus the NFC East over the past three years.It is also mildly concerning that Cousins’ completion percentage has dropped each of the past three seasons, from 69.8 to 67.0 and then finally down to 64.3 this past year. His YPA and yardage total was also the lowest of his career in 2017, in a season where he was a full time starter. To be fair, Cousins had an erosion of talent around him last season. The Redskins lost two 1,000 yard receivers, had a banged up offensive line and lost their top weapon, running back Chris Thompson, down the stretch.
Cousins’ was substantially more productive in 2016 when surrounded with a fairly loaded offensive cast: Pierre Garcon (1,041 yards), DeSean Jackson (1.005 yards), Jamison Crowder (847 yards), and Jordan Reed (686 yards), never mind Vernon Davis, Thompson and and a steadier offensive line. It is debatable whether he was surrounded by a better offensive cast than anywhere he could potentially end up in 2018, and with that his team only managed to go 8-7-1. The struggles in the division and to pick up a weaker supporting cast could be why his former GM, well regarded talent evaluator Scot McCloughan, had this to say:
“He’s talented. Talent is good at quarterback in the NFL. He’s won games. I know his record overall is not over .500. I know he has not won a playoff game. But he’s competitive,” McCloughan said. “He works his tail off. He’s so methodical. Every day he has planned out. He’s always in the building, he’s always watching tape, he’s always talking to coaches, he was talking to me.“From the standpoint of the tangibles, they’re excellent. You just need to have some talent around him because you don’t want him to be throwing the ball 35 to 40 times to win the game. You want to have a running game, have a good defense, good [special] teams, and then let him do what he does.”
Cousins will only temporarily be the highest paid player in football and the salary cap will continue to rise but the question remains, can you build a strong enough roster around Cousins with his cap hit to compete for a Super Bowl? Or do you risk becoming the AFC’s Detroit Lions, where you are just good enough to perpetually be around .500 and occasionally get knocked out in the first round because of how much money they have sunk into Matthew Stafford, arguably a better player than Cousins. The big picture concern with Cousins is him being good but not good enough to get your team over the hump or come through in a big spot. For teams considering him, who are drafting early in the first round this year, this is weighted against taking a shot at the most valuable asset in football, a young franchise quarterback on a substantially more manageable contract over the next 4-5 years.
There is no question Cousins would be an immediate, substantial upgrade to the New York Jets quarterback position. He would be the best player they put under center since Brett Favre during the 2008 season and theoretically solves an issue at the league’s most critical position for the next 4-5 years. It would quickly change the team’s expectations in the next few years, give them more credibility and a legitimate face of the franchise to market around.
At the same time, the Jets need to get out of the cycle of working just to clear their own internal low bars. A player being better than any quarterback in recent franchise history is not saying much and thinking in this way has led to an overvaluation of players like Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh McCown. Many fans and analysts also are advocating for Cousins out of an understandable lack of trust in Mike Maccagnan to navigate the NFL Draft to find a franchise quarterback.
From a short term job security perspective, it makes sense for both Mike Maccagnan and Todd Bowles to be all in on getting Cousins. Drafting a quarterback in the first round is a risky proposition, particularly when you are stuck behind three other teams who need a quarterback despite picking 6th overall. It is also a risky proposition when you took a relatively big swing and badly missed on Christian Hackenberg only two years ago in the NFL Draft. Will Maccagnan and Bowles thinking of their job security first lead to making a less risky but potentially less beneficial long term decision of signing Cousins, instead of going after Josh Rosen or Baker Mayfield? Or does it protect them from running back the journeyman (Josh McCown) paired with an outlier college quarterback (Josh Allen) approach at the position, which already failed with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Hackenberg? Ultimately it depends on how you value the top 4-5 quarterbacks in the 2018 NFL Draft and how you think they compare to Kirk Cousins over the next 4-5 years, combined with your faith in this front office to do the right thing on draft day.
Based on their previous interest in him and their current job security situation, it is a fair assumption to make that the Jets will absolutely be in the Cousins free agency sweepstakes, at whatever the cost ends up being (150 million over 5 years?). The bigger question then becomes, can they close the deal?
Denver Broncos, Minnesota Vikings, Cleveland Browns, Washington Redskins, Arizona Cardinals, Jacksonville Jaguars and maybe the Buffalo Bills. All of these teams could be interested in having Cousins be their quarterback next season. When speaking about how Cousins will approach free agency, his former GM McCloughan had this to say:
I can promise you this,” McCloughan said. “He has done his homework, probably too much, about each roster, who his receivers are, who his backs are, who his O-linemen are, who the coach is. Not just the head coach, but the coordinator, position coach, the system they run. I promise you he has notebook after notebook for each team. He is very, very intellectual about knowing what’s best for him. He understands he’s getting older, he’s been in the league a little bit. He wants to win. I know that. Personally, knowing him, it’s not about the money. It’s about the right fit, where he knows he has stability, he has good coaches, he has good players and he has a chance to be successful. I don’t blame him. He’s put himself in that situation with what he’s done the last three years.”
Can the Jets compete with this criteria? The optimist would say they have two talented, big play, young receivers in Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa, along with a well rounded out group at the position featuring Jermaine Kearse, ArDarius Stewart and Chad Hansen. Austin Seferian-Jenkins is a solid tight end, Bilal Powell is always productive when used and Jeremy Bates is highly regarded around the league for his Xs and Os knowledge. The Jets also have boatloads of cash and 8 draft picks to improve their roster. The pessimist would say Enunwa is returning from a serious neck injury, Anderson is facing a potential suspension, none of the other receivers are anything but completely unproven or journeymen, including Seferian-Jenkins and they have no game changers at running back. Bates has spent a grand total of one season as a NFL Offensive Coordinator and was fired immediately after. The Jets are also currently led by a Head Coach and General Manager with a 20-28 career record.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle but the Jets have a tough sell. Cleveland has money and more picks. Denver has a recent Super Bowl and John Elway to pitch. Arizona has a more talented roster in place. If Jacksonville and Minnesota want to get involved (a big if), they provide a substantially better infrastructure. The Jets have a chance but assuming they are going to waltz into a Cousins signing is foolhardy.
Should the #Jets offer Kirk Cousins 150M on the opening day of free agency?
— Joe Caporoso (@JCaporoso) January 21, 2018
Jets fans seem relatively split on signing Cousins, although more seem to be warming to the idea based on day to day sentiment on Twitter over the previous few months. It is completely rational to look at the Jets current situation and understand the logic behind signing him in free agency. Mike Maccagnan hasn’t earned the trust to navigate the process of finding a franchise quarterback on draft day, particularly when the Jets are stuck behind multiple other teams who need a quarterback. Cousins is a safer route, although a pricer one and would give the Jets one of the ten best quarterbacks in football as of week 1 next year. It is also completely rational to be skeptical of investing so much money in him when there could be an opportunity to land Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold or Baker Mayfield. Even without the potential of those draft picks, a degree of skepticism of paying Cousins 150 million dollars is warranted. He is not a top 5 quarterback in the NFL and has never won anything of consequence, despite being surrounded with quality talent multiple times.
Ultimately, there is no perfect hot take answer for the Kirk Cousins question. Signing him is not a home run. Signing him is not a disaster. It is a move the Jets are probably going to try to pursue but have an uphill climb of executing. If they do sign him, the Jets will be much better at quarterback than they have been in recent years. The question will be, can Cousins and a roster built around his contract beat New England, Pittsburgh or any other AFC contender in December and/or January when it matters most?
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