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Grading the Vikings: Cousins has best season. Was it worth $100 million?

The highs were higher and the lows were not as low for Kirk Cousins in 2019. His famous three words —“You like that?” —were delivered again in the visiting locker room of the Superdome after this season’s largest NFL playoff upset outside of Baltimore.

Cousins may have earned himself more than $100 million in a contract extension with that NFC wild-card playoff upset against the Saints, which capped his best NFL season with his first postseason win. He’s positioned well for possible extension talks this offseason entering the final year of a three-year, $84 million contract that is somehow already nearing its end. Both sides discussed a career-long partnership when signing that deal.

This year’s step forward came together as Cousins envisioned, with him thriving as part of a collective effort. The Vikings offense rebounded in its first season in Gary Kubiak’s system with the franchise’s highest scoring rank (8th) since Brett Favre in 2009.

Below we’ll grade the 2019 season from Cousins, setting up his outlook for 2020.

Previously
Dalvin Cook's breakout sets up payday; will Vikings buy in?
Stefon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph adjusted to most change with Vikings
Offensive line improved, but talent gap clear vs. NFC’s best

Pending free agents

QB Sean Mannion

Under contract through (+ 2020 cap hit)

2020: QB Kirk Cousins ($31M)

2021: QB Jake Browning ($510K)

Grades are based on a 1-to-5 scale, with '5' marking excellence, '4' for above-average, '3' for average, '2' for below-average and '1' for failure to perform. Players that did not accrue a season (weren't on the active roster for at least six weeks) or played in five games or fewer are not graded. Below are individual grades, based on game and practice observations, weekly film reviews and interviews with coaches for three quarterbacks who finished the season on the Vikings' active roster, injured reserve or practice squad. Unofficial NFL stats, such as QB pressures, missed tackles and targeted passes, are compiled by ProFootballFocus.com.

QB Kirk Cousins (4.0) —One of six handpicked team captains by head coach Mike Zimmer. Adjusting to a fifth different playbook in his last seven NFL seasons, Cousins thrived in a Gary Kubiak system that played to his strengths as a rhythm passer and bomb thrower; it also mitigated a lack of improvisation by moving the pocket for him. Capped best NFL season with three big-time throws in overtime to upset the third-seeded Saints in New Orleans for his first playoff win. Career-high 107.4 passer rating trailed only Ryan Tannehill, Drew Brees and Lamar Jackson. Efficiency was at a career-high 8.1 yards per throw, while volume at a career-low 3,603 passing yards. Played 982 snaps [94.8%]. Missed only five kneel downs until his 80-game NFL start streak ended as a healthy scratch in Week 17. Named to his second Pro Bowl as an alternate. Penalized once for intentional grounding against the Raiders. Started the season with 10 throws in 49 plays in a convincing win against the Falcons, foreshadowing a run-heavy approach from which passing efficiency was the goal over volume; Cousins ranked 31st in throws per game.

Found comfort in a system that moved him under center, from where he led the league in play rate (70%), and resembled systems under his former coordinators Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay,whose 49ers and Rams offenses ranked second and third in under-center snaps. Can still beat the blitz from shotgun with a well-placed, 45-yard touchdown to Stefon Diggs, as he did in the Week 2 loss at Green Bay, but the protection isn’t always reliable without bootlegs or other misdirection. Better equipped to consistently hit rollout shots like the 25-yard laser to Adam Thielen in Detroit while rolling to his left. That Vikings’ 7-0 lead over the Lions was indicative of faster starts throughout the season. Cousins threw 35% of his touchdowns in first quarters, up from 20% in 2018.

Made two terrible judgments on interceptions in Green Bay on a forced pass into tight coverage and a fourth-quarter lob into the end zone. The following week against a hapless Raiders defense, coordinator Kevin Stefanski called just one pass in 12 red-zone plays — even dialing up a QB draw from the 5-yard line. After a forgettable loss in Chicago, Cousins rebounded extraordinarily well and play calling reflected restored confidence from the coaching staff.

Earned third NFC Offensive Player of the Month award for an October in which he averaged 315.5 yards across four games and threw 10 touchdowns to one pick (tipped by Diggs). That was Cousins’ only turnover in Weeks 5-10. Comfortably made decisions in this offense, evident in a career-low nine turnovers. Ten fumbles (three lost) inflated by working with a rookie center, contributing to four botched exchanges.

