Kirk Cousins faced sky-high expectations after he signed a three-year, $84 million guaranteed contract with the Minnesota Vikings in the spring of 2018. The deal made Cousins, a former fourth-round pick, the highest-paid player in NFL history, and put pressure on the quarterback to help the Vikings make a Super Bowl leap.
The early returns were disappointing, at best. Cousins finished as just the 14th best passer of 2018, per ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating. All four of his team’s losses over the final two months of the 2018 season were impacted negatively by Cousins’s performance, and the Vikings missed the playoffs entirely a year after playing in the NFC title game. Minnesota’s offense produced 0.2 expected points added per game on Cousins’s throws last season, per data from TruMedia — that’s the number of points scored above what we would expect given the down, distance and field position of each play. Based on the relationship between performance and salary over the past few years, that showing should have been worth $1.1 million in cap dollars. It was a far cry from the $24 million cap hit Minnesota’s front office earmarked for Cousins that season.
The start to 2019 didn’t look much better. The Vikings lost divisional games to the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears during the first four weeks of the season, and no one appeared to have any answers for Cousins’s mediocre play. Then things started to click. Since the Week 4 loss to the Bears, Cousins has completed better than 73 percent of his passes for 2,202 yards, 18 touchdowns and one interception. The offense is scoring almost eight points per game more than expected on Cousins’s throws this season, even including the slow start, making his current campaign on track to be worth in excess of $47 million in 2019, a jump that almost eliminates the deficit between his value ($48.3 million) and cost ($53.0 million) to date. And so Cousins isn’t the only quarterback riding high before Monday night’s meeting with Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks.
Cousins’s improvement has coincided with an improved Minnesota rushing game — third-year running back Dalvin Cook already smashed his career highs in carries (214), rushing yards (1,017) and rushing touchdowns (11) — but not all of the Vikings’ offensive progress can be attributed to the emergence of Cook. Minnesota has the NFL’s 10th-best rushing attack, per Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, which measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every play to a league average based on situation and opponent. By comparison, the Vikings enjoy the fifth-best passing efficiency, per the same metric.
Cousins’s ability to make tougher throws has helped drive his improved results. In 2018, Cousins completed 70 percent of his passes, when we would have expected a completion rate of 66 percent according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, which takes into account the receiver’s separation from the nearest defender, where the receiver is on the field, the separation the passer had at the time of the throw from the nearest pass rusher, and other, non-disclosed, factors.
This season, his completion rate is nearly 71 percent despite attempting more difficult throws, which we would have expected to be successful just 63 percent of the time. And despite those more difficult throws, Cousins’s receivers are averaging more yards after the catch per reception in 2019 (6.1) than they did last year (4.6), no small feat considering one of his top targets, Adam Thielen, has been limited by injury, missing three games and parts of others.
New offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski has Cousins running more play-action plays than did his predecessor, John DeFilippo, who was fired late last season. Minnesota ran play action 20 percent of the time in 2018 (22nd) and Cousins produced a 116.1 passer rating in those situations. The Vikings are running play action a third of the time in 2019, with Cousins completing 69 percent of his passes for nearly 10 yards per attempt and a 134.6 passer rating.
Stefanski also has Cousins taking more chances downfield, with improved results. Cousins has completed 41 percent of his throws 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage this season compared to 32 percent in 2018, with a corresponding year-over-year increase in passer rating on deep throws. He’s taking more shots downfield, too: 4.2 a game this season compared to 3.9 a game last season.
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Cousins is also performing better under pressure. His passer rating against a traditional four-man pass pressure is 88.5, an improvement over last year (83.1), and his improvement is even more dramatic against the blitz (104.5 passer rating in 2018 compared to 129.7 in 2019). He has thrown just one interception when facing pass pressure all season, according to the game charters at Pro Football Focus. And before you give most of the credit for that to a revamped offensive line, consider that Cousins is seeing pass pressure at the same frequency as he did last season.
“I know what the coaches are doing with him. And you have to give him credit, too, with some of the plays he’s making,” Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said. “It’s giving him the best chance to have success. That goes hand-in-hand with his abilities and the system we’re running on offense now.”
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