What Kellen Mond Has To Do To Supplant Kirk Cousins

Photo Credit: Sam Navarro (USA TODAY Sports)

For the next two years or more, the central question surrounding the Minnesota Vikings will be whether Kellen Mond can supplant Kirk Cousins. After all, Cousins is on a large contract, and Mond is on a rookie contract. If Mond can replace him, it frees up a world of possibilities. Not to mention the general discontent surrounding Cousins, whose time in Minnesota has been thoroughly mediocre.

The barometer for Kellen Mond’s success is placed squarely at Kirk Cousins. If Mond can overcome Cousins, he’ll be Minnesota’s next starting quarterback. If he can’t, he won’t. The Vikings (especially Mark and Zygi Wilf) don’t want to get worse at the most important position in sports, not temporarily and especially not for the sake of salary cap space. Throw those possibilities out. To get on the field, Mond has to play well. He won’t get to cut his teeth in a rebuilding year.

So then how well will Mond play? There are a lot of shortcuts we tend to use to get a sense for this. Third-round quarterbacks tend to turn out a certain way. Big-armed quarterbacks tend to have a certain profile. Option quarterbacks, four-year college starters, tall quarterbacks, project quarterbacks, and every other category all have typical profiles that we can use to map a quick guess as to how Mond will perform.

The problem is that the historical quarterbacks off of whom we base those perceptions are entirely different people.

Chad Henne is a different player from DeShone Kizer, Tarvaris Jackson is distinct from Jalen Hurts, and so on. To define Mond as “a third-round QB” and map the average of other quarterbacks drafted with comparable picks onto him is a shortcut that only works in lieu of a true Kellen Mond evaluation. But since we do have time to truly evaluate him, we don’t have to rely on draft pedigree.

It’s also important not to chalk Mond up to a project player and leave him at that. He may or may not work out, but we can be more specific than that. Not all weaknesses develop over time. Some things take longer to fix than others, and some simply never improve. Instead, let’s discuss who Mond is today compared to the guy he’ll have to beat. Whether he gets to that spot is anyone’s guess, but we can at least establish the boundaries.

The defining trait of Mond’s game is his arm strength. From Dane Brugler’s draft guide:

“Big-arm passer to drive the ball to every inch of the field…rips off strikes when falling off balance or retreating and doesn’t require much to add RPMs on his throws…uncorks beautiful deep balls”

Kellen Mond has zip. He fires passes into tight windows constantly and can get the ball to difficult spots with velocity. That velocity has come to define his game. He can take more time with his reads, choose more difficult throws, and even get away with dangerous off-platform throws. Arm strength in football is much like a good drive in golf. It doesn’t get you to the hole, but it makes everything else a little more forgiving.

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The problem comes when Mond relies too much on that arm strength. Instead of reading the plays as they’re designed and locating optimal opportunities, Mond is taking the first read he can squeeze the ball into. That leads to some tight throws, and also some missed opportunities deep down the field.

If the second read is deeper and more open, it’s both less risky and more rewarding. But Mond too often takes the first throw he can rip off. To fix this, he’ll have to re-learn how he reads plays from scratch.

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This might not be a death knell for Mond’s development. In fact, Fisher’s offense used a lot of concepts and reads that map well onto Minnesota’s offensive scheme. They used triangle reads (some West Coast coaches call it Hank), which counter some of the most common NFL defenses. Mond also has experience in more standard 1-2-3-4-5 reads across the field. That experience will help a lot with the re-tooling his game requires.

We often use arm strength as a shortcut to project a lot of deep passing. We pencil in “deep throws” as “riskier throws” since they’re completed less often and intercepted more often. It’s easy to read “conservative” from Mond’s statistical profile, complete with only 27 interceptions over four years and a paltry (for the college ranks) 9.4 yards of average depth of target. But beware the story Mond’s production tells you. His game is much different than the stats imply.

Mond loves to play with fire. As Brugler puts it, “not shy forcing the ball into heavy coverage.” Cousins has a similar problem, but Mond’s comes up much more often. He will have to re-learn how far his arm strength can take him in the NFL or that low interception total will balloon faster than you can put on a 10 gallon hat.

