In early February, Evan Massey set Vikings and 49ers media ablaze with trade rumors. Around that time, the Detroit Lions dealt Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams for Jared Goff and a big draft haul. Analyzing that deal, we can say that Kirk Cousins is roughly worth pick No. 12 and Jimmy Garoppolo, give or take some additional picks. Even if you think the San Francisco 49ers would need to give more up — and let’s say they do — the Minnesota Vikings still shouldn’t make that deal.
The only way the Vikings should make a deal for Jimmy Garoppolo is if it takes them closer to a franchise quarterback who is not Jimmy Garoppolo. Even though picks 14 and 12 make an attractive trade package for a QB-needy team in the top 5, that team would have to select Jimmy Garoppolo over Zach Wilson or Justin Fields. Deshaun Watson likely isn’t interested in Minnesota. Even with high draft compensation, it takes the Vikings further from contention than they previously were — unless you think Garoppolo is good enough to be the franchise quarterback himself.
There’s some discussion over whether Cousins would be an upgrade over Garoppolo in a deal like this. However, if Garoppolo were a better quarterback than Cousins but Kyle Shanahan‘s fascination with Cousins causes him to overpay, it casts the deal in a much brighter light. Picking up draft capital and cap space feels like a bonus if it’s stapled to an upgrade at quarterback.
So it all depends on one central question: Is Jimmy Garoppolo better than Kirk Cousins?
PFF’s QB Annual gives us a lot of data to make this comparison. After going over Kirk Cousins in excruciating detail, we can come up with a decent summary of his play, then compare that to Garoppolo. In short, Cousins is an accurate quarterback with good footwork and mechanics who invites a little too much pressure and exacerbates an offensive line problem. He can maximize his weapons and scheme as an executor but isn’t at home creating outside of that structure. Is Jimmy Garoppolo better than this?
One major thing Cousins has over Garoppolo is availability. It’s not necessarily Garoppolo’s fault that he suffered two season-ending knee injuries, but the risk of a third has increased dramatically. Considering what happened to San Francisco in both of those seasons, that may be enough to end the discussion on its own. But let’s set the injury woes aside and take the last two seasons, then re-apply the injury caveat at the end if we have to.
Schematically, Kyle Shanahan and Gary Kubiak didn’t run exactly identical offenses. Still, the core of those offenses runs off of the same concepts and throws. We can call that a wash where both quarterbacks should be reasonably expected to thrive in each other’s schemes. That makes for useful accuracy comparisons.
Using PFF’s Accuracy charting, we can get a sense of Garoppolo’s raw throwing skill as compared to Cousins’. To be extra charitable, we’ll use the last two years.
Both QBs experienced some regression from 2019 to 2020. While Cousins turned in an elite 2019, Garoppolo’s 2019 is plenty acceptable. Still, if that’s a ceiling and the disastrous start to 2020 is the floor, Cousins offers a significantly better range. Garoppolo’s 2020 can be at least partially excused by his injury, which suggests that 2019 is closer to the real Garoppolo than 2020 is. Even so, Cousins’ regression year in 2020 is better than Garoppolo’s 2019.
It’s not a Cousins clean sweep. As it turns out, Cousins is a below-average pressure eraser. In other words, pressure hurts Cousins more than it hurts other quarterbacks. On the contrary, Garoppolo boasts that as a strength of his game. Under pressure, his EPA/play only drops by 0.59, whereas Kirk’s drops by 0.70. Even in his rough 2020, Garoppolo scored 0.51 EPA/play against blitzes (league average is 0.02). The pressure competition lands firmly in Jimmy Garoppolo’s column.
Unfortunately, play under pressure is less sustainable than play when kept clean. When kept clean over his Super Bowl 2019 season, Jimmy Garoppolo notched 0.33 EPA/play. In 2020, Cousins notched 0.38, and 0.42 in 2019. Again, Garoppolo’s best year falls to Cousins’ lesser year. That is much more likely to repeat itself in 2021 than the pressure statistics.
To build an argument that Jimmy Garoppolo is preferable to Kirk Cousins, you have to hinge the whole thing on pressure. You have to ignore accuracy, sustainable production, and Garoppolo’s injury history. You have to assume the Vikings fail to improve upon Dakota Dozier (which is perhaps more plausible than any of the other assumptions). So if you ignore the majority of differentiating quarterback factors and assume you get lucky in a number of ways, maybe Garoppolo can have as good a season as Cousins.
If you’re interested in making the Vikings worse in the short term, go ahead and trade Cousins for Garoppolo and pick 12. If you’re interested in making them better in the long term, you’ll need more than pick 12, pick 14, and a cast-off at quarterback to do so. It’s best to let these rumors fade into memory rather than advocate that the Vikings lose more games for the sake of something novel.