Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer made a radio appearance at the NFL Combine on Thursday and went to bat for his quarterback.
After a poor finish to the season that cost the Vikings a playoff spot, Kirk Cousins entered the offseason an unpopular figure in fan circles, despite having his best statistical season. Untimely turnovers and below-average play in big games marred his first season as the Vikings’ franchise quarterback, which led to ample offseason turnover on the coaching staff. Minnesota will go into 2019 with Kevin Stefanski as the full-time offensive coordinator, new tight end, offensive line and wide receiver coaches and a former Super Bowl-winning consultant, of sorts, in Gary Kubiak.
Zimmer stated his belief on KFAN Radio that Year 2 with his $84 million quarterback will be different.
“Every free agent that I’ve ever had since I’ve been coaching has always played much much better his second year,” Zimmer said. “Part of the reason for that is they’ve got to find a place to live, they’ve got to find out where the bathroom is in the building, they’ve got to find out how to run this, different terminology, new players.”
There are myriad reasons why players might improve in second seasons with new teams. As Zimmer points out, first-year distractions and confidence in scheme can play a part. Teams can also re-craft their playbooks to accentuate what those newer players do best, as they ostensibly are trying to do with Cousins, who will be returning to terminology he’s more familiar with thanks to the influence of Kubiak.
It’s worth investigating, though, whether Zimmer’s claim is accurate: that his free agents universally have improved after one year with the team. Let’s take a look back at major Vikings free agents during Zimmer’s tenure that have played multiple seasons with the team.
*Grades based on players with 50 percent of snaps
Riley Reiff (2017 PFF Grade: 37th | 2018 PFF Grade: 22nd)
Mike Remmers (2017 PFF Grade: 26th | 2018 PFF Grade: 36th)
The two big free agents the Vikings brought in to stabilize their offensive line in 2017 were part of a huge step back in 2018. Of course, a new quarterback who was less mobile and a new offensive coordinator — who eventually got fired — had something to do with that.
In Reiff’s case, he actually improved analytically despite allowing more pressures in fewer games (42 in 13 games against 37 in 15 games). His 2017 may have been overrated because of Case Keenum’s incredible escapability in the pocket, and his 2018 may have been underrated because of Cousins’ statuesque pocket presence. We’ll call it a wash.
Remmers took a significant step back in 2018 when the team moved him to guard. After being charged with zero sacks in 2017, he allowed seven last year from the inside. His future with the team is murky, especially if the team invests in interior offensive linemen in the draft.
Latavius Murray didn’t meet the snaps criteria in 2018.
Alex Boone (2016 PFF Grade: 43rd | 2017: Cut)
There was really only one high-profile free-agent acquisition in 2016 who was supposed to stick around for multiple seasons, but Boone didn’t last far beyond his first year with the Vikings.
Boone was hit-or-miss in his first season at left guard, and his brash personality may have become a problem in the Vikings’ locker room. With performance that wasn’t good enough to make the team accept a potential headache, the Vikings cut ties with Boone before the 2017 season.
Terence Newman (2015 PFF Grade: 39th | 2016 PFF Grade: 7th)
The Vikings opted to cut Newman’s snaps a bit during the 2016 season, and it seemed to pay dividends as the veteran corner and Zimmer protege put together a great second season with the team. Newman was charged with 734 yards in coverage his first year with the Vikings, but that dropped to 245 in Year 2. His passer rating against went down from 86 to 62.
Linval Joseph (2014 PFF Grade: 21st | 2015 PFF Grade: 4th)
Captain Munnerlyn (2014 PFF Grade: 42nd | 2015 PFF Grade: 15th)
Tom Johnson (2014 PFF Grade: 44rd | 2015 PFF Grade: 60th)
Here are the some of the more notable examples in favor of Zimmer’s argument.
Joseph had his first year in Minnesota interrupted early by a rogue bullet that struck him in the leg at a nightclub and slowed him down early in the season. After a rocky first year in purple, he become one of the most underrated run-stoppers in football and signed a contract extension in 2017. In his case, first-year distractions were very much a factor.
Munnerlyn admitted that he did some “freelancing” as an outside corner in 2014, but once the team moved him exclusively inside he become a reliable presence in the slot for the next two seasons. His passer rating against went down from 104.4 in Year 1 to 90 in Year 2 as he played a big part in the Vikings’ division championship.
Johnson was a remarkable late free-agency find in 2014 as he notched 6.5 sacks in a rotational role. He increased his reps in 2015, which exposed him more against the run and lowered his analytical grade. That being said, he remained a vital complement to Joseph and Sharrif Floyd in the interior of the defensive line.
If there’s a lesson here, it’s that Zimmer knows how to coach up defensive players. Whether through the draft or in free agency, the defensive-guru coach has a track record of getting them to play at a higher level after a year in the system.
But with offensive players, there is less proof of Year 2 improvement, and the source of the original statement was Cousins — an offensive player.
Time will tell whether the Vikings’ offseason adjustments are what it takes to get Cousins to turn the corner. They’ve reworked the coaching staff; now to the offensive line…
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