When Kirk Cousins joins his new teammates once the Minnesota Vikings begin their voluntary offseason training program April 16, the quarterback will be handed the reins to an offense predicated upon his strengths.
“We’re going to do what Cousins does best,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said at the NFL's annual meeting in Orlando, Florida, last week. “He’s the most important player, really, on the offense.
“Obviously, we’ve got the playbook in, all the installation and all that stuff. That can all go out the window when we get our hands on it and get to know exactly what he’s doing and what he feels comfortable with. You don’t pay that guy that much money to try to put him in a square hole.”
The Vikings guaranteed $84 million to Cousins with the belief that an upgrade at quarterback is what will bring them their first Super Bowl win. Here’s what Minnesota’s offense could look like with its franchise QB at the helm and a coaching staff aiming to maximize his strengths.
Building the foundation
John DeFilippo has to be ecstatic about the opportunity in front of him.
During his time in the NFL as an offensive coordinator (Browns 2015) and quarterbacks coach (Raiders 2007-08, 2012-14; Jets 2009; Eagles 2016-17), DeFilippo has had a different starting quarterback in each season opener from 2012 to 2016. Carson Wentz was the only quarterback he has been able to coach in consecutive seasons since 2012. And even then, DeFilippo had to work with a different starting quarterback (Nick Foles) just three weeks before the end of the regular season when Wentz tore his ACL.
Cousins’ three-year deal gives the Vikings some much-needed stability at the quarterback position. Once their new offensive coordinator gets a chance to dive into the initial workings of what he has installed for the offense, it’s likely he’ll want to lay the groundwork for a long-term relationship with Cousins the way he did with Foles when he took over for Wentz.
“I sat [Foles] down and made him list me with our coaching staff: ‘What are your best concepts? What do you see yourself do well?’ Because ... myself, Frank Reich, Doug Pederson, we’re not the ones out there throwing it -- he is,” DeFilippo said on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities during Super Bowl week. “We sat down and spent time with Nick formulating game plans on what he felt comfortable doing. For me, that’s coaching. Why would you ask a player to do something that he’s not comfortable with?”
Those early offseason meetings between Cousins and his offensive coordinator might look something like this:
“I would bring him in the room and ask him to tell me his five favorite routes from Washington,” ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen said. “'Tell me why you like them, why they fit our personnel and why we should run them.' Then, I [DeFilippo] would show him my favorite routes we ran in Philly and explain why I like them. Why can or can’t we run them? By the end of that, we’ll have 10 routes to start building out the playbook from there."
The basis of what DeFilippo brings to Minnesota from Philadelphia is a modernized West Coast scheme with some added college spread-offense concepts, pre-snap movement and play-action. Those concepts created a number of open windows for one-on-one matchups for Wentz and Foles, giving both more time to find reads, something every quarterback desires.
“Doesn’t matter if you’re talking about Dan Marino or Kirk Cousins,” Bowen said. “They want the best matchup. They don’t want to be making 50-50 contested throws every time. You want to find reads, you want open throwing windows to stay in the pocket and rip the ball down the field. He’s going to have the opportunity to do that.”
Barring injury or a blockbuster trade, Cousins will be the Vikings' quarterback for a long time. It’s what he referred to as the potential for a “lifetime deal” during his introductory news conference in March. The basis of that is building a system around what the 29-year-old quarterback has demonstrated he can do well while finding ways to improve areas in which he has struggled.
Capitalizing on Cousins’ strengths
During a span in which he threw for over 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in each of the past three seasons, Cousins posted the third-highest completion percentage and the seventh-best total QBR, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The only quarterback better in both categories was Drew Brees.
There are many reasons to look past his 26-30-1 regular-season career record and the fact that he has only started one playoff game to see why the Vikings view Cousins as their next franchise quarterback.
Play-action: Zimmer could hardly contain himself from reverting into full scouting mode when he introduced Cousins on March 15. In describing his new quarterback, the Vikings' coach harped on his biggest strength.
“He’s always been a very, very tough guy to play against -- very accurate, excellent in play-actions, terrific in the boots,” Zimmer said.
Cousins has built a reputation as one of the NFL’s best play-action passers, a concept coach Jay Gruden dialed up on 20 percent of the Redskins’ plays in 2017. In fact, Cousins' passer rating jumped up by 31.3 points when using play-action versus when the Redskins didn’t use it, going from 7.1 yards per attempt and an 87.4 QB rating without play-action to 9.4 yards per attempt and a 118.7 QB rating with it.
According to Pro Football Focus research, the Vikings ranked second in play-action pass attempts in 2017. Minnesota’s running backs accounted for 1,957 rushing yards last year and ranked second in the NFL in team rushing attempts. Considering Dalvin Cook’s pending return and how well Cousins does operating a ball fake, DeFilippo could choose to be aggressive when calling play-action passes.
