“Kirk Cousins Week” began Wednesday with an unexpected admission from Cousins: He’s not weary of questions about possibly joining his former coach, Kyle Shanahan, in San Francisco because he doesn’t get asked it all that much.
“I think those questions kind of died down a while back,” he said with a laugh during a conference call. “… No, I’m not really getting that question a lot. It’s been business as usual.”
This week is bound to be a bit different.
As soon as the 49ers began circling Shanahan as their new head coach in January, he was linked to Cousins, who has played well as Washington’s starter the last two seasons but who hasn’t impressed his bosses enough to land a long-term contract.
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Interest in Cousins, at least among the 49ers’ followers, has ramped up even more as the team has started 0-5. And it will reach a crescendo on Sunday when Shanahan and the 49ers face his former protégé in Washington.
While the 49ers’ starting quarterback, Brian Hoyer, ranks at the bottom of the league with a 75.8 passer rating, Cousins is on the opposite end with a 107.6 rating having thrown seven touchdowns against one interception in four games.
Cousins’ coach, Jay Gruden, called him a “young” quarterback, even though he turns 30 next year, because he’s only started two full seasons.
“The more he plays, the better he gets,” Gruden said.
That’s also what makes him so alluring to other teams as a potential free agent in March – there’s still room for Cousins to progress.
Shanahan was the offensive coordinator in 2012 when Washington selected Cousins in the fourth round. The move was notable at the time since the team began the draft by taking another quarterback, Robert Griffin III, with the second overall pick. Shanahan on Wednesday said that Washington wanted to add two quarterbacks, but that Cousins wasn’t part of the original plan.
“Actually, our goal was we were going to take Russell Wilson in the fourth round knowing what type of offense we were going to run, and we wanted to pair some guys with that, but he went before that,” he said of the Seattle quarterback whom the Seahawks grabbed in the third round. “And we had Kirk ranked high. He was there in the fourth. He fell that far, so we thought it made a lot of sense for the organization.”
Will Shanahan get another crack at the quarterback in free agency?
Cousins, whose wife recently gave birth to their first child, said she loves the Washington, D.C., area and that he’s built valuable camaraderie with teammates.
“We feel like we’ve been building something the last couple years and there’s been some good continuity within the organization such that we feel we can keep taking steps forward,” he said. “That’s an exciting thing to be a part of.”
He also noted that the league’s top quarterbacks – Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning – have spent their careers in one spot.
“I think it’s always preferred to be able to have that continuity,” he said. “It goes hand in hand. Because those guys who have stayed with one team have also played at a very, very high level.”
Gruden, meanwhile, said that the better Cousins plays this season, the harder it will be to retain him.
“The more tape that Kirk puts on film (in which he) performs well, like he has the last couple of weeks, the harder it will be to keep him around,” Gruden said. “But I think we’ll do the best we can to keep him.”
Washington has been reluctant to lock in Cousins with a long-term deal to this point, instead using the one-year franchise tag to retain him the past two seasons. If they go that route a third season, however, it will cost them $34 million.
Any long-term contract for Cousins – whether it comes from Washington, the 49ers or another team – could make him the NFL’s highest paid player. The 49ers certainly could accommodate that. They currently have the most salary-cap space of any team, $62.9 million, according to the NFL Players Association, with that cushion rolling over to next season. Washington currently is $4.7 million under the cap, though it also could afford a long-term deal for Cousins.
“At the end of the day, it’s a business and contracts are what they are, players have agents and the player’s always going to do what he thinks is best for himself and the family,” Gruden said. “Kirk’s a great guy and we intend on keeping him. That is the plan, I would think. … If he was a free agent, I’m sure there would be a lot of teams coming after him, not just San Francisco.”
Cousins never directly answered a question about possibly joining Shanahan in San Francisco. He suggested that if he excels in 2017, Washington will have to hold onto him in 2018 and beyond.
“It’s about doing all I can right now to hopefully be in a position to where Washington won’t let me leave, or doesn’t want me to leave because I’ve done my job,” he said. “So that’s where my focus lies. We’ll see how it all shakes out.”