The Vikings made Kirk Cousins the NFL’s highest-paid quarterback, for however long, by virtue of a three-year, $84 million deal that will pay him an annual average of $28 million — a record.
So what exactly did the Vikings buy?
You’ve read the numbers by now: three consecutive 4,000-yard seasons with at least 25 touchdown passes each year. His teams didn’t win much, but individually the Vikings clearly saw enough to put them over the top in a way they believed Case Keenum could not.
We’ll see if the Vikings are right. Cousins turns 30 in August, essentially the prime for quarterbacks. He arrives in Minnesota with proven durability as a strong-armed passer, accurate up to a certain point down the field. There are some areas to polish, which we’ll touch on below.
On the surface, one thing shouldn’t change: the Vikings’ heavy use of play-action. Cousins was rated as one of the NFL’s best play-action passers last season with a 118.7 rating trailing only Marcus Mariota. He was significantly better (+31.3 passer rating) with play-action than without under Jay Gruden last season.
The Vikings offense should still run through Dalvin Cook, setting up Cousins and the passing game.
Let’s take a closer look below at all things Cousins, beginning with one point of emphasis for the Vikings.
Washington was a mediocre red-zone offense with Cousins under center, peaking at 14th last season, according to Football Outsiders. The Vikings were much better – fifth in the same points per red-zone trip measurement – a pillar in the 13-win regular season. So one of the points of emphasis with Cousins will need to be red-zone schematics and ball placement. He’s not known for firing the ball into tight windows. This is where John DeFilippo’s influence could make a mark in keeping Cousins on schedule. DeFilippo was regularly involved in the Eagles’ red-zone game planning during his time in Philadelphia.
Things didn’t always go right when Cousins got off schedule. Below, Cousins successfully evades pressure but doesn’t keep his vision downfield. He had targets open in the middle of the end zone and, at the end, near the 10-yard line.
Washington’s offense cycled from 14th in red-zone scoring during Cousins’ first year to 28th and then back to 14th again last season. In a similar broken-down situation, Cousins is able to find the open man for the touchdown during the Week 12 win against the Giants.
Cousins has a strong arm that can open things up downfield for the Vikings. However, he’s not the most accurate beyond a certain point. He excelled in Washington with a well-regarded scheme under head coach Jay Gruden, while Cousins consistently gave chances to playmakers from Pierre Garcon and Jordan Reed to DeSean Jackson. He can put a nice arc on a deep ball. In the past two seasons alone, Cousins threw 21 touchdowns to six interceptions on passes over 20 yards in the air, per Pro Football Focus. Below, Cousins lofts a play-action deep ball right where Josh Doctson can make a play.
His downfield accuracy isn’t the most consistent. Below, Cousins misfires to the wrong shoulder of tight end Vernon Davis leading to the interception.
Statistically, Cousins has been mediocre under pressure so far during his career. Avoiding blowups was one of Case Keenum’s strengths for the Vikings, and whether Keenum could repeat his Houdini acts was a question many openly asked.
Cousins also brings a rollercoaster, having thrown precisely 20 touchdowns to 20 interceptions while under pressure in three seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s also got a fumble problem we’ll get to later. Below, Cousins is pressured and makes an errant decision to throw directly to an Eagles defensive back.
While the Washington talent around Cousins was consistently injured, he was not. He started 49 straight games since taking over the reins. That’s in spite of taking a career-high 41 sacks last season without a fully healthy left tackle Trent Williams.
What’s remarkable is Cousins wasn’t so much as listed questionable even once during his three seasons as Washington’s starter. That’s huge for a Vikings franchise desperately seeking stability at quarterback.
He’s not going to outrun everybody, and doesn’t shy from contact. So Cousins got into a pile or two. He evolved into a willing runner in Washington, taking off for 49 carries and 179 rushing yards last season, both career highs. Cousins also ran for 13 touchdowns in three seasons. Below, he gets twisted up between two Saints defenders while gaining three yards.
A bad exit
Cousins had a rough exit in his final game for Washington, a month before the team agreed to trade for Alex Smith.
It was his first three-interception game since 2014, prior to becoming a full-time starter. He barely completed half of his passes and was rattled from the jump, when he threw an interception on his first pass. Unchecked pressure flusters Cousins, who decided to throw directly into zone coverage even though he had an open option on the same side of the field.
Cousins kept his interception rate around 2 percent, but he’s got a fumble problem.
That will need to be one of the Vikings’ primary focuses with their new quarterback. Cousins put the ball on the ground 34 times, losing 12 fumbles, in the past three seasons. That includes a career-high 13 fumbles (five lost) last year. Sometimes, like the rainy Week 8 home loss to Dallas, a contributing factor was the weather. No longer will Cousins play most of his games outdoors. But there are plenty of examples of him just not holding onto the ball. Below, Cousins fumbles at the indoor AT&T Stadium while being thrown to the ground.
Cousins isn’t afraid to stand in the pocket and deliver downfield. Poise is a strength, including late in games.
His 11 game-winning drives in three seasons trail only Matthew Stafford (15) and Derek Carr (12). Four game-winning drives last season tied a career high, while Washington only won seven games. Perhaps Cousins’ most impressive drive spanned just two throws during a Week 9 win at Seattle.
Cousins took the field down 14-10 with 94 seconds left. He’d already been sacked three times in the fourth quarter. Below, he gets drilled on a 31-yard completion to Redskins receiver Brian Quick.
His next throw found Doctson for a 38-yard completion, setting up Washington’s go-ahead touchdown from Seattle’s 1.