Can Kirk Cousins Realistically Improve on His 2019 Season?

Photo Credit: Kelley L. Cox (USA Today Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings made a commitment to quarterback Kirk Cousins this offseason that reflected their belief in Cousins’ ability, not only to sustain the level of performance he demonstrated in 2019, but to improve upon it.

And a pricey commitment it was. Cousins inked an extension worth $66 million, keeping him with the team through 2022 when he’ll be 34 years old.

“I don’t see him taking a step back,” head coach Mike Zimmer said this offseason. “I see him continuing to ascend.”

As history shows us, however, ascending from what Cousins did last year will be difficult to accomplish. In one sense, it would be tough to exceed the expectations placed on Cousins entering the 2018 season, when he was thought to be the missing piece separating the Vikings from a surefire Super Bowl. But now that the defense has arguably taken a step back with numerous key departures, a greater burden falls on Cousins’ shoulders: He’ll likely need to carry an offense that is no longer supplemented by one of the league’s stingiest defensive units. Las Vegas has the Vikings’ projected win total set at 8.5. For the team to go over 8.5 wins, Cousins will need to perform at a high level.

There’s little question that Cousins had his most efficient season as a pro last year, and the Vikings offense worked in lockstep with a defense that was fading but still strong. Despite missing the 4,000-yard mark for the first time as a full-time starter, Cousins set a career best in games won (10), touchdown-to-interception ratio (26:6), interception rate (1.4%) and passer rating (107.4).

While acknowledging that cherry-picked stats can often fail to paint an accurate picture, consider this: Only four other quarterbacks since the turn of the century did what Cousins did a year ago. By completing 25 or more touchdowns, tossing six or fewer interceptions and throwing for 8.0 yards per attempt or better, Cousins joined a club featuring Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Alex Smith. (NOTE: Russell Wilson‘s 2019 came up just short with a yards per attempt of 7.97, even though it’s listed as 8.0 in most places.)

Rodgers and Brees both lost overtime NFC Championship Games after delivering those seasons, Brady won the Super Bowl, and Smith? He was traded after a first-round playoff exit.

On one hand, this chart frames just how good Cousins was for most of 2019. Save a handful of notable exceptions (both contests against Green Bay and at Chicago), Cousins was explosive yet careful with the football. It’s hard, after all, to throw touchdowns in volume with single-digit interceptions. Only seven quarterbacks last year threw for 25 or more touchdowns with fewer than 10 picks: Rodgers, Wilson, Cousins, Brees, Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes and Carson Wentz.

But it also begs the question whether Cousins belongs with the Rodgers/Brees/Brady group or the outlier group with Smith, who never got a chance to build on his 2017 campaign due to a devastating leg injury the next year. Like Cousins, Smith was a late bloomer who found a second life with his second franchise (Kansas City). Grouping either with passers in the quarterbacking pantheon would be rash.

A quarterback season fitting the parameters above is tricky to duplicate, even for legends, so let’s soften the parameters and change the interception total to 10 or less. That opens the door for eight more quarterback seasons, giving us a total of 13. Still, though, most of the new names you see are also destined for Canton enshrinement: Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson.

There is one name that stands out, however; a quarterback more synonymous with Smith and Cousins: Matt Ryan, whose name appears twice. The former first-round pick had his best career season at age 31, just like Cousins did, as he led the Falcons to a Super Bowl appearance (an overtime loss to New England). Like the Vikings, that team was largely built on its defense, and Ryan capitalized by taking his game to the next level. But progress is rarely linear. Ryan took a big step back in 2017 as he threw just 20 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. The next year? Ryan was brilliant once again with 35 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Improvement doesn’t always manifest itself year over year, especially in the NFL with its tiny sample sizes and myriad variables. That’s why you’ll notice that none of the 13 quarterbacks on the list had back-to-back seasons fitting the parameters.

Let’s soften the criteria one more time. Twenty-five or more touchdowns, 10 or fewer interceptions, and we’ll drop the yards per attempt to 7.7, Cousins’ career average. It adds another seven quarterback seasons for a total of 20, and it gives us three examples of quarterbacks who were able to string together consecutive seasons at that level: Brady (2016-17), Brees (2018-19) and Wilson (2018-19).

As strong as Cousins’ 2019 season was, there are few pundits that readily lump him in with Brady, Brees, Wilson, et al. Yet that’s the fraternity he’d be joining if he were to clone his previous season and run it back in 2020. Would that make Cousins a Hall of Famer? No. But if only for its unlikeliness, it would be awfully impressive. More realistically, Cousins is looking to avoid the slump Ryan had following his career year, where he got more careless with the football.

But each situation deserves its own evaluation, so let’s look more closely at what might impede or aid Cousins in his pursuit of another strong season.

Factors To Consider

First, let’s contemplate the adversity Cousins dealt with a season ago. He lost one of his top two receivers in Week 6 and didn’t get him back full strength until the playoffs. His running back was injured in Week 10 and, likewise, didn’t get back to full speed until the playoffs. His offensive line stayed relatively healthy, but the interior line was ineffective at times and hung Cousins’ out to dry.

