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Who were the most statistically comparable QBs to Kirk Cousins in 2018?

As we try to better understand what happened to the Minnesota Vikings in 2018 and where they can improve in 2019, we can use the data provided by Pro Football Focus’s QB Annual to determine why the team’s passing game ranked 22nd in Estimated Points Added. Let’s have a look at quarterbacks who were statistically similar to Cousins and what we can learn from their successes and failures…

Cincinnati Bengals, Andy Dalton 

PFF overall rank: 12th

Both in 2018 and over their careers, Dalton is the QB most like Cousins. He flourished with a great supporting cast in 2015, but has struggled at times when he did not have the playmakers or line around him.

Kirk Cousins PFF overall rank: 13th

Similarities:

Third down grade

Both quarterbacks performed well below their overall grades on third down with Dalton ranking 24th and Cousins 23rd. With sacks included, Cousins gained just 5.0 yards per third down (league average 5.5 YPA) and had a negative EPA on third downs for the second straight year. Likewise Dalton performed at his lowest third down level in EPA, and both QBs were sacked on more than 10 percent of third down drop backs.

This is where supporting casts and offensive line may show up the biggest. Dalton and Cousins had better offensive lines in 2015 and 2016 than they did last season. When opposing defenses know the quarterback has to drop back, they can go all out with the pass rush.

Dalton did take more risks and had more “big-time throws” per third down than Cousins.

Versus blitz

Both veteran QBs are known as being strong at the line of scrimmage. Dalton has posted passer ratings over 100 in three of the last four years against the blitz and 105.4 in 2018. Cousins had a 104.3 rating against the blitz and hasn’t been below a 90 rating since becoming a full-time starter in 2015. It’s noticeable that neither Dalton or Cousins is blitzed above the league average rate. It appears opponents understand that they can both adapt quickly, meaning both may need to adjust to the lack of blitzes going forward.

Accuracy 

In overall accuracy percentage the Vikings’ QB ranked ninth and Dalton 12th. One major similarity is that each succeeded on throws between 10-19 yards. Cousins was 6.8 percent above average on intermediate throws and Dalton 3.4 percent above average. Many times intermediate throws come along with play-action. Both QBs averaged 8.6 yards per attempt with play-action, Cousins gained 6.7 YPA without it and Dalton just 6.5 YPA.

The Bengals’ QB used play-action more often at 25.4 percent compared to 19.9 percent for Cousins. We’re certain to see more play-action next year.

Another note from PFF’s accuracy numbers: Neither player executed swing passes or underneath throws with a high rate of accuracy. The Vikings will have to find ways to manufacture yards while working around the fact that the schemed throws aren’t always Cousins’ strength.

Both Dalton and Cousins threw exactly 53 percent of passes to open receivers, above the league average of 46 percent. There were certainly tight-window opportunities with Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen that Cousins passed up last year and should let loose in the future.

First reads

Here we can spot another area where Stefanski’s role will be important for Cousins in 2019. He went to first reads 71 percent of the time — league average 66 percent — and was well below league average in Estimated Points Added per throw. Cousins can often find the right answers at the line of scrimmage if he is given those answers by the scheme and play calling. Same goes for Dalton who was 69 percent first read and below average EPA.

Another interesting note which could pertain to scheme or offensive line or both is that Cousins’ average depth of throw traveled 9.9 yards on first reads, which was well below league average at 11.

Clean pocket

For the fourth straight year, Cousins had a rating over 100 with a clean pocket, but only 3.8 percent of his clean-pocket passes qualified as “big-time throws” by PFF. Dalton’s rating was only 96.8 but he scored a much better PFF grade than Cousins. The Bengals’ QB was ranked sixth of 35 while Cousins was 22nd, likely because 6.0 percent of Dalton’s passes were “big-time” throws. In all situations, Dalton was seventh in “big-time” throws and Cousins ranked 20th.

