The $150 million question: Is Kirk Cousins worth it?

Image courtesy of Redskins.com

Kirk Cousins is poised to become the highest-paid player in NFL history this offseason because quarterbacks of his caliber simply don’t ever hit free agency.

But will he be worth it?

I went back and re-watched every snap Cousins played in 2017, made over 200 gifs, and looked into just about every statistic out there to get to the very bottom of that question, once and for all.

Any way you slice his stats, Cousins comes out shining.

That’s true of the box score stats…

Cousins statistical production has been outstanding for three years in a row now, with an average passer rating of 97.6 over the past three years. That ranks sixth in the NFL over that same time frame—behind only Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers.

Over the past three years, Cousins ranks fourth in the NFL in total passing yards (averaging 4,400 per year), fourth in yards per attempt (7.8), 12th in TD%, 15th in INT% and third in completion percentage (67.0%).  So whether you’re looking for volume or efficiency, Cousins checks out with flying colors.

On top of the passing stats, Cousins has surprisingly impressive rushing stats: his 13 rushing touchdowns over the last three years ranks third in the NFL among all QBs, behind only Cam Newton (21) and Tyrod Taylor (14).

Maybe the only stat where Cousins doesn’t leap off the stat sheet is fumbles: in the past three years, Cousins actually leads the entire NFL in fumbles.  Some of those can be attributed to bad snaps from the center, but it’s maybe the only black mark on the stat sheet.

…As well as the advanced stats

Advanced stats are just as kind to Cousins.  ESPN’s QBR (which accounts for everything a QB does, including pass yards, rush yards, sacks, penalties, YAC, fumbles and more, all weighted by expected points added) ranks Cousins 6th in the NFL over the last three years, behind only Brady, Ryan, Rodgers, Roethlisberger and Brees.  The same is true of his DVOA.

Cousins also scores well in accuracy percentage (which adjusts completion percentage for drops, throwaways, etc.), where Cousins ranks 5th in the NFL over the past two years, behind only Drew Brees, Alex Smith, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan.

But Pro Football Focus’ grades and stats are more of a mixed bag…

Pro Football Focus grades don’t love Cousins, but they still like him: Cousins’ ranked 14th  in the NFL in 2015, 9th in 2016, and 20th in 2017, for an average PFF grade of 82.2, which would have ranked 15th in the NFL in 2017, between Matt Stafford and Jameis Winston.

Cousins’ “Big-Time Throw” Percentage (the percentage of very positively-graded throws) of 4.1% ranked only 24th in the NFL in 2017, while his turnover-worthy throw percentage of 3.6% ranked 22nd in 2017.  One way to interpret that is that he was somewhat conservative as a passer this year, but nevertheless did not take care of the ball particularly well.  Cousins has been more aggressive in the past, however, as his career Big-Time Throw Percentage of 4.7% would have ranked about 15th in 2017.

Cousins statistically does very well when throwing from a clean pocket—his passer rating when kept clean was 106.5 in 2017 (ranked 8th) and 107.2 in 2016 (which also ranked 8th).  However, Cousins struggles more than the average quarterback under pressure, as his passer rating drops 40 points when pressured—one of the ten biggest drops in the league.

In fact, Cousins led the entire NFL in interceptions under pressure (tied with Derek Carr and DeShone Kizer).  That, combined with his league-leading fumbles, may explain why his PFF grades don’t align with his box score stats.

…As are his statistical splits.

As good as Cousins box score stats are, they are much less impressive when you look at crucial quarterback situations like third down or crunch time.

Cousins’ 86.5 passer rating on third downs in 2017 is tied with Mike Glennon for 14th best in the NFL.  Washington’s 32.7% 1st-down percentage on third downs when passing ranked 8th worst in the NFL in 2017.

His 83.2 passer rating in crunch time (which I’m defining as the last five minutes of any game where the score is within 10 points) ranked 13th in the NFL in 2017.  (If you’d like to read more, Matthew Coller at 1500ESPN has a great article here.)

So where do the stats leave us?

