Alright let’s get this out of the way — I was wrong about Kirk Cousins. I’m not afraid to admit I was ecstatic when the Vikings first landed him. I thought that his presence at quarterback combined with Minnesota’s already stellar roster would immediately make the Vikings Super Bowl contenders.
As it turned out, they weren’t even a playoff team. At least not this season…
Seen as an accurate pocket passer with a strong deep ball and an impressive résumé, Cousins was supposed to be the Vikings’ surest option at quarterback last offseason. The Vikings knew he wasn’t an elusive, throw-on-the-run specialist like Case Keenum, but if signing Cousins meant stabilizing the team’s most uncertain position, the front office was willing to take that risk.
So far, that risk has not paid off. Now obviously we’re only one year into his three-year deal, but following an extremely disappointing 2018 season, I believe it’s fair to ponder whether or not Cousins is truly the Vikings’ quarterback of the future.
Statistically, Cousins had one of the best seasons for a quarterback in team history. He completed 425 of 606 passes (70.1%) for 4,298 yards with 30 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. His 425 completions are a single-season franchise record. His 70.1% completion rate was second-best in the NFL and is second only to Sam Bradford‘s team record (71.6% in 2016).
Also, per the team’s official website, Cousins became the first player in NFL history to throw for 4,000-plus yards, complete more than 70 percent of his passes and throw at least 30 touchdowns with 10 or fewer interceptions. He proved to be durable as well, becoming the first Vikings quarterback since Teddy Bridgewater in 2015 to start all 16 games.
With Cousins under center, eight Vikings had ten or more receptions. His top two receivers combined for 215 receptions for 2,394 yards and 18 touchdowns while his tight end caught 64 passes for 634 yards and 4 TD’s.
But Cousins also displayed alarming weaknesses. Cousins had nine fumbles, the most batted down passes in the league, and some costly interceptions. Yet perhaps the most concerning development, other than the Vikings missing the playoffs, was the fact Cousins continued to struggle in big moments and against top competition.
Choosing Cousins may have been viewed as the safest choice at the time, but he was never considered a sure thing. Before he was signed, analysts such as VT’s Nick Olson pointed out concerns with the 30 year-old, including his lack of pocket presence as well as a recurring tendency to randomly make poor decisions. Unfortunately, Cousins displayed plenty of each in 2018.
We also saw things boil over as the Vikings’ playoffs hopes were being destroyed by the Chicago Bears in Week 17. Cousins and wide receiver Adam Thielen were seen jawing at each other on the sidelines as their frustrations culminated on national TV. The two players predictably dismissed any negative reports surrounding the conversation after the game, but it makes you wonder how long tension was building behind the scenes.
“You have to figure out how to quickly get on the same page and try to help your team win,” Thielen said after the game. “Doesn’t matter what obstacles you have, doesn’t matter the changes, you have to make it work, and we weren’t able to do that this year.”
The “C” word
Down the stretch it became clear that whatever chemistry Case Keenum formed with the team last season, Kirk Cousins was unable to develop this year. As minor as that may seem, it could be a major factor why the team was able to make a run in the playoffs with Keenum and conversely fumbled away the postseason with Cousins.
I thought Matthew Coller of SKOR North summed up Cousins quite well on Tuesday.
“When you go back to his scouting reports coming out of college… It’s always been very good with him on a lot of things and then very short on other things. It’s not like its average leadership, it’s well below in terms of relating to other players. And it’s not that he just sometimes makes plays off script, it’s that he never makes plays off script. Some of those shortcomings are what I think causes him to win 8-9 games every year.”
“First year, new system, new quarterback, new receivers. Everybody’s new,” Diggs said. “Still gotta adjust… We could be really special. And doing it on a consistent basis is something that’s going to come with time. You can look forward to time. It’s not working against us, it’s working with us.”
If Cousins is going to get better with time, he’ll need more of it when working from the pocket.
He needs a better offensive line
Both supporters and non-supporters of Cousins seem to agree that the Vikings need to adequately protect their asset to receive the expected return on investment.
Unfortunately, the offensive line is the team’s biggest liability. Minnesota’s unit ranked 29th in 2018 according to Pro Football Focus.
“A top-notch offensive line can only control what they do in pass protection; they can’t help a quarterback with his accuracy, arm strength, toughness, pocket presence or awareness… The notion that strong offensive line play directly correlates with strong quarterback play is simply unquantifiable based on numbers alone.”