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If Kellen Mond is going to surpass Cousins, he’ll have to go through a prolonged arc of development to overcome these issues. He’ll have to test which fastballs he can and can’t get away with. That means throwing some interceptions. In a perfect world, that testing comes in training camp or the preseason — before it counts. Once he has re-calibrated his inner clock, he’ll have to re-learn from scratch how to go through his progressions with new risk-assessment instincts. Expect that process to take a while.

Mechanically, there’s quite a bit to work on, especially when it comes to footwork. When Mond drops back, he adds extra steps. That delays his throws, and balls arrive late far too often. Mond has the zip to make up for some lost time, but that has removed the need to improve on this. In the NFL, those clocks will run out a lot more quickly and he’ll have to fix it on Minnesota’s time.

His footwork also leads to inconsistent accuracy. Again like in golf, a quarterback’s feet should line up with where they are aiming. When Mond’s feet are askew, the ball goes wide. Couple poor timing with spotty accuracy, and you begin to explain his modest production at Texas A&M. Fixing Mond’s feet will go a long way toward papering over the issues that held his college offense back.

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That won’t always send the ball wide, but it affects too many passes to trust Mond as a starter right now. If he can fix the other problems with his alignment and timing, he can gain an advantage here. However, that’s the second multi-year reconstruction project Mond must undergo.

When these things add up, they can throw plays off. Not to mention the all-too-familiar problems that can arise from failures of the supporting cast. With pressure, route breakdowns, and coverage counters added into the possibilities of a work-in-progress reading the field, Mond will have plenty of broken plays to worry about. On those plays is perhaps where he shines brightest.

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That is the single advantage that gives Mond hope to someday beat out Cousins. While Cousins has improved in scrambling situations, it’s never been his game. Mond’s greater ability to work off-script reduces the threshold for all the other issues he has to fix. He doesn’t have to read the field better than Cousins if he can make a schoolyard play anyways.

To review, Mond has a lot of work to do. He has to overhaul his footwork to improve his timing. He has to learn which checks his arm can cash at the NFL level, and that likely requires a lot of ugly interceptions. Mond will have to survive those interceptions and avoid picking up bad habits, Sam Darnold-style. From there, he’ll have to learn how to get deeper into his progressions without holding the ball too long and hopefully improve his accuracy.

It’s a long to-do list that isn’t uncommon of quarterbacks drafted in the middle of Day 2. Considering the precedent of quarterbacks in that range, many of whom enter the league with similar to-do lists, it’s hard to project Kellen Mond as the future of the Vikings with much confidence. All we can do is point out what needs to happen and hope that it does. But to rely on Mond with any certainty is a fool’s errand.

If Mond can complete that list in a year or two, his athleticism and improvisational ability could remedy some of the most frustrating problems with a Cousins-led offense. That’s a long way away, but there exists a world in which Mond surpasses Cousins because of that upside. There’s certainly a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Cousins shares a few issues with Mond that should play to Mond’s advantage. Cousins loves to test tight windows, even with something else open deeper in the progression. Cousins also has his own version of footwork issues that can disrupt timing. Still, Cousins’ accuracy and mechanics will lead him to be a much more consistent quarterback than Kellen Mond is right now. If Cousins does have a poor game, it’s still probably not on the table to put Mond in at any point next year. So for now, Cousins isn’t in much jeopardy. Mond has to slowly develop in the background to find NFL success beyond that of his mid-Day 2 colleagues.

Mond is not a project quarterback, nor is he simply a third-round quarterback. He’s not a mobile quarterback or a big-armed quarterback. He’s a conglomeration of all of those traits and has a specific list of issues that need to get fixed. Will it all be fixed in two years? Who’s to say? But if we know what to watch for, we can determine if Mond is on track to give the Vikings a brighter future at the most important position in sports.

Credit to JT O’Sullivan and Tim Jenkins, whose great breakdowns greatly helped me research this piece.

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