Kirk Cousins is going to bring a new dimension to the Vikings next season, namely his reputed strong throwing arm.
You can argue whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing as it pertains to this Vikings team. Last season Case Keenum, who has a weaker arm than Cousins, still ran a successful offense that limited mistakes and played within Keenum’s strengths. He threw 22 touchdowns and only seven interceptions in 14 starts, whereas Cousins threw 27 touchdowns and 13 picks for a 7-9 Washington team.
The Vikings made the NFC Championship Game behind a strong defense and an offense that didn’t turn the ball over. Washington went 7-9 and watched as the Vikings made their run.
But because of Cousins’ arm strength (along with John DeFilippo replacing Pat Shurmur as offensive coordinator), the revamped Vikings offense could potentially be more dynamic and explosive.
The data firm Sportradar may provide a glimpse into what kind of passes Cousins will throw. Sportradar, through its licensing deal with the NFL, has been compiling all kinds of advanced data. Since 2015, Sportradar has broken down every throw made by every NFL quarterback into 12 different routes — comeback, corner, crossing, curl, flat, go, in, out, post, slant, underneath screen (usually to a running back) and wide receiver screen. Here’s where Cousins is strong and where he is weak, and how he compares to Keenum.
Slinging it deep
Of the several ways Cousins and Keenum differ, the most notable distinction is in the number of go routes they threw — and how many went for big plays.
In 2017, Cousins was 17 of 55 throwing go routes (when a receiver sprints straight down the field). His 31 percent completion rate was below last season’s 36 percent league average. Keenum was 16 of 39 (41 percent). But when Cousins hit, he hit it big. He threw for 632 yards and seven of his 17 completions went for touchdowns. That was tied for the fifth-most touchdowns on go routes in the league. Keenum had a better completion rate at 41 percent (16 of 39), but threw for 185 fewer yards (447) and only one was a touchdown pass.
Two takeaways for fans: Expect the offense to be a little more explosive with Cousins, and hope deep threat Stefon Diggs stays healthy.
“Curls” in, “ins” are out
There’s one route — curl route — Cousins has been the best in the NFL at throwing the last few years. And there’s one — the in route — he has been among the worst.
Curls are when a receiver runs straight for a set number of yards before turning back toward the line of scrimmage. An in route is when the receiver runs straight, then breaks his route toward the middle of the field at approximately a 90-degree angle.
Quarterbacks have thrown to receivers on curl routes more than any other in the past three seasons with 6,945 attempts. Since the beginning of 2015, no quarterback has completed a higher percentage of those routes than Cousins (217 of 267, 81.3 percent). He has thrown for 1,827 yards off curl routes in those three seasons, fifth-most. Last season, Keenum converted 73 of 110 curl-route throws (66.4 percent) for 657 yards.
Vikings quarterbacks in recent years have targeted receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen most often on curl routes, as well: Diggs has 46 targets and 39 receptions on curls since 2015, Thielen has 33 catches on 40 targets.
DeFilippo might look to incorporate some of those into his schemes.
But it gets uglier when you talk about Cousins’ ability to throw the in route. He has completed just 57.3 percent of those (59 of 103) with an eye-popping seven interceptions. That’s tied for the most interceptions over the last three seasons with Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles. Nearly 20 percent of Cousins’ 36 interceptions since 2015 have come on in routes. Not exactly $28 million-per-year territory.
For reference, Cousins has thrown five interceptions each on crossing routes, go routes and post routes, four on slants and curls and three on out routes.
Keenum completed 28 of 40 in routes since 2015, good for 70 percent, with just one pick. If you see Cousins targeting a receiver on an in route, hold your breath.
What should be encouraging for Vikings fans is Cousins’ ability to throw well on routes that require arm strength. Over the last three seasons, Cousins has been above the league average percentage on comeback routes (54.7 to 52.7), corner routes (44.4 to 39.7), out routes (68.2 to 64.3) and post routes (57.7 to 53.7), whereas Keenum was below league averages for all those routes.
Keenum’s numbers do look better if you just isolate his 2017 season. But Keenum generally excelled at routes that were thrown near the line of scrimmage, like slants and shallow crossing routes.
Cousins has amassed a more consistent body of work over a longer period of time than Keenum, who struggled at times before last season.
Perhaps you can see why the Vikings went all in on Cousins and were unwilling to gamble on Keenum remaining consistent. Cousins gives their offense the ability to be more dynamic and allows DiFilippo to be more creative in designing plays.
Just stay away from those in routes.