As the Minnesota Vikings head into a vital offseason, we will look at each position under a microscope. What worked? What didn’t work? What might change in 2019? What are the best and worst case scenarios? What options do they have going forward? Our series will lead up to the opening of free agency on March 13. We begin with the quarterbacks…
Two areas of the Vikings’ passing game were strong: Play-action and deep passing. When using play-action, Cousins posted a 111.3 rating (10th best in the NFL with QBs who had at least eight games) and averaged 8.6 yards per attempt, according to Pro Football Focus.
Cousins had the ninth best passer rating on throws traveling more than 15 yards (106.8). His accuracy percentage was closer to the middle of the pack at 14th.
While the Vikings’ QB was fifth in percentage of drop backs under pressure, he managed to perform admirably at times with rushers in his face, posting the seventh best QB rating under pressure by PFF’s metrics. Cousins led the NFL in accuracy percentage under pressure. He ranked 13th in rating with a clean pocket.
Cousins also had the third best QB rating on third downs with less than five yards to go.
What didn’t work
Of course, the turnovers. Cousins’ fumbles and pick-sixes gave opponents 35 free points in 2018. He came into the year as the NFL leader in fumbles since 2015 and the trend continued. Likewise Cousins continued his streak of double-digit INT seasons.
In one-score games in the second half, Cousins ranked 17th in quarterback rating (85.0) just ahead — coincidentally — of Case Keenum. Averaging just 6.3 yards per attempt put Cousins at 21st in the NFL in those situations. The Vikings had the fifth worst offense in yards per play in one-score games in the third and fourth quarter. Cousins also won one game against a team that finished the year with a winning record.
The Vikings did not use enough play-action, dialing it up on 19.9 percent of passes, (26th among QBs with eight games). Lack of pass protection and a hesitancy to force the ball to Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen may have kept the percentage of deep passes down. Cousins ranked 25th in percentage of throws traveling over 15 yards. Overall the Vikings’ passing game ranked dead last in yards per completion.
Cousins ranked 25th in yards per attempt on third-and-long (with at least 50 passes on third-and-long)
While his offensive line struggled, the rate at which Cousins was under pressure wasn’t massively different than during his time in D.C. He was pressured on 38.9 percent of drop backs in 2018 and 35.6 percent, 32.0 percent and 36.6 percent in his three previous years as a full-time starter. Ranking 21st among QBs with at least eight games in snap-to-release time (per PFF) may have played a role in the high pressure rate.
The Vikings were also 21st in red zone touchdown percentage.
What might change in 2019?
There’s no doubt new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski and offensive assistant Gary Kubiak will be increasing the amount of play-action passing and the front office will make it a goal to improve his offensive line. If the Vikings add a No. 3 receiver and receiving tight end to the mix, Cousins will have a better chance at succeeding on third-and-long when opposing teams double Diggs and Thielen.
Another goal will be improving the running game and getting Cousins more third-and-short situations where he excels. Running in the red zone may take away pressure from the QB to make throws into tight spaces.
Stefanski and Kubiak — with the addition of a new offensive line coach — could be more creative in pass blocking schemes than the team was in 2018.
Best case scenario for 2019
The new scheme along with an improved running game and more weapons on the offensive side helps Cousins become a more efficient quarterback. His ceiling — the 2016 season — will be difficult to reach without an elite offensive line, but cracking the top 10 in key passing categories like Expected Points Added (22nd in 2018) and Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (14th) would make the Vikings a much more dangerous offense. With a top defense, that would put the Vikings in the hunt as a top NFC team.
Worst case scenario for 2019
The offseason changes make only a marginal impact and opposing teams — especially those within the division — have an idea of how to exploit Cousins’ shortcomings. That would cause the Vikings to still come up short in big games and late situations, putting them in the hunt for a wild card again at best. Even worse if they allow defensive talk to walk in favor of skill players, that marginal improvement could be evened out by worse defense.
The Vikings’ backup quarterback is an unrestricted free agent. A former Kubiak QB, he might be re-signed to continue to back up Cousins. Over two years as a starter, he went 13-11 with 30 touchdowns, 24 interceptions and 6.8 yards per attempt.
Sloter has shown flashes of brilliance in both of his career preseasons. Last year in four games, he completed 73.2 percent of his passes and finished with a 114.4 rating. The Vikings have liked him enough to keep him on the roster, which could point to the former college receiver being Cousins’ backup.
The free agent pool has some great backup options, including Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tyrod Taylor, Josh McCown and Brock Osweiler. All of them could be trusted to go .500 in a stretch of a few games in the case of a Cousins injury.
There’s the bigger option of a QB in the draft. The Vikings could pull a Brett Favre/Aaron Rodgers type move by selecting Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray if he slides in the first round and plan for life without Cousins in 2021 or draft a project quarterback like University of Buffalo’s 6-foot-7, rocket-armed Tyree Jackson.