RICHMOND, Va. -- Every time second-year quarterback Kirk Cousins plays, he has a chance to make himself more valuable to the Redskins -- both as a backup and a potential trade chip further down the road. His importance as a backup is much more pressing, given Robert Griffin III’s health (though he remains on pace to start the opener) and questions about his durability. Eventually, Cousins’ value around the NFL will become more intriguing.
To get a look at his progress and his potential future value, I talked to former NFL executive (currently a part of ESPN NFL Insiders) Louis Riddick. After a six-year NFL career, Riddick spent seven years in the Redskins’ organization, first as a scout and then as director of pro personnel. Then, from 2008-2013, he worked as a scout and eventually served as director of pro personnel for Philadelphia.
For those who enjoyed the newsletters I used to do, this is a similar format. Except that it’s not coming to your email inbox. But, hey, it’s still free so you’ll get your money’s worth. All the quotes are Riddick's.
Pre-NFL thoughts: Let’s start from the beginning, because it reveals what Riddick saw from Cousins when he played for Michigan State and it explains why, at least from one perspective, he lasted until the fourth round. It will also let you see how his thoughts have changed and how he thinks Cousins has improved. There were some areas Riddick had no doubts about Cousins: his football character, his off-field character, his leadership, his intelligence. He called Cousins an A-plus in every one of those categories.
Now, for his football assessment. First, the good: “He can make the plays that are supposed to be made. He can throw hitches and the three-step quick game. He can learn the offense and operate well within the offense and they don’t have to scale down the playbook for him.”
Now, the other side: “What I had problems with him at Michigan State was coming through for his team in crucial situations, whether it be third down or toward the end of the half and getting his team in the end zone or time to bring his team back. Those are the areas where I thought Kirk didn’t always deliver on his end. I’m not saying it’s all his fault, but I didn’t think he always delivered.”
Riddick noticed other attributes that made him pause, starting with his pocket presence.
“He would have issues getting rattled by the rush and locking in on primary targets and not being able to quickly find second and third options. On film you saw they were open but he couldn’t get to them. Sometimes he couldn’t get to them because his eyes went from downfield to looking at the rush. And there were times where, when his eyes did come down to the rush, his feet weren’t able to get his behind out of harm’s way and get his eyes back to, ‘OK, where are my seconds, where are my thirds.’ “
Last season: More of the same from his college days. Don’t forget: Cousins struggled for several drives in the pocket vs. Cleveland in what turned out to be a highly productive start (329 passing yards, two touchdowns, one interception; 104.4 passer rating). Getting him outside the pocket on bootlegs helped. So what did Riddick see in general?
“I saw a little of the same thing. Good in the short to intermediate game and timing and rhythm passes where his No. 1 option is open, but he still wasn’t initially finding those second and third receivers, letting the ball go early before throwing window closed.”
Improvements: Cousins completed six of seven passes for 52 yards and a touchdown in the preseason opener against Tennessee. Riddick watched and saw an evolving quarterback. He saw a quarterback comfortable in the system.
“This is a guy who is getting the offense in and out of the huddle quicker; he has a soundness to him as far as his operation under center, his feet getting away from the center, getting the ball out of his hands with confidence, with quickness, with timing, with precision. He’s hitting receivers in stride. He looks really good running their boot and play action game. He can make plays outside the pocket, throwing on the move.”
Needs to see: Cousins has played in five preseason games, made three relief appearances and one NFL start. There’s still a lot more to learn about Cousins, especially for teams who, down the road, might try to trade for him. Or before some are convinced they know what type of quarterback he is, or will be.
“You want to see him do all the things against these vanilla defenses in the first two games in particular that he should be doing. He should be carving up very simple, rudimentary coverage schemes. It should almost be like 7-on-7 to some degree as long as he’s not getting pressure. The third game is a stronger litmus test.”
Specifically, Riddick said a team would like to see how Cousins reacts when there’s more of a game plan to stop him and when he's throwing outside the numbers or pushing the ball downfield.
“Make all the throws that will get people excited as far as after the season is over, ‘Is this a guy we have to try and make a play for a la Matt Schaub, a la Kevin Kolb.’ I’m interested to see him continue to progress.”
Determining value: Obviously the Redskins aren’t about to trade Cousins. But at some point that could be an option. If he keeps progressing, then when his contract is up it would make sense for him to seek a starting job elsewhere (assuming Griffin remains healthy and productive). Riddick said evaluating quarterbacks on film is the “hardest thing to do in this profession” because you need to know what’s going on inside their heads
“No amount of film will tell you that. It’s something you have to sense that, OK, I get a feeling this guy is coming on. There’s no play or sequence of plays where it clicks in your head where you say, ‘I’ve seen it now.’ It comes over time where you’ve seen it in other quarterbacks and you can sense it in a quarterback still on the [rise] who you’re still trying to project how he’s going to do.”
Some teams like a big sample size, but that can be difficult. So, Riddick said, a team would like to see how a quarterback plays when he has a week to prepare, how he fares on the road, how he plays against division opponents, how he handles end-of-half or end-of-game situations or when his team is trailing. In Cousins’ case, he won on the road and threw a late touchdown pass and scored on a quarterback draw to tie Baltimore late, though it was Griffin who put them in scoring range. Cousins threw two interceptions late in relief vs. Atlanta.
“You don’t know how big an exposure to him you’ll get so you want the exposure you do get to focus on those situations. When that’s all done you go back and look at his college stuff, as far as character and what makes him tick and what mental makeup he has and you find out how that has transferred to his time in Washington. ... People aren’t as willing to give up information like that, especially if you’re trading with Washington for him. It’s not like they’re willing to try and help you out and give you all the inside information. It’s not their obligation to tell you everything. So you hit up all the resources you can so you reach a comfort level to where we say, ‘We’re comfortable taking a risk on a guy who is a backup who we’re now projecting to be a starter.’"