So while it’s easy to assume that with better offensive line play Cousins will be a better quarterback, it’s no guarantee. Now I’m playing devil’s advocate here because I clearly want to see Cousins succeed, but building a solid offensive line has proven to be a tough task in Minnesota.
There’s a lesson to be learned by reviewing what worked in 2017. Keenum had success behind a similarly poor offensive line in part because of scheme and in part because of chemistry, but mainly due to his mobility and his ability to escape pressure and make plays outside of the pocket. Cousins simply doesn’t have those attributes in his skill set.
So why not get someone who does?
This may not be the greatest draft class for quarterbacks, but there’s quite a few prospects that could peak the Vikings’ interest in the early rounds of April’s NFL Draft. They include:
Kyler Murray (5-10, 200) Oklahoma: Murray was the Heisman Trophy winner in 2018. He’s an incredible two-sport athlete who, for now, is committed to football. And NFL teams are giddy. Murray, 21, is drawing many comparisons to Russell Wilson. Because of that, I fully expect a team to give up a ton of draft capital to move up and select him with a top-5 pick. As Matthew Coller suggested, the Vikings should keep a close eye on Murray in the pre-draft process. But unless they want to be the team that gives away the farm to move up, there’s not much of a chance of Minnesota landing Murray.
Dwayne Haskins (6-3, 220) Ohio State: Haskins threw 50 touchdowns in 14 games last season. As the only quarterback given a first-round grade by draft analyst Jordan Reid, Haskins will likely be long gone if the Vikings stay put at pick #18. He has incredible footwork and pocket presence and though he’s known as a pocket passer, he can be an effective rusher when needed. He’s truly an incredible prospect whose play reminds this writer of Teddy Bridgewater.
Daniel Jones (6-5, 220) Duke: Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus compared Jones to Nick Foles. Jones, who won the Senior Bowl MVP, is a surprisingly strong runner for a tall guy. In three college seasons he rushed for over 1,300 yards and 17 touchdowns. He still has work to do to become a more consistent passer, but he has a knack for delivering big-time strikes while under pressure. Still, the thought of the Vikings drafting someone named Daniel scares me.
Drew Lock (6-3, 228) Missouri: Lock has the prototypical size and arm strength to be a first-round pick. More of a vertical passer, he received praise from PFF for improving throughout his college career, especially with his accuracy and connecting on throws outside of the pocket. He needs to work on footwork, but Lock had 99 touchdowns compared to only 39 interceptions during his four years as a Tiger, and had six rushing TD’s last season to boot.
Ryan Finley (6-3, 210) N.C. State: Finley has been labeled by scouts as an accurate passer who also has the ability to be an effective scrambler. The 24 year-old has a skill set that’s been compared to that of Ryan Tannehill. Projected as a mid-round pick, Finley could be an option for the Vikings if his age and arm strength don’t scare them away. He’s been labeled as one of the most pro-ready prospects in the draft.
Will Grier (6-2, 221) West Virginia: Grier has already been linked to the Vikings by NFL Draft insider Benjamin Allbright. That clearly doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, but it’s an interesting development nevertheless. Grier has been criticized for not playing in his team’s bowl game, as well as not having an NFL arm, but his accuracy and touch on the ball are skills that can’t be taught. That being said, he’s not much of a runner. Putting Grier behind Minnesota’s 2018 offensive line would have been a recipe for disaster. The 23 year-old is expected to be drafted within the first few rounds.
- Gardner Minshew (6-2, 220) Washington State
- Jarrett Stidham (6-3, 215) Auburn
- Clayton Thorson (6-4, 227) Northwestern
- Kyle Shurmur (6-4, 225) Vanderbilt
- Tyree Jackson (6-7, 245) Buffalo
- Brett Rypien (6-2, 205) Boise State
- Easton Stick (6-2, 221) North Dakota State
Not many holes on the roster
In a few short weeks the front office will begin reshaping the roster. Depending on what happens in early March during in-house free agency, there could be very few holes on the Vikings’ depth chart. Aside from addressing the offensive line and potentially a position or two on defense, the franchise is a long ways away from rebuilding mode.
So what’s the hurry to draft a quarterback this year?
Well for one, why wait? It’s always best to have a plan in place when it comes to roster turnover. Take the Vikings’ offensive line, for example. Things can go bad quickly when you’re forced to address major needs with expensive UFAs rather than drafting and developing players.
