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Bleacher Report – Vikings

The Vikings must consider the best and worst of Kirk Cousins

By Matthew Coller

Now that the Super Bowl is over, the Minnesota Vikings will turn to hiring an offensive coordinator. Then they will have several weeks to decide which direction to go at quarterback. The Vikings know exactly what they have in Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford and Case Keenum, but as a coaching staff and front office, they will have to come to a conclusion on an outside quarterback, Washington’s Kirk Cousins.

After acquiring Alex Smith from Kansas City, Cousins will either hit free agency or be traded if Washington franchise tags him. The Vikings are clearly at the top of the list for most favorable situations for a quarterback. They sport two of the best receivers in the NFL, a stable coaching situation, solid offensive line, exciting young running back and terrific defense. Whether Cousins is in purple next season appears to rest on the shoulders of the Vikings.

If you only looked at Cousins’ box score numbers like completion percentage, touchdowns, quarterback rating etc., it would be a no brainer: Sign him up. But a lot more goes into quarterback evaluation than TD:INT ratio. There are reasons why Washington hasn’t signed onto Cousins long term already and why his former GM said that he isn’t a “special” quarterback.

So where does the truth lie? Let’s have a look at his best and worst game of the year (when his supporting cast was largely healthy)…

The good

Kirk Cousins can throw the ball downfield.

Since 2015, Cousins has a 101.0 quarterback rating on throws over 15 yards, which ranks sixth in the NFL, and slightly ahead of Tom Brady, during that timespan.

Against the New Orleans Saints, the former Michigan State QB threw for 322 yards, three touchdowns and averaged 10.1 yards per attempt in a 34-31 overtime loss. Early in the game, he found tight end Vernon Davis deep. The throw requires arm strength, accuracy and anticipation. Cousins releases the ball as Davis is coming out of his break and leads him far enough toward the sideline that the Saints’ safety can’t get there in time.

One of the great benefits of having Cousins as your quarterback is his toughness. He played in 16 games this year despite being sacked 41 times. He’s willing to stand in the face of pressure and make downfield throws like the one below.

New Orleans sends an all-out blitz and Cousins waits for the last possible second to fire the ball downfield to his wide open receiver for a touchdown. As you can see, he gets smacked by two defenders as he lets the ball go.

Cousins is exceptional at executing play-action plays. Washington ranked No. 3 in the NFL in 2017 in yards per attempt on play-action throws, first in 2016 and second in 2015, according to Football Outsiders. Jay Gruden dialed up play-action on 20 percent of his total plays. The Vikings ran play-action at a slightly higher rate last season (26 percent).

On the play below, the offensive line blocks as if they are going to run an outside zone handoff, then Cousins rolls right. Despite a rusher coming at him, he slams on the breaks and releases a pass to the second level for a big gain. He could have dumped it off short, but instead found the deeper receiver.

Some of Cousins’ best moments aren’t the most flashy. He appears to have an exceptional understanding of his offense and where each receiver is going to be. The play below is the best example of Cousins going through progressions and working his way across the field. The receiver to his right is running a slant, which the Saints take away. Backed up against the goal line, he quickly works to his check down option for a positive play.

Cousins was effective working the ball to his running backs. In total, they caught 79 passes this season. Top pass-catching running back Chris Thompson gained 13.1 yards per reception.

To recap: Cousins throws a strong, accurate deep ball and isn’t afraid to launch the ball to a receiver with coverage lurking. He’s well versed in his offense and knows how to find his playmakers in space underneath, he’s incredibly tough and fantastic at executing play-action throws.

The bad

Against the Philadelphia Eagles on opening week, Cousins had a rough outing, going 23-for-40 with 240 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a 72.9 rating. It wasn’t his worst game of the year statistically, but it was his roughest game with a full supporting cast. Later in the year, Washington suffered a number of key injuries.