It’s impossible to deny that Cousins’ statistical production has been outstanding, with the sixth-best QBR and sixth-best passer rating since he became Washington’s full time starter three years ago.  He moves the ball all over the field and puts up points in the air and on the ground, while by-and-large taking care of the football (outside of the fumbles).

But stats can be misleading.  Case Keenum, for example, had the second-highest completion percentage in the NFL in 2017, but anyone who watched him this year would probably admit that his ball placement could be pretty erratic.

Teasing out whether Washington’s powerhouse offense is a result of Cousins elevating the play of the guys around him or the result of his supporting cast buoying his stats requires more of a deep dive.

Cousins has had a great supporting cast…

The Pro Football Focus grades (and advanced stats) might suggest that maybe Cousins is more middle-of-the-road, and perhaps it’s his supporting cast that has made Washington’s offense so statistically dominant.

After all, over the past few years, Cousins has had one of the best supporting casts in football: he’s been throwing to one of the deepest receiving units in all of football, featuring DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garçon, Jordan Reed, Jamison Crowder, Josh Doctson, Vernon Davis, Ryan Grant and Chris Thompson (among others).

His offensive line includes studs like Trent Williams and Brandon Scherff, two of the best at their position in all of football.

Most of all, perhaps no quarterback in the NFL has had a bigger trove of coaching masterminds around him.  In Cousins’ first two years in Washington, his Offensive Coordinator was 2016 NFL Assistant Coach of the Year Kyle Shanahan.  In Cousins’ next three years in Washington, his Offensive Coordinator was 2017 NFL Coach of the Year Sean McVay.  And throughout his career, his head coach has been offensive guru Jay Gruden.  That’s three of the brightest offensive minds in all of football, all scheming their best to make Cousins into his best.

…But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t great himself.

However, that supporting cast has rarely been perfectly healthy.

The offensive line has suffered through multiple injuries—Trent Williams has missed a number of games over the past three years (with TJ Clemmings as his most recent backup), Shawn Lauvao has missed half of his games in the past three years, and there has been a total carousel at center, with five different guys playing the position for Washington in the past three years.

That’s caused chemistry and communication issues on top of the injuries: in 2017, the offensive line’s pass-blocking efficiency ranked 24th in the NFL.  They ranked 12th in 2016 when they were healthier, and had the thirteenth-best pass blocking grades from Pro Football Focus in 2015.  That’s solid, but hardly impressive.

The receivers have been a talented group, but they too have struggled with injuries—Jordan Reed can’t stay healthy; Chris Thompson and Terrelle Pryor each wound up on IR around midseason this past year; Josh Doctson effectively missed his entire rookie year; and DeSean Jackson wasn’t healthy for most of 2015.  And this past year, Washington let DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon walk to give more snaps to Josh Doctson and Ryan Grant.  Josh Doctson and Ryan Grant ranked 75th and 57th overall, respectively, by PFF grades, so it’s hard to say at least for 2017 that Cousins was surrounded by studs.

So maybe Cousins’ production is buoyed by the multiple coaches of the year, but there’s an argument that the players around him have never been healthy enough to discount the statistical production.

That leaves us with the tape.

What does the tape say?

I went back and re-watched every snap Cousins played in 2017 (as well as a number of games from 2015 and 2016) and have culled the plays (both good and bad) that best represent what you see from Cousins on film.  Presented below is a scouting “report card” that evaluates Cousins on the qualities and traits most essential for a quarterback to succeed in the NFL.

Cousins has solid, if not elite, accuracy.

Cousins throws the ball fairly accurately to the short and intermediate levels, and more often than not he will hit his receivers in stride with good ball placement that sets them up to run after the catch:

Cousins is by no means perfect, however, and he does whiff on the easier throws more often than you’d ideally like.  That’s true both on short, easy passes:

And often at the intermediate level too:

However, those misses at the short and intermediate levels are the exceptions, not the norm.  There are more than enough examples to show Cousins isn’t the most accurate QB in the world, but more than enough good examples that he’s pretty solid before the 20 yard line.

