Remember Fran Tarkenton? Probably not, because he was the last quarterback to lead the Minnesota Vikings to the final game of the season – back in January 1977. Minnesota nearly parlayed a real-life miracle into a finals appearance during the 2018 playoffs, but the team fell tragically short when Case Keenum was utterly outplayed by fellow backup Nick Foles, who went on to earn Super Bowl MVP.
Vikings fanatics have struggled through a generation of frustration at the quarterback position, including the disappointing saga of Sam Bradford. Kirk Cousins received a big free agent payday after Washington refused to invest long-term, giving the Vikings a genuine Pro Bowl quarterback.
Will Cousins help to establish an elite Minnesota offense in 2018, or will the Vikings need to revert to another season of elite defense propping a prehistoric offensive scheme?
Kirk Cousins’ Time To Shine
After a tough start to his career backing up Robert Griffin III, Kirk Cousins wasted no time stepping up into a starting role during three years in Washington. Similar to most ownership groups, Washington didn’t want to commit to a large contract with Cousins. Instead, the franchised offered one-year terms, a subtle slight against one of the most consistent pivots in the league.
Kirk’s been an ironman as a starter, taking the opening snap in 48 consecutive matches between 2015 and 2017. During this time, he cut his interception percentage by half while throwing an average of 27 touchdowns per season. He was named to the 2016 Pro Bowl but regressed slightly under the moribund schemes of Washington.
Case Keenum performed admirably after Sam Bradford missed the season with a busted knee. Keenum completed 67.6% of his passes, including a low 1.5 interception percentage in 15 games last season. A safe plan under coach Zimmer and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur put Keenum in a terrific position to success, but he only threw only 22 TDs and an average of 236 yards per game. He also gifted the Eagles an NFC Championship.
Cousins will be expected to boost overall numbers in terms of air production, allowing the run-heavy Vikings to stretch the field. Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph should enjoy executing routes for a QB who will hit them downfield, while Kirk will appreciate receivers who create more separation than he’s witnessed with Washington.
Make no mistake – ownership considered Kirk Cousins to final piece to the puzzle. Signing Trevor Siemian was a formality. Cousins will be expected to mesh well with his elite receivers, powering the Vikings past the division rival Packers. Hidden among the waves of hype is the fact that the rest of the offense already features elite contributors.
Viking Rushers Will Benefit From Cousins
When opposing defenses don’t need to worry too much about long gains, coordinators leverage this weakness to squeeze space like a boa constrictor. Minnesota was no slouch in terms of points production, earning 23.9 PPG, good enough for top ten in the NFL. This was sufficient to win football games under the stingiest defense in the league.
Jerick McKinnon packed up his cleats and signed with the 49ers, but former Pro Bowl running back Latavius Murray will once again lead ground production after fighting through a physically challenging season. Murray has the ability to receive at a high level, which will create numerous options for offensive coordinator John DeFillippo.
Replacing McKinnon will be phenom Dalvin Cook, who provided agonizingly brief glimpses of his true potential.
If his repaired knee holds up, he could enjoy a breakout season for the Vikings, adding another weapon in the backfield. Fantasy NFL GMs should take note of this potential steal, especially if he ends up taking Murray’s reps due to injury or inefficiency.
The Vikings complied the second most rushing attempts last year, finishing seventh in rushing TDs and yardage. A high volume of attempts tends to breed predictability, which limited Minnesota to 23rd worst in the league in rushing yards per attempt. Good thing the defense allowed the second least number of yards rushing, creating an important net positive.
During the 2018 season, a new scheme will likely feature fewer rushing attempts, along with a greater variety of new looks for opposing defenders. This should improve efficiency on the ground, mostly due to extra space afforded by the threat of a modern passing game. Frankly, Cook could be the biggest beneficiary of Kirk Cousins joining the Vikings.
Elite Receivers Will Enjoy Career Years
Part of the reason why Adam Thielen earned a Pro Bowl nod would be his ability to provide an easy target for a mediocre pivot. Thielen worked to create separation against tight coverage to become the top target on the team, receiving 79.8 yards per game at an impressive 14.0 yards per reception. A slight dip in catch percentage reflected his increased usage, with Adam hauling in a career-best 91 receptions.
If Stephon Diggs didn’t suffer injury last season, he could’ve easily joined Thielen as a Pro Bowl receiver. In 14 games, Diggs caught 8 TDs and accumulated 849 yards receiving, turning into the Vikings premier red zone weapon. Cousins should be able to make use of Diggs sheer speed and athleticism more than Keenum. With all due respect to Thielen, Diggs could turn into Minnesota’s top receiver.
Let’s not ignore the Vikings Pro Bowl tight end Kyle Rudolph, who put up 8 receiving TDs of his own, combining soft hands with intelligent cuts and rock-solid blocking. Kyle’s another ironman, suiting up in every match for three consecutive seasons.
Considering the fantastic lineup of receivers Cousins will work with, there’s a good chance that the Vikings will now boast a competent, modern multi-faceted attack.
Vikings Offense Has Little Time To Gel
A solid new quarterback, a strong running game and a terrific group of receivers – on paper, there’s no reason for anything to go wrong. Unlike teams which have faced adversity together, Kirk Cousins will not have the luxury of getting to know his team before fulfilling expectations.
The start of the season will hit hard and fast. Minnesota can’t underestimate the 49ers, while the Packers, Rams and Eagles will follow shortly after, filling the Vikings first five weeks with a trio of fellow championship contenders. A slow start and disappointing efforts against clubs like Buffalo and San Francisco could create an 0-5 record, which would all but doom Minnesota to a painful finish.
Fortunately, the schedule isn’t all bad. A week ten bye will help the team recharge for a relatively weak back half of the schedule. Their Thursday game takes place early in the season, allowing for nearly two weeks of preparation for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Minnesota surviving the first five weeks will go a long way for the rest of the season, allowing the offense to gel. As usual, the Vikings stalwart defense will be counted upon to smooth the transition between an old, boring offense and a new attack which promises excitement not witnessed in a decade.