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The future of the Vikings, part 1: Quarterbacks

In the lead up to free agency and the NFL Draft, we will look at what happened in 2019 and all the possible options of every Vikings position. We start with quarterbacks….

Kirk’s career year 

When the Vikings signed Kirk Cousins, they expected to get more out of him than Washington did in both his personal production and in team success and in 2019 they achieved that goal. By every possible measure — even QB Wins — Cousins produced the best season of his career.

Fueled by a Kubiak-style offense that required the veteran QB to take deep shots downfield that were opened up by play-action, Cousins became the best downfield passer in the NFL.

He produced the second highest quarterback rating throwing downfield (min. 50 passes) behind only Kansas City superstar Patrick Mahomes (per PFF). In total Cousins went 24-for-61 with nine touchdowns, one interception and a 119.7 rating when throwing the ball more than 20 yards in the air.

The Vikings tapped into this strength at a much higher rate than in 2018. Cousins finished ninth in the percentage of throws that went deep, a jump from 25th in ’18.

Cousins was one of the most accurate overall passers in the league. Per NFLNextGEN’s “expected completion percentage” metric, his completion percentage was 5.6% above expectation based on the probability of completing throws. That was third in the NFL only behind Ryan Tannehill and Drew Brees.

He was even solid when pressured, ranking sixth in pressured QB rating and Cousins saw his sack total reduce from 40 to 25 from ’18 to ’19.

Overall PFF graded Cousins the fifth best QB this year only behind Tannehill, Brees, Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson.

The only metric that wasn’t particularly impressive was ESPN’s QBR, which factors game situation. Cousins was 13th, ranking just one spot ahead of where he finished his first season as a Viking.

His QBR is a product of several games that were unwinnable because of quarterback play. In the 1-100 system, he produced scores of:

  • 7.4 in Week 2 vs. GB
  • 21.4 in Week 4 vs. CHI
  • 40.4 in Week 13 vs. SEA
  • 24.2 in Week 16 vs. GB

So what can we make of Cousins’s career year?

The first conclusion we can draw is that the scheme worked. Using Cousins on rollouts and bootlegs turned out to be a brilliant idea as he was an elite thrower outside the pocket despite a lack of mobility.

Beyond play-actions, maximizing Dalvin Cook’s receiving ability and yards after catch produced 8.0 yards per throw behind the line of scrimmage — which nearly doubled from 2018.

The fit was right, the weapons (aside from an Adam Thielen injury) were used correctly and the offense was excellent overall. Per Pro-Football Reference, the Vikings had the eighth most “Expected Points Added” through the air. That’s a gain from 22nd last year and a gain of approximately 70 points based on the effectiveness of the passing game.

But the black cloud over this season is the failure to come through in a number of important games that could have set the Vikings up with a home playoff game.

In two losses to the Packers, Cousins produced a 55.8 quarterback rating and PFF grades of 25.2 and 56.0 (out of 100). The Vikings lost to Chase Daniel in Chicago and Matt Moore in Kansas City. And a potential game-winning drive against Seattle fell flat on a rushed throw on fourth down.

Cousins came through in the wild card round against the New Orleans Saints with a flawless set of overtime passes to Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph and deserved to have teammates snark back at those questioning their quarterback. However, the overall failure to come through against tougher opponents during the regular season set up the Vikings for a near impossible road to the Super Bowl.

Since the last team to win the Super Bowl that wasn’t a No. 1 or 2 seed came in 2010, it was clear that going to New Orleans and San Francisco would be an extremely tough task. Cousins walked out of the Bay Area with a Green Bay-like performance, posting a 52.0 PFF grade and 42.6 QBR.

In seven games, including playoffs, against winning teams, the Vikings went 2-5 and Cousins managed a 58.1% completion, 13 touchdowns, six interceptions and a 87.5 quarterback rating.

So how do we contextualize a season that saw so many great performances and an exciting playoff win but also featured winnable losses that crushed their chances at going deep in the postseason?

You might look at it as the remastered version of an old album.

The case for and against an extension

The argument for paying Cousins another massive contract — likely in the range of $35-40 million per year guaranteed — starts with how difficult it would be to replace him.

Since 2015 only five quarterbacks (min. 1,000 throws) have a higher quarterback rating than Cousins.  Four passers have more yards, six have more touchdowns, six have a better adjusted net yards per pass attempt and two have a higher completion percentage.

By PFF’s grading system, from 2019 back to 2015, Cousins has ranked fifth, 14th, 18th, 10th, and 14th in the NFL. And during those years he’s gone 42-35-2 as a starter (sixth most wins as a starting QB since ’15).

Finding another quarterback who can match Cousins’s production will not be easy. We don’t see many teams letting go of quarterbacks who are comparable on paper. Players like Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford and Philip Rivers have similar profiles and they have each stayed in one place for the entire careers.

Of course that’s the high-end comparable. Cousins is only a few shades different from QBs like Derek Carr, Alex Smith and Andy Dalton.