Beyond the 20 yard line, however, Cousins struggles.  His deep ball is below average, and he tends to overthrow the ball due to a lack of arm strength that he tries overcompensate for, leading to erratic accuracy:

There are plenty additional examples, but you get the idea.

(Note that those last two interceptions actually came back-to-back: the first overthrown interception was brought back on a challenge, but the very next play, Cousins did the exact same thing again: overthrew his TE on a vertical route for an INT.)

Still, while Cousins’ deep misses definitely outnumber the hits, he does have his fair share of deep ball highlights:

These throws were the exception, but they weren’t so rare that defenses could ignore the threat of Cousins’ deep ball.

What to make of all these plays?  Cousins may have one of the higher completion percentages in the NFL, but that number was boosted by a low average depth of target, which NFL’s Next Gen Stats ranked 28th out of 41 qualifying NFL QBs.  Cian Fahey, who charts every quarterback’s passing attempts, found that Cousins’ accuracy was average-to-below-average to every level of the field in 2016, and ranked between Case Keenum and Jay Cutler in 2017.

Personally, I found Cousins’ accuracy to be pretty good, but not great.  On shorter throws, he’s usually on the money, or if he misses, he doesn’t miss by much.  Throwing deep is not his strong suit, but it’s by no means a fatal flaw.  Overall, it’s solid.

Grade: B

Cousins has adequate arm strength.

If you ranked every quarterback in the NFL by how far and how fast they can zip the ball to their receivers, Cousins would probably rank towards the bottom of the list.  That’s not really a problem, though, because Cousins is perfectly capable of making every NFL throw, and he’s capable of throwing with at least some zip:

There are times, however, when Cousins’ limited arm strength negatively affects his quarterbacking, as on these plays:

The first three throws are into tight windows; a stronger arm could have rifled the ball in there a half-second earlier before the defender got to the ball.  The last throw is a bomb that perhaps shows where Cousins’ arm strength caps out, as the pass travels nearly 60 yards downfield but is still fairly underthrown.

I am tempted to grade arm strength as pass/fail, because Cousins has a good enough arm, and most of the time, that’s all that matters.  He can’t throw the ball into the same windows that Cam Newton or Sam Bradford or even Ryan Tannehill can, but you can decide for yourself how much that matters to you:

Grade: C-

Cousins’ worst attribute is his pocket presence.

The biggest reason Cousins leads the NFL in fumbles in the past three years is he consistently demonstrates a shocking lack of awareness in the pocket.  He regularly gets blindsided or strip sacked and doesn’t have a good feel for the impending pass rush:

His decisionmaking completely falls apart once he starts to feel pressure, and under pressure he’s liable to throw the ball straight to the other team:

Compounding the issue, Cousins’ throwing mechanics and footwork also go completely out the window once he starts to feel pressure — he’ll throw off his back foot, or while jumping backwards.  And he doesn’t have the ability to throw well from different platforms.  That leads to passes that are way off the mark, and often intercepted:

That explains why Cousins led the NFL in interceptions under pressure in 2017.

It’s not all bad, however, as Cousins is not afraid to take a big hit if it means a big gain, and he has a decent amount of athleticism and elusiveness to get away from rushers in the pocket on the occasions he sees the pass rush coming before it’s too late:

But sometimes that leads to Cousins seeing ghosts and bailing on clean pockets or running into sacks:

And sometimes Cousins just holds onto the ball way too long:

Overall, this is perhaps where Cousins struggles most.  Give Cousins a clean pocket and he can pick a defense apart, as he’s usually smart, careful, and accurate.  But if Cousins starts to feel pressure, he is liable to make some truly boneheaded decisions.  That helps explain why his passer rating drops so precipitously (over 40 points) when he’s under pressure.

Whatever team ends up with Cousins had better hope their offensive line can keep him clean and upright.

Grade: D

But Cousins is extremely good at making pre-snap reads.

Working for half a decade with Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay has molded Cousins into a smart, keen-eyed quarterback who can read a defense before the snap to make them pay after the snap.

