For the Vikings front office and coaching staff, there was a big benefit in how they were able to evaluate Kirk Cousins both on film and in person.
The Vikings faced Washington in each of the past two seasons and saw their new quarterback up close. In 2017, he completed 26 of 45 passes for 327 yards with one touchdown and one interception in a game the visiting Vikings won 38-30. Cousins — whose lone interception wound up being a big play in that game, as the Vikings turned it into a touchdown late in the first half for a 28-17 lead — also ran for two touchdowns in that game.
In 2016 at U.S. Bank Stadium, Cousins outdueled Sam Bradford in a 26-20 victory that sent the Vikings to 5-4 on the season. Cousins finished 22-for-33 for 262 yards and two scores. Bradford threw for more yards but this time he was the one with the costly interception, while Cousins did not turn the ball over.
But perhaps as important as those matchups was the fact that newly hired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo saw Cousins the past two seasons with NFC East rival Philadelphia. The Redskins won both meetings in 2016 and the Eagles won both in 2017.
Cousins posted a 94.1 passer rating over those four contests. He combined to throw for 1,040 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer talked Thursday about how DeFilippo’s experience helped the team’s decisionmaking.
“It did, some, he got to see him in person several times, as we did. We played him the last two years,” Zimmer said. “We did our due diligence and watched all of his games, watched all of his throws. We sat down and saw all of his strengths and where we feel like we can continue to get him better. We’re just very fortunate to have him.”
System to fit Cousins
Zimmer has had six starting quarterbacks in his first four years coaching the Vikings, and he said in that time, he has learned when it comes to game-planning, the offense has to fit around the quarterback, not the other way around.
He said that he doesn’t envision the Vikings offense looking drastically different with Cousins under center instead of Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater or Case Keenum.
“I don’t think it’s going to change a lot, but it’s always been our philosophy that we’re going to do what the quarterback does well,” Zimmer said. “The offense revolves around the quarterback. It’s important for us that the things he does the best are the things we’re going to do.”
Zimmer said that from what he has heard from his players, there isn’t going to be any issue with bringing in a new QB, despite the popularity of the signal callers who were here the past two seasons.
“The ones I have talked to have been all in about it,” Zimmer said. “They’re excited. Players are happy to get more good players in and they’re always looking to get better and win games.”
In his three seasons as a starter in Washington, Cousins has put up the kind of quarterback numbers that NFL teams dream of.
And while the idea of a guaranteed $84 million, which Cousins will get over three years, might seem risky, there’s no doubt he has proved to be one of the most productive QBs in the league.
From 2015 to 2017, Cousins ranked fourth in the NFL in passing yards with 13,176, trailing New Orleans’ Drew Brees, the Chargers’ Philip Rivers and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan. Cousins’ 81 passing touchdowns ranked eighth overall and his 67.0 completion percentage ranked second, behind Brees, for quarterbacks with at least 40 starts.
It’s not that the Vikings haven’t had great quarterback play recently, but the chance to get a free-agent quarterback as productive as Cousins, at 29 years old, is a situation the Vikings haven’t had before.
Zimmer said that while Cousins isn’t necessarily a huge step up from Bradford, Bridgewater or Keenum, the Michigan State product does all the things you want from a quarterback.
“Kirk has done a great job throughout his time there of moving his eyes in the pocket, moving defenders with his eyes, he has done a great job in scanning the field and going to his second and third reads. He has been extremely accurate. One of the most accurate guys out there,” Zimmer said. “He is a nimble guy that can move and move in the pocket. He can do all of the zone reads and he can do pretty much anything that you like. He is terrific in play-action, he’s terrific in the naked game, the boot game, and he’s an accurate kid. He’s a first-class person, and he’ll fit in really well with our locker room.”
Health will be key
There has long been an adage in pro football that availability is as important as productivity.
The Vikings have seen that firsthand under Zimmer. He loved the play of both Bradford and Bridgewater, but neither one was able to stay healthy. Their injuries sent the Vikings scrambling for replacements at the start of two different, championship-caliber seasons.
With Cousins, the hope is that the ability he showed in making all 49 starts, including the playoffs, for Washington over the past three seasons will stay the same for the Vikings over the next three.
“That is true. You know we’ve had some issues here with the quarterback not playing some games throughout the course of my time, anyway,” Zimmer said. “Availability is very important.”
Only six quarterbacks have started every possible regular-season game over the past three seasons: Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, Seattle’s Russell Wilson, Rivers, Ryan and Cousins.
Zimmer said earlier this offseason that he doesn’t want to view the Vikings as having a championship window, but instead having a long stretch of time where they can challenge for a Super Bowl.
With Cousins in tow, the hope has to be that this is going to bring the offense to a consistent level with the defense and give the Vikings stability on that side of the ball that they haven’t seen in a decade.
Zimmer said coaches can’t start working with Cousins for the time being, but they already are counting down the days. They have to wait until April 16.
When that date comes, the Vikings will start a new era with the highest-paid player in team history. The expectations will be sky high.