What’s interesting/similar about Dalton and Cousins in clean pockets is that they have been much better in the past than they were in 2018. In 2015, Dalton averaged 8.2 yards per attempt, had a 110.2 rating and 7.4 percent “big-time” throw rate. In 2016, Cousins had a slightly lower rating (107.2) but averaged 8.7 yards per attempt (versus 7.2 YPA in 2018) and nearly doubled his “big-time” throw percentage. It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that both players’ offensive lines were better in those given years and they had a deeper bevy of weapons.

Pressure/pressure rate

Cousins graded 13th under pressure and produced an 83.1 rating while Dalton was 20th and posted a 70.1 rating (slightly above 67.1 average). The similarity isn’t in the 2018 stats, it’s in the ups and downs that both players have had statistically under pressure. In 2015, Dalton managed a 92.9 rating under pressure and averaged 9.0 yards per pass attempt. He’s never come close to that mark again. Cousins’ highest rating was 2018. Previously his 73.0 rating under pressure in 2015 was Cousins’ best.

The two QBs differ in terms of their pressure rates. Cousins has only had one of four years under 35 percent, which might point to him bringing on some of his own pressure by not getting rid of the ball or moving effectively in the pocket. Dalton’s highest career pressure rate (32 percent) is the same as Cousins’ lowest.

Oakland Raiders, Derek Carr

PFF overall rank: 18th

If you think Cousins’ supporting cast was weak at times, have a look at what Carr was dealing with. His rookie left tackle got smoked all year, his coach traded away his No. 1 receiver and he didn’t get much support from the 25th rated ground game. A closer look at Carr reveals that his individual performance and tendencies have a lot in common with the Vikings’ starting quarterback…

Similarities:

Clean pocket

The Raiders’ quarterback was almost identical to Cousins in both grade and rating. Carr ranked 18th by PFF grade and produced a 105.7 passer rating (103.1 is league average). Like Cousins, Carr managed a very low number of “big-time” throws — just 2.5 percent, in fact. Both QBs had exceptionally high completion percentages with no pressure but neither reached the league average of 7.8 yards per attempt.

They are both also remarkably consistent in their clean pocket performance. Carr has posted ratings between 96.4 and 105.7 over the last four years and Cousins has been between 106.5 and 115.7 each year as a starter.

The ceiling for clean passing is one area where they deviate. Carr has never been above average in yards per attempt with no pressure and Cousins was as high as 0.9 yards above league average in 2016.

The conservative nature of the 2018 version of Cousins and Carr throughout his career have both been to the detriment of their offensive efficiency numbers. The Vikings were 32nd in all situations in yards per completion, Oakland ranked 27th.

Negative graded throws 

Cousins may have struggled with fumbles, but when it came to avoiding ill-advised passes, he was among the best. PFF marked Cousins with the third fewest negatively graded throws and Carr with the sixth fewest. The difference was that Carr still ended up with the 10th most “turnover-worthy” throws and Cousins had the fourth lowest rate of “turnover-worthy” attempts.

The two quarterbacks were nearly identical in their lack of “big-time” throws in all situations. Cousins was 20th and Carr 18th of 35 QBs. Neither quarterback pushed the ball down the field with Carr ranking No. 1 for the shortest average air yards per throw in the NFL and Cousins finished seventh (per NextGEN stats).

The picture becomes even clearer with NextGEN’s “Aggressiveness” stat. Cousins is the third least aggressive QB in the NFL (based on throws into tight coverage) and Carr is fifth.

Third downs

Cousins graded as the 23rd (of 35) best quarterback on third downs while Carr ranked 26th. Their production on third-and-long situations was similar. With more than six yards to go, here’s how they compared:

Carr: 56-for-86, 7.1 yards per attempt, 89.8 rating

Cousins: 50-for-89, 6.4 yards per attempt, 78.2 rating

Neither QB came up with many “big-time” throws on third down. Just 3.9 percent of Carr’s third down passes qualified and 4.6 percent for Cousins.

Where you can see the offensive lines impacting Carr and Cousins is in times sacked — both were sacked on more than 10 percent of their third down drop backs — and throws past the sticks. The Vikings’ quarterback only threw past the sticks on 46 percent of attempts, down 12 percent from his career best in 2016. Carr threw past the sticks 52 percent of the time, down six percent from his career high.