Cousins is excellent reading if a defense is in man or zone based on the pre-snap alignment and how the defense reacts to motion:

Jay Gruden likes to use three receiver sets to one side of the field, in part to force the defense to hint if they are playing man coverage (in which case they will match up three defenders on that side of the field, often with CBs on WRs and LBs or safeties on TEs and RBs) or zone.

On the first play, Cousins reads man, knows his tight end is releasing inside, and thus should be open on a crossing route.  Post-snap he confirms his read and makes the play for a big pickup.

On the second play, Washington sends an RB out wide, and an LB moves to cover him.  So Cousins reads man and hits his underneath receiver on a pick play designed to beat man.

On the third play, Cousins reads cover-2 man, so as soon as he sees his TE start to win his seam route, he hits him for the touchdown right in the soft spot between the safeties’ zones.

On the fourth play, Cousins reads cover-2 zone, so he waits to see if the outermost corner defends the out route underneath or the fade route over the top.  As soon as the corner starts to commit underneath, Cousins throws the fade route for the open TD.

Cousins is even better at baiting a defense into showing blitz, then adjusting protections accordingly:

The first play may look like it’s the supporting cast doing all the work, but notice how, prior to the snap, Cousins lures the Raiders into showing blitz.  Once Cousins knows the blitz is coming, he resets the protection to pickup the bltiz coming from his left, and the protection picks up the blitz beautifully.  Cousins then throws right to the open space that the blitzers just vacated, and Chris Thompson only needs to outrun one man for the touchdown.

The second and third plays are similar: Cousins sets the protection, lures the defense into showing their cards, then resets the protection to pickup the blitz.  He doesn’t take advantage on the second play because his receiver runs into a defender, or on the third play because he throws off his back foot under pressure, but it’s a great pre-snap read nonetheless.

Cousins makes these kinds of reads all the time.  It’s a big part of what makes him so good from a clean pocket: he’s able to diagnose defenses prior to the snap, and come up with the perfect counterattack on the field.  You can credit Gruden or McVay for putting Cousins in a scheme with play calls that provide for those counterattacks, but you cannot deny that it’s Cousins making the reads on the field.

He’s not Tom Brady or Philip Rivers pre-snap, but it might not be an exaggeration to say he’s not that far off, either.

Grade: A-

After the snap, Cousins’ vision and decision-making is not quite as good.

Cousins is smart and regularly scans the full field to read the defense and work through his progressions.  He is not the fastest mental processor in the league, but his vision is plenty good enough:

Nevertheless, Cousins will occasionally make lapses in judgment or misread the field, and on rare occasions he will throw the ball straight to the defense even from a clean pocket:

There’s more good than bad here, but there’s definitely still plenty of bad.

Grade: B-

Extra Credit: Cousins isn’t a special athlete, but he can still punish teams on the ground.

Cousins doesn’t have game-changing athleticism, but he’s a good enough athlete that you can run plenty of bootlegs, read-options, and some QB runs.  He can’t outrun athletic edge players, but he can punish them with an unexpected read-option play, or pick up some extra production on a few scrambles:

Cousins’ athleticism isn’t something you would build your offense off of, but the flexibility to run read-options, RPOs and bootlegs plus some production on the ground is a nice added bonus.

Grading on a Curve?  How the playcalling and scheme set up Cousins for success.

There is no doubt Cousins has benefited from the coaches he’s played under, as Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay and Jay Gruden are three of the best offensive minds in football.  And it’s true that occasionally the scheme and play calling have set up Cousins for easy success:

Gruden’s offenses have been excellent setting up route combinations to clear space underneath, to stretch zones and to cause confusion, all of which can get receivers wide open and make a quarterback’s job a lot easier.

Washington also had an outstanding screen game, which inflated Cousins’ yardage:

Over half of Cousins’ passing yards came after the catch.  Chris Thompson caught the majority of his passes near the line of scrimmage, yet he managed to average over 13 yards per catch.

All that is not to say Cousins has had it easy or that his production should be dismissed: Cousins still had to make the throws, even if the receivers were sometimes more open than others.  But it may help to explain why Pro Football Focus graded Cousins as the 20th-best quarterback in the NFL despite his box score stats looking so impressive.