We begin on the game’s first drive. On a third-and-long, Cousins avoids an inside rush from the defensive end and has an open lane to throw the ball past the sticks. However, the Eagles are playing two deep safeties and two linebackers dropping deep into zone coverage. At the bottom of the screen, you can see a cover-2 zone look.

Cousins’ target sits down between the safety and the corner. But Cousins sees him too late and the Eagles’ linebacker closes quickly, nearly intercepting the pass. This is one area where Cousins appears to struggle: Facing teams playing deep zone coverages, he has issues throwing into tight windows. Pro Football Focus ranked Cousins 17th this year in “big-time throws.” He can also be overly aggressive rather than living to fight another day. The veteran QB has the fifth most INTs on third-and-long in the NFL over the last three years.

Below is another example of a third down throw into traffic that doesn’t go well for Cousins. He nearly gets his receiver decked. He may have assumed the single safety was going to drop deep into coverage, but instead the safety sat on the route, fooling Cousins into a poor decision.

Earlier we saw Cousins hang in the pocket and take a big hit to throw a touchdown. Well, that can be both good and bad. Over the past three years, Cousins has more fumbles than any quarterback in the NFL with 31.

On the play below, we see one example. He doesn’t feel the rusher coming around the edge or slide up into the pocket to buy himself an extra half second.

Trying to play hero inside the pocket has also led to some untimely interceptions. On this play, the Eagles have a rusher come free and Cousins wings the ball to his hot receiver instead of taking the sack. Because he can’t set his feet, the ball sails and is picked off.

The average interception percentage under pressure is 2.6 percent. This year, Cousins’ was 4.1 percent. But his “big-time throw” percentage was higher than average.

To recap: Over the last three years, Cousins has turned the ball over more than Mike Zimmer would like from his quarterback. It appears that his issues with tight-window throws and commitment to hanging in the pocket are responsible for that.

Consistency and “clutch” situations

Now that you’ve seen the best and worst of Cousins on film, the question is: How often is he the best Cousins and how often is he the worst Cousins?

It’s hard to put an exact percentage on that, but the best we can do is by using his individual game QBR scores. ESPN invented the stat to include things like game situations and running. It isn’t a very predictive stat and over a full season, the cumulative number offers us more questions than answers, but on a game-to-game basis, it gives a rough idea of whether the quarterback was poor, average or great.

Here is a chart of all of Cousins’ games by QBR over the past three years:

What we can take away is that Cousins doesn’t often have meltdown games and he consistently has a handful of fantastic games. But the majority of his games are somewhere in the middle.

For comparison’s sake, here’s Tom Brady over the last three years:

Now – about Cousins being a “winner.”

Judging a quarterback by his win-loss record isn’t always the best way to evaluate. Quarterbacks don’t play, you know, defense. Washington’s defense has ranked 28th, 28th and 21st in yards allowed and hasn’t cracked the top half of the league in points allowed.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to the notion of Cousins struggling in certain key situations.

For example, Pro Football Focus graded him 30th on third downs this season. Over the last three years, he has a mid-pack 7.5 yards per attempt on third-and-long situations (best is Ben Roethlisberger at 9.2) with the fifth most interceptions.

Here are his passer ratings by quarter:

First quarter: 103.9

Second quarter: 95.7

Third quarter: 93.0

Fourth quarter: 85.9

Of his 55 career interceptions, 22 have come in the fourth quarter.

When Washington is winning, Cousins’ rating is 99.4, when they’re trailing his rating is 85.6. When trailing with fewer than four minutes to go, Cousins has a 69.4 rating. Over an entire career, these things are relevant and likely relate to the struggles we looked at vs. the Eagles.

As the Vikings dive deep into Cousins’ career, they will have to decide whether they can manage some of his shortcomings over the next five years and whether a QB with some down side is worth giving $30 million. However, with a strong supporting cast and defense, there is a certainly chance he could play enough high-end games to take the Vikings where they want to go.

The post The Vikings must consider the best and worst of Kirk Cousins appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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