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10 things PFF’s QB Annual tells us about Kirk Cousins’ past and future

This week the football analytics company Pro Football Focus released its second Quarterback Annual, which includes an endless amount of data, from situational grades, to directional throws, to performance on first or second read to passer rating under pressure and on and on. After pouring through pages of Kirk Cousins’ numbers from 2018, here are 10 of the most interesting stats and what they say about his first season and what we can expect in 2019…

Cousins had some similarities to 2016 Sam Bradford

While Sam Bradford performed well under the circumstances in 2016, one of the criticisms he faced was about a severe lack of aggressiveness. PFF’s data makes it clear that Cousins had the same issue in his inaugural season in purple.

He certainly had his fair share of turnovers via fumble, but Cousins did not throw the ball wildly. The Vikings’ quarterback had the third lowest rate of negatively graded plays by PFF and also the 31st (of 35) rate of positively graded throws. He totaled the 20th ranked rate of “big-time throws,” but also the fourth best turnover-worthy throw rate. We can take away from those numbers that most of Cousins’ passes were safe. Subsequently the Vikings ranked dead last as a passing game in yards per completion.

Even more similar to Bradford, Cousins was remarkably accurate when making tough throws. Only six quarterbacks were more accurate when throwing into tight windows. There was simply a lack of those types of throws attempted.

PFF also notes that Cousins threw to his first read 71 percent of the time (66 percent league average).

The question is whether he might become more aggressive with more time to throw. The answer: It’s unlikely. If we look at NFL NextGen’s “Aggressiveness” stat, which measures how often a QB threw the ball into tight coverage, Cousins ranked as the fourth least aggressive QB in 2018. He was ninth least aggressive in 2017 and in his best statistical season, 2016, he ranked as the second least aggressive.

Either Gary Kubiak and Kevin Stefanski have to find a way to convince him to throw to Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen when they aren’t open or they have to find ways to scheme more open throws.

Cousins’ clean pocket passing was underwhelming

The amount of pressure on Cousins was a major conversation throughout 2018, but more than 60 percent of his passes were not under pressure. On those throws, the Vikings’ QB performed in the bottom half of the league by PFF’s grading system. He rated 21st in grade and averaged just 7.3 yards per attempt (7.8 YPA is league average).

With a clean pocket, Cousins put together a slightly above average QB rating, but was below average in “big-time throws” and Expected Points Added. So even when he was given a chance by the O-line to make big plays, he usually did not do so.

One thing to Cousins’ credit: His yards per attempt and EPA were both the lowest since he became a starter, which might suggest he could see improvement in the efficiency of his clean pocket passing next year.

The Vikings did not manufacture yards for their quarterback 

Minnesota football fans will remember the high number of times Case Keenum threw a quick/short pass that turned into a big gain. Well that did not happen as often for Cousins. He averaged just 6.6 yards per play when releasing the ball in under 2.5 seconds from the snap, which was easily his lowest since becoming a full-time starter in 2015. While 29 percent of his passes came in under 2.0 seconds, he only picked up 5.7 yards per attempt on those throws.

He also finished below average on throws that went behind the line of scrimmage and less than 10 yards in the air and well above average on throws that traveled between 10-19 yards and more than 20 yards.

This wasn’t entirely due to scheme, some was execution. The league average accuracy percentage on screens is 81 percent, but Cousins was only accurate on 75 percent of screens. He was only 1 percent above average on swing passes and underneath routes.

What we can take away is that the quarterback did not receive has much help schematically or from personnel as he might have in past years, but either exacerbated or failed to overcome those shortcomings. Kubiak’s offenses have been masterful in the past at finding big yards on easy throws for quarterbacks.

2018 was Cousins’ best year under pressure

There is no question the Vikings’ lack of pass protection impacted their offense overall, but it might not have given Cousins as much trouble as expected. His 83.1 rating under pressure was well above the league average of 67.1 and the highest of his career by a similar margin. Cousins did not have many “turnover worthy” throws while under pressure. His 3.4 percent “turnover worthy” pass rate was well below the 5.8 percent league average.

Since the league average pressure rate is 34 percent, even if the Vikings cut down on Cousins’ 39 percent pressure rate from 2018, you can bet he will still be forced to make throws with men in his face. Can he repeat an above average pressure passer rating? That might not be easy to do.

Cousins was highly accurate

PFF ranked Cousins as having the ninth best accuracy percentage overall in the NFL. He threw the fourth lowest percentage of uncatchable balls and was the fifth most accurate when his receiver had one step on the defender.

Cousins was 6.8 percent more accurate than league average on throws between 10-19 yards and 6.6 percent more accurate on throws over 20 yards.

The scramble drill was not friendly to the Vikings 

Cousins only scrambled on five percent of his throws. The league average Expected Points Added on scramble plays is plus-0.04. Cousins’ scramble throws resulted in a minus-0.54 EPA. He made zero “big-time” throws while scrambling in 2018.

These numbers make it clear just how ineffective Cousins can be when playing off script. He also had a minus-0.14 EPA on his second read.

Cousins targeted one particular receiver far too much

The Vikings’ QB posted a quarterback rating over 100 when targeting Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph and Dalvin Cook. When throwing in the direction of Laquon Treadwell, his rating dropped to 80.3. Despite the poor production, he still looked Treadwell’s way 47 times. Fullback CJ Ham gained nearly as many yards per target as the 2016 first-round pick.

It’s clear that Cousins goes with his proper read at the line of scrimmage regardless of which receiver is on the route, so there may be an increased level of importance in a No. 3 receiver in an offense operated by him.

Opponents might stop blitzing Cousins

Over the last two years, the former Washington QB has been outstanding when blitzed. In 2017 he put together a 109.8 rating with an extra rusher coming his way and this year he was well above average (93.1) with a 104.3 rating. His yards per attempt dropped from 9.3 in ’17 to 7.6 this season but Cousins had his lowest interception percentage against the blitz and an extremely low 1.9 percent “turnover worthy” throws. Cousins’ ability to diagnose defenses at the line of scrimmage is on display with his success against the blitz.

Interestingly, the 24 percent of plays in which he saw blitz was the lowest of his career.

The Kirk Coaster was real

A staple of Cousins’ career is the ups and downs. Those rises and falls were severe in 2018. He put together seven games that were graded as above average by PFF, seven that were below average and two that were average games. On the 1-100 scoring system, anything below 60 going to be difficult to overcome no matter the performance of the supporting cast. Cousins had four such games.

No matter the changes made to the Vikings’ offense and personnel, it appears from his past grades that there will always be some element of high-highs and low-lows.

Kirk Cousins was who we thought he was 

From 2015-2017 average final PFF grade coming into this season ranked Cousins 14th (among QBs with at least 200 drop backs). This year he rated 15th overall.

In 2018, you can find similarities and differences with both his best year (2016) and worst year (2017), but on the whole he made the same accurate passes as in the past and struggled in big games and some big situations (graded 20th on third down) as in the past. The front office along with Kubiak and Stefanski will have to work in the margins as much as possible to maximize every once of Cousins’ talent.


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