In terms of weapons, both QBs had their most success targeting their tight end. Jared Cook (a free agent, by the way), produced first downs on 55 percent of throws in his directions while Kyle Rudolph went 12-for-18.

Blitz

Over his years as a starter, Cousins has become one of the strongest QBs in the NFL against the blitz. He was only sacked on 3.8 percent of blitzes and produced an outstanding 104.3 rating. Last year his rating was 109.3 vs. blitzes.

Carr took more sacks, but was highly effective when he got the ball away, scoring a 103.4 rating and an outstanding 8.3 yards per attempt.

When we put together the pieces, Carr and Cousins are similar in their ability to read defenses at the line of scrimmage and have answers for the problems opponents are trying to create. When they are asked to do more, things become problematic. When going to his second read, Carr posted a minus-0.34 Expected Points Added. Cousins was minus-0.14. The league average is minus-0.03.

Atlanta Falcons, Matt Ryan

PFF overall rank: 11th

In traditional stats, Ryan had a better year than Cousins by a wide margin, throwing for nearly 5,000 yards and averaging 8.1 yards per attempt. The Falcons had the fifth best passing game in Expected Points Added in the NFL, but Ryan’s numbers were helped because he was often playing from behind with a very poor defense. He only graded two spots ahead of Cousins and their performances were reflective of each other in a few key areas…

Similarities:

Deep passing

When Cousins uncorked deep passes, he often succeeded in finding either Adam Thielen or Stefon Diggs. The same can be said for Ryan when targeting Julio Jones or Calvin Ridley. Ryan scored 6.9 percent higher than average in accuracy on passes 10-19 yards from the line of scrimmage and recorded a 118.6 rating. Similarly Cousins rated 6.8 percent above the norm and had a 117.5 rating.

When Ryan was going for broke, he was fantastic, rating 13.2 percent above average in accuracy and notching a 113.9 rating. Cousins was 6.6 percent above the line and had a 106.8 rating.

The two QBs were even remarkably close when throwing “go” routes. Ryan posted a 116.8 rating on straight patterns deep down the field, Cousins 113.3.

The difference? Ryan threw the ball more than 10 yards on 36 percent (tied with league average) of total throws while Cousins only went down field on 30 percent.

Scramble drill 

Cousins was one of the NFL’s worst QBs in 2018 when scrambling. He recorded zero “big-time” throws and posted a minus-0.54 Expected Points Added. Ryan wasn’t far behind. The Falcons’ QB threw 37.5 percent uncatchable passes when scrambling, had zero “big-time” throws and managed a minus-0.26 EPA.

One thing to keep in mind about Ryan: His best year came under Kyle Shanahan. One thing that Shanahan’s offenses do brilliantly is change the launch points of the quarterback. Knowing that Ryan wasn’t great at creating when scrambling, Shanahan used bootlegs and play-action passes to move him around in the pocket by design. We could see a lot of that under Gary Kubiak in 2019 for Kirk Cousins.

Clean pocket

Despite putting together a 108.5 rating with a clean pocket, Cousins graded 22nd by PFF’s system. Likewise Ryan had a 116.6 rating, but the 17th best grade. The best explanation for this might be that each executed makable throws that resulted in extremely high completion percentages, but rarely hit on high-difficulty passes that would move the needle. Ryan only had a 2.8 percent “big-time” throw percentage with a clean pocket, well below the league’s 4.2 percent. Cousins finished at 3.8 percent.

CONCLUSIONS

– What stands out in each comparison is that Cousins was not aggressive and did not go off script very often and those things likely resulted in poor scores on third down, where aggressiveness and off-script throws are often required. There appears to be some variation between the other QBs and Cousins from year to year on things like third downs and big-time throws, so it’s plausible there could be improvement going forward if he is better supported.

– Cousins is a terrific executor if he is given the right answers a la versus the blitz or on first reads. For this reason, Kubiak might be the best acquisition the Vikings could make in the offseason. We see that Ryan was more successful in a Shanahan offense and Dalton was better in his past system.

– If there is one area where Cousins could regress, it’s under pressure. We see variation among all the comparable quarterbacks in those situations.





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