Minnesota Vikings need more impact from Kirk Cousins

Minnesota Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings invested $84 million guaranteed into quarterback Kirk Cousins. Through three games, the Vikings have yet to see a more dynamic version of Cousins.

The storyline of the NFL free-agency period was where Kirk Cousins would land, and how much would it take to secure his rights. The speculation was for good reason, as the 30-year-old was coming off his third-straight season of 25-plus touchdowns and 4,000-plus yards. It’s incredibly rare such an accomplished passer would hit the market.

After receiving significant offers from the Jets and Broncos, and fielding interest from the Browns and Cardinals, Cousins decided that the Vikings’ $84 million over three years would do just fine. The Vikings, seeking more stability than what any of their incumbent three quarterbacks could offer, briefly set the market to reward Cousins.

Allowing Case Keenum and Sam Bradford to walk away seemed like the obvious decisions, as Keenum’s 2017 was an outlier and likely a fluke, and Bradford’s injury history left him broken. The real decision was whether to sign Teddy Bridgewater for backup money, or break records with Cousins.

Cousins was certainly the more sure-thing, and head coach Mike Zimmer correctly noted that his job security will be tied to this decision.

The contract value and the decision to move away from Bridgewater is now naught as the games are being played. What matters is how well Cousins is playing, not necessarily to the value of his contract though. As the saying goes, it matters when you sign you’re contract, and Cousins had the ultimate leverage.

At 1-1-1, the Vikings have disappointed as far as their results. Their handling of the San Francisco 49ers appeared to set the course for what should’ve been a dominant season. They can still achieve that, but tying the Packers with a considerably hobbled Aaron Rodgers and looking completely unprepared and disinterested against the Bills are letdowns.

Cousins is a quality quarterback, albeit one who looks better on the stat sheet than consistently a game-changer on the field.

His fit within Jay Gruden’s system was pure as Gruden relied on him to take the place of a running game. He’d move the chains with underneath passes and dump-offs, with the occasional deeper throw. Gruden’s ability to manufacture open deep receivers compensated for Cousins’ generally limited downfield passing prowess and aggressiveness, as well as their receiving personnel.

In Minnesota, we’ve only seen the short-throwing version of Cousins for all but one quarter against the Packers as they had to go all-out to get back into it. Some of this is due to Cousins’ ability to quickly and accurately get the ball out on throws up to 10 yards. The other part is that the offense is trying to overcome what’s a below-average offensive line and running game that’s yet to take off.

His situation is similar to Washington, which was unexpected since Dalvin Cook was so effective last year. But the line hasn’t found the same success in the running game, leaving Cousins throwing a league-leading 139 attempts through three games.

That’s not the recipe to win with him.

Much of the blame has gone to the blocking, but it’s been better than advertised for the most part. Their Week 3 play against Buffalo was bad, culminating in four sacks and what I charted as three pressured throws. Other entities are more generous with what they consider pressures than I.

Pressures in the first two weeks were almost exclusively schemed on rollouts, though, making others’ numbers clouded. Through his first two games, he was pressured on just 10 of 66 throws after filtering out all throwaways.

And yet, Cousins has only attempted 13 passes beyond 20 yards, and 102 under 10 yards. Just 22 percent of his throws have been beyond 10 yards, which is essentially an Alex Smith-level of benign offense. That number would be even lower if filtering out the fourth-quarter against the Packers that had several deep shots.

This isn’t all to say Cousins has been bad. He’s performing extremely well in the red zone and has been great on his short and intermediate attempts. Both of his interceptions were placed decently enough to be an expected catch, although he does have two dropped interceptions that make up the difference.

It’s most surprising that he’s been the 2016 version of Sam Bradford for this team considering the improved receiving threats all-around him. There’s plenty of time for this to change, and quite frankly, it must for this team to realize its upside.

Cousins doesn’t need a vertical offense that would make Norv Turner smile, but rather balance. He’s a one-read quarterback who will happily dump the ball off to the flat if his pre-snap read isn’t open. This has led to inflated stats many times in garbage time throughout the last several years, which is why the numbers don’t always tell the truth.

His creativeness outside of the pocket, like on the play above, is that dynamic, impactful presence that the team needs. Keenum found magic in Pat Shurmer’s offense with stars around him, often outside of the timing of the offense. Cousins is much better in structure but must find his comfort in expanding outside of it occasionally.

Cousins deserves credit for being great on his initial read and converting the few red zone chances they’ve had. The throw below is one of the best in his career.

The challenge for first-year offensive coordinator John DeFilippo is to have Cousins’ eyes drift downfield to create chunk plays more often. Defenses will allow him to nickel and dime them down the field because of the difficulty of scoring in the red zone unless the quarterback is consistently on the money with timing and ball placement.

There also must be more aggression on third down. As seen above in the passing chart, only 13 of 29 third-down throws have been at or past the first-down marker in the air. That’s not good enough to make game-changing plays. If the Vikings believe in him being the difference-maker from last year to this year, both he and DeFilippo must be empowered on conversion downs.

The lack of a run game has followed Cousins, so it’s interesting that Adrian Peterson is playing well with the same blocking personnel. Maybe that’s more of a statement on Peterson than Cousins’ tendency to takeover the offensive possessions like a ball-dominant player in basketball. It’s something to watch for as a subplot to the season, at least.

Overall, Cousins has been more of the same player he was in Washington. He accumulates numbers within his comfort zone, and it’s a mixed bag when he’s asked to carry a competent offense. It’s still too early in his tenure to say he definitively won’t improve or evolve, but the weapons are there and there’s no excuses that exist like they did in prior seasons.

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