It’s nearly impossible to project injuries, so we’ll simply say that if Cousins’ top receivers and top ball-carrier stays healthy, it’ll make life easier for him. But one of those receivers, Stefon Diggs, is now in Buffalo. Diggs was irreplaceable last year as a yards per route run monster, finishing with a gaudy 2.69, behind only Michael Thomas, and his six “deep” touchdowns also led the NFL. It would be unfair to expect the same from his replacement, rookie Justin Jefferson. On the ball-carrier side, running back Dalvin Cook will undoubtedly make an impact when on the field, but his current contract holdout and injury history make any projections ambiguous.

The offensive line is another story since it was considered a big part of Zimmer’s offseason plan to enhance Cousins’ game.

“I think we’ve got to continue to improve the offensive line,” Zimmer said. “I really believe in my heart that if we continue to give Kirk time he’s going to continue to ascend. That’s part of it. Just continuing to improve the offensive line whether it’s technique or players that are here or players in the draft and free agency.”

But the Vikings didn’t take much action to improve the offensive line. Second-round draft choice Ezra Cleveland projects as a future starter at tackle, but it’s possible — even likely — that he starts his career on the bench behind Riley Reiff. Right guard Josh Kline was cut in March, leaving open competition at both guard spots. It seems the Vikings are leaning heavily into Zimmer’s suggestion that the players’ technique needs to be improved, since the front office chose not to splash in free agency or the draft to address the interior line.

At best, the group is a question mark. The foibles of the interior line made Cousins uncomfortable against defensive lines with inside push, and the quarterback lacked the mobility to escape. Cousins is aware of this knock on his game and has voiced to desire to improve it.

“I heard Fran Tarkenton made a comment recently about, ‘Cousins needs to run more,'” the quarterback recalled after signing his extension. “I said, ‘Fran’s right.’ I do need to run more. I have an athleticism there that I don’t know that I tap into enough. And so, that’s maybe an area that I’ll try to work on the best I can.”

Quantifying any kind of improvement for Cousins in this area would be hard, since pocket mobility doesn’t always mean scrambling for first downs like Tarkenton. Cousins was actually well above average analytically when facing pressure a year ago, finishing with the seventh-best passer rating, fourth-best adjusted completion percentage and tied for the third-fewest interceptions.

For Cousins, improving his lateral movement to avoid inside pressure is plausible, but even more realistic is simply to ask Cousins to continue making smart decisions when flustered. Cousins reduced his lost fumbles from seven in 2018 to three last year, and he reduced his under-pressure interceptions from five to one. That improved caution was perhaps the No. 1 reason Cousins took a step forward in 2019, and it would give him the best chance of duplicating his effort this fall.

And even though the Vikings switched offensive coordinators, Cousins will get to enjoy relative continuity on offense with Gary Kubiak maintaining an identical system.

“I think there’s a variety of areas we can improve. Even some of the areas where we were really good on offense, I think we can take another step,” Cousins said. “I think it helps to have had a year with Coach Kubiak in that system, Coach [Rick] Dennison as the O-line coach and really putting together our run game. There was a bit of figuring it out last year and feeling one another out during the offseason of, ‘What is this going to look like?’ and ‘How do we do things?’ I’d like to think that, in a way, this is Year 2, and as a result, we can take a step forward, just because we’re more familiar with the goals and the plan and what it should look like.”

It would certainly be fair to expect improvement from several second-year players on the offense that could give Cousins a boost. Center Garrett Bradbury should be stronger in Year 2, backup wideout Bisi Johnson proved himself trustworthy in Year 1, backup running back Alexander Mattison will get important touches every game, and tight end Irv Smith Jr., could be a substantial part of the offense thanks to speed, versatility and blocking ability.

But one can’t ignore the possible regression on the defensive side of the ball. Without a cornerback of more than two years experience, the back end may suffer, and the offense — which got spoiled playing with many big leads over the last several years — will have to pick up the slack. Cousins had medium to poor defenses in his years as the Washington starter with their defense ranking 16th, 19th and 28th in points allowed in his three full seasons there. His raw production was impressive — enough to earn an $84 million contract in Minnesota — but his .500 record those three seasons doesn’t bolster the case that Cousins can win with a mediocre defense.

For reasons we’ve laid out earlier, though, Cousins has made improvements, and he’s in an offense that makes him comfortable. It may be a stretch to expect Cousins to “ascend,” as Zimmer suggested, but hoping for a similar season to 2019 isn’t completely out of the question. As Kubiak said this offseason, he believes that teams seeking to get over the hump need to “keep going back to the hump.” If Cousins finds himself in another playoff situation, he’ll need to capture lightning in a bottle, sort of like Matt Ryan in 2016 (before the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead).

The historical precedent is stacked against him, there were numerous internal changes, and oh, there’s a global pandemic. Nobody could blame Cousins for regressing, so once again, he’ll have to prove his doubters wrong.

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Photo Credit: Kelley L. Cox (USA Today Sports)

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