So where does the tape ultimately come down?

By this point, hopefully readers can begin to answer that question for themselves with the videos above.

I personally tend to agree with Pro Football Focus’ grade of about 20th best in the NFL or 15th best over the last three years.  Cousins is great pre-snap and can pick apart a defense from a clean pocket. His accuracy is solid. He can scan the entire field and has no problems executing a complex progression-based offense. But he completely melts down under pressure: he doesn’t sense pressure coming, and when he does, his mechanics fall apart and he’s liable to throw the ball straight to the defense. He doesn’t elevate the level of play of the players around him, and he needs a good supporting cast to excel.

If you redacted Cousins’ name from the above, that scouting report might as well be describing Andy Dalton, who also is a very good pre-snap quarterback with solid accuracy who can read the field and pick apart a defense from a clean pocket, but who greatly struggles under pressure.  Dalton was an MVP candidate in 2015 when he had arguably the NFL’s best supporting cast, but he’s since shown that he needs that level of supporting cast to excel.  So it is with Cousins.

Luckily, the Vikings have a good supporting cast.  In fact, Pro Football Focus graded it as the best supporting cast of any team in 2017.  So then the question becomes – is the quarterback profiled above worth it?

Is the Cousins on film and in the stat sheet worth $150 million?

Franchise quarterbacks are worth franchise money.  Inflation-adjusted starting quarterback compensation doesn’t vary tremendously – if a quarterback is deemed franchise quality, they will be paid about the same as any other franchise quarterback, whether it’s Aaron Rodgers or Joe Flacco.

One way to examine whether Cousins will earn his contract is to ask: what’s the opportunity cost for not signing him?  What else could a franchise do with the $150 million they would otherwise be paying Cousins?  The answer is probably: paying another quarterback.

If either Sam Bradford or Teddy Bridgewater were to sign a one-year “prove it” deal, and then go out and “prove it,” they would likely end up being paid about the same as Kirk Cousins, just one year later.  Their one-year “prove it” contract wouldn’t be a special bargain, since it would be priced to reflect the risk inherent in their questionable health and play.

Still, Cousins could command an unusually high salary as a function of the free agency auction process, which drives up demand and thereby wages.  So if Cousins were to cost $30 million per year, and Bradford or Bridgewater were to cost a Mike-Glennon-esque $19 million per year, one way to evaluate the decision is to ask yourself: Would you rather have Teddy Bridgewater or Sam Bradford or Case Keenum at QB and all-pro guard Andrew Norwell starting on the offensive line?  Or Kirk Cousins, throwing behind Nick Easton and Danny Isidora?

Ultimately, the question again boils down to whether you believe Kirk Cousins is a franchise quarterback worth franchise money.

Conclusion

The Kirk Cousins on the box score stat sheet certainly looks the part of a franchise quarterback.  But the film and Pro Football Focus grades make you wonder how reliable the stat sheet might be.

There is an argument based on the stat sheet that Cousins has statistically been a top-ten quarterback consistently for years now.  His QBR and passer rating both rank sixth in the NFL since he became a starter, and his total passing yards, yards per attempt, combined passing and rushing touchdowns, and completion percentage all rank top five.

>But there is also an argument based on his Pro Football Focus grades and film that he’s not even a top fifteen quarterback: without Sean McVay and a healthy offensive line in 2017, Pro Football Focus graded him as only the 20th best quarterback in the NFL.  And if you actually compare Cousins’ grades to the Vikings’ in house options, his average PFF grade from 2015-17 is actually lower than Teddy Bridgewater’s average from 2014-15, and it’s lower than Sam Bradford’s average from 2015-16, and it’s lower than Case Keenum’s grade from 2017.

So whether Cousins is worth a nine-figure paycheck ultimately comes down to how you evaluate quarterbacks.  If you trust the box score stats, then load up the brink trucks full of cash and don’t look back.  If you rely more on film and trust PFF, maybe let another team take the risk.  And if you can’t make up your mind, be glad that our front office can – and will – in just a couple short weeks.