After a rotating carousel of quarterbacks that all flashed promise the last few seasons, the Vikings spent 84 million dollars this offseason in an attempt to solidify the position. Kirk Cousins posted solid statistics during his time in Washington. He threw for over 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns each of the last three seasons. Now, Cousins joins a Viking team with the expectations of Super Bowl contension.
Cousins is a pre-snap read quarterback. He wants to rely on that read and release the ball almost instantly. When he can do this, he avoids pressure and has been of one of the better quarterbacks in the league. Cousins’ struggles occur when the coverage can force him away from his initial read. It is a common flaw in the NFL. Cycling through a full progression of reads while the pocket collapses is a difficult thing to consistently do. Even Tom Brady has struggled when forced away from his pre-snap read, as Von Miller discussed a few years ago. Brady may struggle after his initial read is taken away, but he will often reset in the pocket with quick, subtle footwork. His footwork allows him to manage the pocket and maintain his mechanics. Pressure may still force a sack or an incompletion, but Brady remains under control. This gives the play the best chance to succeed despite the defense winning the pre-snap battle.
This is in contrast to Cousins. When the defense forces Cousins from his first read, he compounds the problem by immediately worrying about the pass rush. This usually leads to one of two actions. One, he forces a throw to a covered receiver. Cousins will do this even if there is little to no pressure, as his mental clock says the ball must come out. That is not an inherently bad decision, but it does limit the chance of the play succeeding.
The second action is more concerning. Unlike Brady, Cousins hurries his footwork. This causes his mechanics to suffer. Cousins has a competent arm, but he does not have the elite arm strength of a Matthew Stafford or Patrick Mahomes. Cousins needs a solid foundation to deliver an accurate throw. When his mechanics break down, the ball floats towards its intended target. This disrupts the timing of the route and often results in 50-50 balls that the defensive back has additional time to react to. This is a significant flaw, but it can be limited. An offensive scheme designed around quick passes and play-action limits the times Cousins will be forced to hold the ball and cycle through a full progression in the pocket. This was the style of offense that Jay Gruden used in Washington. Gruden realized Cousins’ limitations and schemed around them. As a result, Cousins had the best quarterback rating in the league on play-action passes over the past three seasons.
Luckily for Cousins and the Vikings, their new offensive coordinator also has a history of adjusting his offense to fit his quarterback. During his time with the Eagles, John Defilippo demonstrated the ability to properly use his quarterback’s skillset. Carson Wentz is a big-bodied, athletic quarterback with a strong arm. But Wentz is not an extremely accurate quarterback, ranking 31st in adjusted completion percentage in 2017. His ball placement is often erratic. Knowing his skillset, Defilippo and the Eagles didn’t ask Wentz to hit short and intermediate throws with anticipation on a consistent basis. Instead, they emphasized run-pass options, deep shot plays, and intermediate throws off of play-action, each areas that fit Wentz’ skillset.
Defilippo has already implied that he plans to do something similar in Minnesota. Assuming Cousins is in a similar scheme in Minnesota to the one he ran in Washington, and he plays at a similar level, then his success will likely be determined by his supporting cast.
In Washington, Cousins had an underrated supporting cast. He often played behind one of the better offensive lines in the league, including a stud left tackle in Trent Williams. At the skill positions, Jordan Reed, DeSean Jackson, Chris Thompson and Jamison Crowder were solid options, though they struggled with injuries. Defensively, the Redskins were not elite, but played to an average level.
As underrated as his supporting cast was in Washington, the 2018 Vikings are the best team Cousins has played on. On the defensive side of the ball, the Vikings have Pro Bowlers at every level of the defense. Additionally, young defensive end Danielle Hunter has looked phenomenal in early preseason action. With this dominant defense, Cousins should see plenty of opportunities. Plus, he will benefit from game scripts that keep him from having to throw into heavy coverage.
On the offensive side of the ball, Cousins is surrounded with weapons. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen return and are likely the best wide receiver duo in the league. Both are elite route runners and can win 50-50 balls. With Laquon Treadwell developing, Thielen can play more in the slot in three-receiver sets, a position that made him a dominant third-down option last year. In the running game, Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray return. Murray offers capable production. Cook has the potential be an elite running back. The only concern is an offensive line that may have outperformed its individual talent last season. With injuries decimating this unit in training camp, there is some cause for alarm in that area.
Cousins may not be the elite quarterback the Vikings paid for this offseason, but he does not necessarily have to be. Assuming his supporting cast stays healthy, Cousins will likely offer the Vikings slightly above-average quarterback play. That is enough for the Vikings to again be Super Bowl contenders. As both a real-life quarterback and a fantasy asset, Cousins will be a valuable piece in 2018 and beyond.
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