Now is a pretty good time to be Alex Smith or Kirk Cousins.

Cousins is thriving yet again in Washington, yet again somehow on the franchise tag for a second straight year and in line for another massive payday, whether in Washington or somewhere else. And Smith, after the Chiefs made a blockbuster trade to move up and select his replacement, Patrick Mahomes, in the draft, is playing like an MVP in Kansas City and more than staving off any talk about a changing of the guard with the Chiefs.

With both of these quarterbacks on my mind, I couldn't help but think about longtime NFL executive Scot McCloughan, one of the best evaluators in the business and someone intrinsically tied to both Smith and Cousins. He drafted Smith first overall when he was running the 49ers and he was a primary cog in the decision to have Cousins replace Robert Griffin III as the starter in Washington a few years back when he was Redskins general manager. Given the lack of quality passers in the NFL and the unending need for them, the play of Smith and Cousins will continue to be scrutinized this season, with both possibly playing elsewhere in 2018.

Seems to me, the Skins have little option but to reward Cousins again if he keeps up close to what he is doing. Even without Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson and tight end Jordan Reed banged up and no proven cogs in the run game, Washington is playing very good football and Cousins is making plays. The Redskins are in the hunt for now and after paying Cousins $44 million the past two seasons, owner Dan Snyder is in a bind again.

The possibilities are as follows: Transition tag Cousins at roughly $29 million or franchise him again at close to $35 million and play it out for one more year; tag him as a precursor to a trade; give him a massive long-term deal; or let him walk for a 2019 compensatory pick. We've already reached bizarro-land in this saga, but even by Redskins standards that fourth option is unfathomable. And with the Redskins hosting the 49ers on Sunday, and San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan (who drafted Cousins, developed Cousins and is laying in the weeds to try to acquire Cousins in 2018) returning to Washington this weekend, what better time to see what McCloughan thought of the situation.

"They're in tough spot," McCloughan told me on my "B-more Opinionated Podcast" (find it on iTunes or here). "But the thing about it is you'd rather be a in a tough spot and have someone you think can get you where you want to get to than not be there. But also with the financial investment involved -- because this is the first time ever in back to back years a quarterback has been tagged and in the third year the price tag of course is immense … it's also the other 52 [players] that you have to worry about, because they have some young guys coming up in Washington that they're going to have to take care of, or they're going to lose them.

"With the cap you're only allotted so much, and once you start investing too much at a certain position, it affects the rest of the team. But quarterback is hugely important, and Kirk is a great guy, he's all about ball. He's there every day working hard every day, and he's all about the team. But they're in a unique situation and they're going to have to say, 'If we do this, and tag him again, there's a good chance we lose three to six guys that we like.' … You can't afford them all if you start investing that much in that position."

When I asked him to assume his GM hat, though, McCloughan agreed that letting Cousins walk is crazy. It's virtually certain Cousins wouldn't sign before the franchise/tag window, and no trades can be made until the league year resumes in March. This is very likely headed back in the direction of another tag. If I lived in Vegas and someone took prop bets on this, I would be going heavy on at least the transition tag.

A former Redskins GM says it would be a mistake to let Kirk Cousins leave in free agency. USATSI

Of all the options, letting him walk in March, really, is not an option. Right? 

"You can't do that, you can't do that," said McCloughan, who is consulting and scouting for a number of NFL teams ahead of the 2018 draft. "You've already put your cards out there two years, back to back with the money you've paid him. And he's a really good teammate and a really good leader -- all of that stuff.

"So, personally, I'd do a long-term deal. It's best for the organization financially, and you're going to have to guarantee a lot up front and all of that, but, still, you've got somebody locked in who is in his prime, and now you're not scrambling. And nothing against Colt McCoy, but he's a really good No. 2. … Now you'd have to go into the draft or free agency trying to find one, and as you guys are well aware, they're hard to find. … And 70 percent of the time on starters you're not right on. … You know exactly what Kirk is, and he's a good fit for the team and he's a good for the organization and he's good to help your team win."

As for Smith, and his evolution, McCloughan pointed to the quarterback's openness to be molded and to try to fit himself to whatever he's asked to do. This season, that has involved putting more emphasis on explosive plays and pushing the ball downfield for coach Andy Reid.