DeFilippo also might bring a staple of the Eagles' offense to Minnesota.
Philadelphia dismantled teams all year, including the Vikings in the NFC Championship, with the use of the run-pass option. Why? Because its RPOs are made to look like play-action. And very rarely did Foles run the ball. The playcalls were dialed up for the Eagles' QB to get the ball out on a quick slant -- another version of a play-action pass with a harder sell on the play fake.
Cousins excels at getting the ball out quickly in a rhythm passing game and making accurate throws to his receivers. The formula the Eagles used with Foles and RPOs could be one DeFilippo adapts with Cousins.
“Doesn’t mean [Cousins] can’t throw the ball on a zone read every once in a while,” Bowen said. “He did in Washington. All you have to do, in my opinion, in the pro game is pull it twice a game. Just get it on film and make their defensive end hesitate a little bit. Now you’re opening up the cutback for Dalvin Cook. But Cousins’ movement skills are there, so you spring boot off play-action.”
Deep ball: Arm strength, accuracy and decision-making.
Over the past three seasons, Cousins has been one of the best QBs at throwing the ball deep (15 yards or more), ranking third in completion percentage (48.9), fifth in yards per attempt (13.7) and third in passing touchdowns (30) among 37 quarterbacks with 100 such attempts.
And he hasn’t done it by zeroing in on a single receiver. Since 2015, Cousins is one of four quarterbacks to have thrown at least five touchdowns to eight different receivers.
He was at his best when he had DeSean Jackson (17.9 yards per catch) and Pierre Garcon (13.2 YPC) as weapons in 2016, a season in which both receivers notched over 1,000 yards. Cousins' deep-ball production dipped in 2017 due to injuries to his receiving corps. He posted a 106.4 passer rating on 66 deep passes last year.
Cousins should see steady production with a deep passing game given the receivers he’ll have to work with. According to PFF research, Adam Thielen ranked first in deep-ball wide receiver rating in 2016 and Stefon Diggs third in that category last season.
Adding weapons: Philadelphia knew how to spread the ball around. That’s good news for Cousins as he embarks on the next phase of his career under DeFilippo.
Zach Ertz (824 yards, 8 TDs), Nelson Agholor (768 yards, 8 TDs) and Alshon Jeffery (789 yards, 9 TDs) accounted for a bulk of the production in the Eagles’ passing game last season. Torrey Smith was next with 430 yards receiving and two touchdowns, followed by Trey Burton’s five TDs and 248 receiving yards. Then there are the contributions of Mack Hollins, Corey Clement, Brent Celek, Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount -- all of whom caught touchdown passes.
Cook will pick up where he left off, providing Cousins with a pass-catching option out of the backfield. The recent addition of slot receiver Kendall Wright also gives the Vikings' offense the ability to maximize on Cousins’ intermediate accuracy.
What the Vikings are missing is an athletic, hybrid tight end to complement Kyle Rudolph -- another big-framed body who can shield defenders at the point of attack and also go up and get the ball. This is especially critical in the red zone (more on that below). The Eagles consistently used Ertz, Burton and Celek in multiple-tight end sets based on their various roles. Rudolph was the Vikings' top red zone threat in 2017. Finding a move tight end, someone with speed who can make tough catches, would be the perfect addition for Cousins.
Fixing his flaws
DeFilippo will have the majority of his work cut out for him with Cousins on third down and in the red zone.
Cousins produced a passing first down on just 30.4 percent of his dropbacks on third down last season, with a completion percentage of 57.2 percent in such situations, according to ESPN Stats & Info research. PFF ranked Cousins 31st among qualifying QBs on third down.
In the red zone, Cousins had the fourth-most turnover-worthy plays the past two seasons, according to PFF research. The Redskins were 14th in red zone scoring during Cousins' first year as a starter, dipped to 28th in 2016 and bounced back to 14th last season.
The good news? DeFilippo’s influence might help Cousins improve upon his 83.3 QB rating inside the 20-yard line.
In Wentz’s rookie season, the quarterback posted a 35.8 QBR in the red zone, threw 12 TDs and one interception and rushed for two scores. In his second year under DeFilippo, Wentz threw 23 touchdowns and no interceptions inside the 20-yard line with a 96.7 QBR and 64.9 completion percentage. In both years, Wentz never lost a fumble in the red zone.
Fumbles have been an issue for Cousins at a concerning rate. He fumbled 31 times (11 lost) over the past three seasons, including a career-high 13 in 2017. Luckily, weather won’t be a factor in at least eight home games each year from now on.
There’s a long way to go, and while the Vikings have begun building around Cousins' strengths, they’ll also look to find ways to mitigate his flaws.
“One of the biggest areas he can improve upon is being more efficient in the red zone,” Bowen said. “He has to make those tight-window throws. Those disappear so quickly.”