Also, consider Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who sat for not two, but three seasons behind Brett Favre before finally receiving an opportunity to start. I’m not saying there’s a Rodgers in this draft, but providing proper seasoning to a promising prospect certainly can’t hurt his development.
Furthermore, as Matthew Coller pointed out, taking a QB this year will prevent a desperate situation in the future, like trading assets to move up to the top of the draft.
The Vikings have only drafted one quarterback since 2012 (Teddy Bridgewater in 2014). With playoff teams like the Los Angeles Rams, Kansas City Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens all successfully building rosters around rookie QB contracts, the Vikings should follow suit in preparation of Cousins’ expiring contract.
Backup backup (tell me what you gonna do now)
When the Vikings hired Gary Kubiak and company, the chances of Trevor Siemian returning went up. Slightly. Kubiak was head coach of the Broncos when Siemian was drafted in 2015 and also chose him as the starter over Brock Osweiler in 2016.
However, with the presence of Kyle Sloter, an intriguing 25 year-old, there’s not much need to keep Siemian around. He could be back for the right price, but the coaches may see enough potential in Sloter to move forward with him as the backup and draft his competition.
Speaking of Sloter, let’s talk about him for a minute. I’m a big fan of his and I believe he’s shown enough promise to earn more opportunities, but he has a ways to go before he’s starting material. Not saying it won’t happen, but he needs to find whatever focus he has during in-game situations and apply it to practice if the coaches are going to take him seriously.
QB Kyle Sloter showing a trend today: He’s either spot on with his throws or way off #Vikings
— Sean Borman (@SeanBoarMan) August 3, 2018
Cheaper than a free agent
Drafting a quarterback this offseason, while the team is up against the cap, is a more economical move than signing a free agent backup. Here’s a look at notable free quarterbacks and their 2018 cap hits, per OverTheCap.com:
- Brock Osweiler: $720K
- Ryan Fitzpatrick: $3.3 million
- Teddy Bridgewater: $6 million
- Josh McCown: $10 million
- Nick Foles: $13.6 million
- Tyrod Taylor: $16 million
Considering the price it could take to sign a decent free agent backup, the cap savings alone from drafting a QB could be substantial. And even if Cousins turns out to be the long-term answer, developing another quarterback behind him could create trade opportunities down the road.
Another case for Case
News broke Wednesday that the Baltimore Ravens agreed to trade Joe Flacco to the Broncos, meaning Case Keenum is likely on his way out of Denver. While chances are incredibly slim that Cousins is traded and Keenum is brought back, I believe it would behoove the Vikings to, at the very least, explore the possibility of a Keenum reunion.
It’s easy to say in hindsight, but moving on from the mobile Keenum may have been a miscalculation. Maybe he deserved an encore opportunity. Perhaps he was the best person for the job considering the circumstances. Maybe he was the one that masked the line’s weaknesses and brought it all together. Maybe…
As it stands now, the Vikings paid a premium for damaged goods.
With Cousins’ no-trade clause, Keenum would have to settle for a backup role near the league minimum. Considering that, a reunion seems highly unlikely. And even if this Mike Florio hypothetical somehow played out, drafting a quarterback to develop behind Keenum and Sloter would still be a wise decision.
When you consider all the “marquee” moves the Vikings made last offseason, not all of them lived up to expectations. Sure, Danielle Hunter and Stefon Diggs had career years after signing extensions and Sheldon Richardson made a positive impact, but other moves turned out to be duds. Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo was fired after Week 14, Eric Kendricks was nonexistent through first half of the season and drafting kicker Daniel Carlson in the fifth round turned out to be… well, no bueno (not good).
While its common knowledge that personnel decisions frequently fail in the NFL, the Vikings are now stuck having to get the most out of a player they’ve already committed a bunch of money to. With cap hits of $29 million and $31 million the next two seasons the Vikings are gambling that he’ll take his game to the next level with improved offensive line play.
Drafting a quarterback may seem counterintuitive (because it’s not an offensive lineman), but ownership has to think long-term as well. Cousins turns 31 on August 19th. He has two years and $60 million left on his fully guaranteed deal.
Will he be able to up his game with a new o-line and new scheme under Stefanski and Kubiak? What happens if Cousins doesn’t get better with an improved offensive line? What will they do if the prized possession starts to suddenly depreciate in value? Rather than sitting back and waiting to see what happens, the Vikings should draft a quarterback THIS APRIL as a way of ensuring success for the long haul.