"Andy is so good at identifying what a guy can and can't do," said McCloughan (a great follow @MccloughanScot), "and the thing about Alex is, he's a pleaser. Meaning, if you tell him, 'I want you to do a five step and step on this thing here or step over there,' he'll do it to the T, almost to a fault. When I was with [Brett] Favre it was like, 'OK, I'll do a four-step drop and then take off running and throw it 80 yards down the field.' But [Smith] wants to please so much, that's his personality, and when I hear him talk and people look at him they might say he's not a tough guy, or kind of a softer guy. But Alex is very competitive, a very solid individual, that's a good football player. And they have talent around him and that's important. That's important to any quarterback, even [Tom] Brady."

With the way he is playing, Smith is one of the absolute steals in the NFL, making $13.3 million in combined cash in 2017, and, at age 33, he looks like a bargain at $17 million for 2018, first-round pick Patrick Mahomes or not. If anything, he's a guy who seems to be playing himself into another payday.

The Bengals are lurking

Don't rule the Bengals out in the AFC North just yet. Sure, they still look limited on offense, but coordinator Paul Guenther is doing great work with that defense, the secondary in particular. In what is clearly a passing league, the Bengals have one of the best secondaries in football, and considering that Ben Roethlisberger is having another midseason crisis (he could use a visit from Stuart Smalley -- you're damn good enough, Ben, go get 'em) and the Browns are having another quarterback controversy and Joe Flacco has had another up-and-down start, well, that could keep the Bengals in this thing.

They are holding opposing quarterbacks to a 73.3 rating, which is pretty good. They have basically eliminated the opposition's ability to create big plays -- a huge issue a year ago -- and the Bengals enter their bye week second in yards per game, first in yards allowed per play, sixth in third-down efficiency and third in sacks per pass play. (And if this does end up being another underwhelming season in Cincy and coach Marvin Lewis moves to the front office, I would put Guenther among the top candidates for the gig).

The most troubling stat for the Pats

The Patriots still have issues on defense. Yeah, they held the Bucs down last Thursday on the scoreboard, but drops and horrible kicking had plenty to do with that. My biggest concern with New England? The Patriots are allowing a staggering 6.08 yards per carry on first down, worst in the NFL (66 rushes for 401 yards). When you think the opposing team is running it, and they can do that to you, that's not a good sign. I'm still baffled how frequently the Bucs had Jameis Winston throwing on first-and-10 in that game against a lot of cover-2.

Watt's uncertain future

There will be a lot of rumblings about the future of J.J. Watt in the next 10 months before the start of the 2018 season. Plenty of evaluators I speak to regularly were already concerned after the past two injuries -- especially his back -- and some believed he wasn't quite right this season even before the tibia fracture that ended his season Sunday night. Had Watt been moderately healthy the past two seasons he would have been in line for a massive payday this winter, but that's a non-starter now and some are already wondering if we've seen the best of the superstar. None of this is a slight on him, but the successive surgeries and the physical way he plays have begged questions about what the future holds.

More notes from around the NFL:

Cleveland Browns

Semi-annual reminder that, since discussing a possible Jim Harbaugh trade to Cleveland (which might have saved both franchises), the 49ers are 7-30 and the Browns are 4-33. Hue Jackson is just trying to win a game, finally, and Kevin Hogan gives him the best chance to do so and DeShone Kizer was already showing signs of regressing. It ain't good, but this is Cleveland, folks. I've been saying for weeks there would be big changes there, again, this offseason and that's likely to include yet another quarterback search on top of coaches and executives and everything else. Owner Jimmy Haslam isn't going to have any choice at this rate.  

Los Angeles Rams

The Rams had to make a change in the return game. As explosive as Tavon Austin is, he leads the NFL with four fumbles (three lost) and he has done it on just 39 touches. Keep an eye on this. Todd Gurley has lost the ball five times already (only two were recovered by opponents) and this young team won't overcome turnover-itis if it persists.

San Francisco 49ers

I'm going to keep banging the drum about 49ers emerging stud defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. He's now second in the NFL with 23 quarterback knockdowns/hurries. He is becoming a difference maker.

Seattle Seahawks

Russell Wilson is quietly doing Russell Wilson things, even with a limited offensive line. He's the best fourth-quarter quarterback in the NFL, going 30 of 45 for 365 yards, five touchdowns, zero interceptions and a stellar rating of 128.5 (Roethlisberger is last in the league with a 59.9 rating in the fourth quarter, FYI). 

Tennessee Titans

The Titans are going three-and-out on a staggering 34.4 percent of their drives, which you would expect to improve when Marcus Mariota is back under center. But for a team with an "exotic run game," or whatever the hell they were calling Mike Mularkey's ground attack, this is particularly alarming