Year Cousins PFF rank
Cousins QBR rank
2019 5 13
2018 14 14
2017 18 15
2016 10 6
2015 14 6

That’s the argument for moving on: Cousins won’t be good enough to make up for a contract that  will take up too much cap room to put a good enough roster around him to reach the Super Bowl.

It isn’t as simple as whether he’s good or not. He’s provably good. But his shortcomings require a stacked roster, good health, great coaching, a great defense and some luck in order to go deep in the playoffs. So far in five years as a starter, the 2019 Vikings were as close as he’s ever gotten to all of those things and the Vikings are still at home while other teams play for a shot at the Super Bowl.

It won’t be easy to restock the cupboard to the same level as the 2019 Vikings in terms of talent. PFF graded them the fifth most talented team in the NFL this year.

The concern with re-signing Cousins is that the Vikings would be locking themselves into 7-9, 8-8 and 9-7 type seasons going forward and might not have another shot during his time in Minnesota like they did in ’19. Moving on might be risky but it also might open the door to a good quarterback on either a rookie deal or very reasonable contract that would allow them to load up on talent in free agency the way the Eagles did when they won the Super Bowl in ’17.

There’s other factors at play that would go into a decision at QB. Taking risks like moving on from Cousins sometimes pay off — it certainly did for the Chiefs in walking away from Alex Smith — but it also can blow up in a team’s face. Washington let Cousins go and two years later they fired his former head coach and GM.

The case for and against drafting a QB

The best argument for drafting a quarterback is that the smart teams do this.

Kansas City was highly criticized when they traded up for Patrick Mahomes after having all sorts of regular season success with Smith under center. Mahomes was the second young QB drafted to take Smith’s job — the 49ers did the same thing in 2011 with Colin Kaepernick in the second round. The New England Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo while Tom Brady was still playing at a high level and the Green Bay Packers took Aaron Rodgers when Brett Favre still had gas in the tank.

It doesn’t always work out. Brock Osweiler didn’t become the next Peyton Manning. Eagles QB Kevin Kolb didn’t give Philly stability at quarterback after Donovan McNabb.

But these teams all saw the writing on the wall and spent high draft picks on a position that wasn’t going to pay off for them right away because they understood that nothing else matters in the NFL except quarterback. Everything else is replaceable.

If any franchise proves the worth of a quarterback, it’s the Vikings. Throughout their post-Fran Tarkenton history, they have put together some of the best top-to-bottom rosters in the NFL year after year and always fallen short of a Super Bowl appearance. They have rotated an absurd number of quarterbacks while they watched the all-time greats make Super Bowl appearances in every era.

The case for drafting a QB starts with the hope that they could end that hunt and find someone who can beat good teams and overcome difficult circumstances.

Of course that’s easier said than done.

Year Third/Fourth QB taken Career wins Losses
2019 Dwayne Haskins 2 5
2019 Drew Lock 4 1
2018 Josh Allen 15 12
2018 Josh Rosen 3 13
2017 Deshaun Watson 24 13
2017 DeShone Kizer 0 15
2016 Paxton Lynch 1 3
2016 Christian Hackenberg 0 0
2015 Garrett Grayson 0 0
2015 Sean Mannion 0 2
2014 Teddy Bridgewater 22 12
2014 Derek Carr 39 55
2013 Mike Glennon 6 16
2013 Matt Barkley 2 5
2012 Ryan Tannehill 49 49
2012 Brandon Weeden 6 19
2011 Blaine Gabbert 13 35
2011 Christian Ponder 14 21
2010 Jimmy Clausen 1 13
2010 Colt McCoy 7 21
2009 Josh Freeman 25 36
2009 Pat White 0 0
233 346

If the Vikings ended up taking the third quarterback in the draft — say Utah State’s Jordan Love or Oregon’s Justin Herbert — history is not particularly kind to teams past the first or second QB drafted (aside from obvious outliers like Tom Brady and Russell Wilson). As you can see above, roughly put your chances at someone special at two out of 10 at best.

That means that getting a 50-50 shot at a special QB would require a mega trade. With so many needs, would the Vikings be willing to move a future first-round pick to move from to the top 10 to draft Tua Tagovailoa of Alabama despite his recent hip injury? It does not seem particularly likely that they would.

The future of the franchise

The hardest question for the Vikings to answer as it pertains to Cousins’s future might be whether they’re actually going to contend during his next contract. Players like Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes, Linval Joseph, Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander and Anthony Harris are either free agents or possible cap casualties this year. The defense appears to need a rebuild and the offensive line needs new guards and will eventually need a new left tackle as well. That doesn’t scream Super Bowl.

If the Vikings decide that their window was 2015-2019 and now they need to take a step back before going forward again, they may let the chips fall where they may after Cousins’s contract runs out in 2020. If they truly believe they can fill all the openings and get right back to the top of the NFC North, then their options are open to keeping Cousins or drafting/developing a QB.

The direction they choose will shape the entire future of the Vikings franchise.


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