Minnesota Vikings

Vikings seem to realize Kirk Cousins isn’t quite who they thought he was

The Minnesota Vikings are paying Kirk Cousins like an elite quarterback, but they seem to have realized they need to support him.

After reaching the NFC Championship Game with Case Keenum under center in 2017, the Minnesota Vikings figured they were one piece away from making the final step to a Super Bowl. That piece was deemed to be Kirk Cousins, who they signed to a three-year, $84 million, fully guaranteed contract as a natural upgrade over Keenum.

Cousins’ surface numbers weren’t bad in his first season with the Vikings, as he threw for 4,298 yards with 30 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as he completed over 70 percent of his passes. But he faded badly in the second half, as absorbing 40 sacks and being under a lot of pressure behind a bad offensive line (39 percent pressure rate, according to Pro Football Focus) seemed to take something out of him. Pro Football Focus graded him as perfectly average, as the 15th-ranked quarterback in the league last year with some high marks in some areas and lackluster marks in others.

Mike Sando of The Athletic asked NFL executives to place quarterbacks into tiers to help him shape his annual ranking list that inspires conversation every year.

Among the things that stand out in the piece, as pointed out by For The Win, are an anonymous general manager’s comments on Cousins:

The world is going to pick Kirk Cousins over Case Keenum, but both are system guys to me. I get concerned with him when it counts.

There is no disputing the final sentence. Cousins is below-par in third down proficiency, and he has consistently fallen short in big games during his career (prime time vs. good teams, playoff “win and you’re in”, etc.). He is in the top-tier of quarterbacks based on salary, but anyone who paid attention knew the Vikings were not getting that kind of elite quarterback.

A year after passing on real upgrades to the offensive line, and hiring an offensive coordinator in John DeFilippo who had his own ideas (and head coaching aspirations) before being fired late in the season, the Vikings realized they needed to surround Cousins with credible structure this offseason.

Along with taking the interim tag off offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, Gary Kubiak was brought to Minnesota as an offensive assistant (or “head coach-offense” as some may call it). Kubiak will be an important liaison between Cousins and head coach Mike Zimmer, who hates quarterbacks and kickers in virtually equal measure. But Kubiak also brings credibility, and a play-action influenced system that seems sure to suit Cousins better.

The Vikings used their first-round pick in April on center Garrett Bradbury and a fourth-round pick on guard Dru Samia. Samia may compete with free agent signing Josh Kline for the starting job at right guard, and Bradbury’s presence will push Pat Elflein to left guard as a natural upgrade at that spot.

Tight end Irv Smith Jr. was Minnesota’s second-round pick this year. While rookie tight ends generally struggle, he can be used in an effective way to foster a productive campaign.

“System quarterback” is a convenient, flimsy buzz-phrase used to discredit quarterbacks. Cousins is one of the easier targets in that regard right now, but it’s a rare quarterback that won’t function noticeably better with better infrastructure around him. The Vikings have made an effort to upgrade that structure, a year too late really, so now it’s up to Cousins to improve in some key margins and reach another level.

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