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Franchise tag complicates the Kirk Cousins contract

New York Giants v Washington Redskins

LANDOVER, MD - JANUARY 01: Quarterback Kirk Cousins #8 of the Washington Redskins lays on the field after being sacked by cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie #41 of the New York Giants (not pictured) in the second quarter at FedExField on January 1, 2017 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

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Q: What is Kirk Cousins worth in Washington?

A: Whatever Washington will pay him.

The more accurate answer is whatever Washington is required to pay him. Until the deadline for using the franchise tag expires, the starting point for a long-term Cousins contract sits at $23.94 million for 2017.

Why would he or should he accept $16 million or $18 million or $20 million per year on a long-term deal when he can get $23.94 million for one more year? Coupled with the $19.95 million he made for 2016 under the tag, that’s nearly $44 million for two years of work.

Last year, Cousins was believed to be looking for the value of the tag for 2016 and 2017 (nearly $44 million) to be guaranteed over the first two years of a long-term deal. Washington opted against that approach. This year, a similar stance from Cousins would result in $23.94 million for 2017 plus, by rule, a 44-percent increase for 2018, or $34.47 million.

That’s more than $58 million over two years. If Washington wasn’t prepared to pay Cousins $44 million over two years in 2016, it’s safe to say they won’t pony up $58 million over two years now.

And while it’s easy to argue that Cousins should be realistic regarding whether Washington would actually tag him again in 2018 at $34.47 million, that’s how long-term contracts for franchise-tagged players are valued. If Cousins deviates from that, his agent will face a torrent of criticism from other agents, who invariably will use the departure from convention against Cousins’ agent in the cutthroat content of recruiting players.

The tag-based analysis doesn’t evaporate until the deadline for using the tag comes and goes without Washington using it. If that happens, however, Washington will have no ability to keep Cousins from leaving for the 49ers or any other teams, for as much, more, or even less than Washington would offer when the formula becomes driven not by the tag but by the open market.

There’s a belief in some circles that, in the end, Washington will tag and trade Cousins. To make that happen, however, plenty of winking and nodding needs to happen behind the scenes over the next few weeks, with Washington striking a tentative trade deal and the next team striking a tentative contract with Cousins. Otherwise, Washington will be stuck with paying Cousins $23.94 million for 2017.

Cousins has been solid over the past two years, but it’s hard to say that he’s objectively worth $23.94 million for 2017. Ultimately, however, he’s worth whatever Washington needs to pay him -- and they may end up needing to pay him $23.94 million for 2017.