Play designs heavy in play-action bootlegs also helped mitigate the pass rush. Pressured dropbacks fell from 260 to 175 this season, and he posted a career-best passer rating when pressured.

Pressure was a familiar problem, however, in losses to the Packers, Bears and 49ers. Cousins was sacked 18 times in those four losses (two to Green Bay). Deep throws and rhythm were squashed as Cousins averaged 5.9 yards per throw. Affected by pressure to the point where he misses downfield passing lanes, which can lead to checkdowns and frustrating moments like in the NFC Divisional playoff loss in San Francisco.

When he decides to pull the trigger (and has time), Cousins remains among NFL’s top deep throwers. Only Patrick Mahomes and Gardner Minshew fared better beyond 20 yards than Cousins (121.5), who tossed 10 touchdowns and one pick in that range.

Led first game-winning drive as a Viking in historic comeback against Broncos in Week 11. Threw for 261 yards and three touchdowns after facing a 20-0 deficit at halftime.Cousins thrives as a rhythm passer, so one key in replacing Stefanski as a play caller next season will be deploying hurry-up sequences as well as they did in games like Denver. The no-huddle offense was a primary halftime adjustment in that win. Led his second game-winning drive as a Viking during the NFC wild-card playoff win in New Orleans.

QB Sean Mannion (N/A) —Signed a one-year contract in free agency with a $90,000 signing bonus as cheap depth and veteran eyes for Cousins on the sideline. Like Cousins in Washington, Mannion played for Rams head coach Sean McVay, so they shared a strong understanding of the offense and talked through the concepts via multiple ‘terminologies,’ whether Kubiak’s or McVay’s. Played 54 snaps [5.2%], including five kneel downs and his second NFL start in the meaningless season finale vs. the Bears. Put in a tough spot against Bears starters while he essentially led the Vikings’ No. 2 offense. Completed 12-of-21 passes [57%] for 126 yards and two picks, one tipped into the air by running back Mike Boone. Turns 28 in April. Pending free agent.

QB Jake Browning (N/A) —In the NFL’s arms race (known as college free agency) immediately after the draft, the Vikings ponied up by guaranteeing $140,000 to sign Washington product Jake Browning as competition with Kyle Sloter for the No. 3 job. The Vikings gave Sloter the lion’s share of preseason reps, but decided to keep Browning as a practice squad project. Browning attempted just 13 passes in exhibitions, completing 10 for 64 yards and a pick. Turns 24 in April.

Vikings coaching moves: Edwards could go to Dallas, another assistant gone

According to a NFL source, receivers coach Drew Petzing will not return for the 2020 season, ending his time in Minnesota after six seasons. Petzing became the wide receivers coach in 2019 after assisting with the quarterback position the previous year. His departure means the Vikings will have their third receivers coach in four years, and their fourth in Mike Zimmer’s tenure. Petzing came to Minnesota as part of Norv Turner’s first offensive staff in 2014, and stayed on to work for Pat Shurmur, John DeFilippo and Kevin Stefanski (who worked with Petzing in the quarterback room in 2018 and could end up adding Petzing to his staff in Cleveland).

Speaking of Stefanski, defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, who was not retained in Minnesota after his contract expired at the end of the 2019, could have an option to join the Packers’ staff rather than landing in Cleveland. Stefanski has been pursuing former Vikings defensive backs coach Joe Woods — who is currently the DB coach and passing game coordinator in San Francisco — though the 49ers’ spot in the Super Bowl and their desire to keep Woods in the event Robert Saleh gets a head coaching job next season could complicate matters. The Browns’ defensive staff likely won’t be finalized until after the Super Bowl, but it’s possible the team will keep defensive backs coach DeWayne Walker instead of bringing in Gray.

Former Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards, who interviewed with the Cowboys on Wednesday, has a chance to join Dallas’ staff; the Cowboys hired Mike Nolan to be their defensive coordinator, but Edwards could land with the team in a different capacity.

Coaches with expiring contracts are typically bound to their teams until 10 days after the completion of the season; the Vikings’ season ended on Jan. 11, meaning coaches like Edwards and Gray were officially free to look elsewhere on Wednesday.

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