Why Kirk Cousins is primed for a career season with Vikings

Just over a month after signing a historic fully guaranteed $84 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings, Kirk Cousins was already getting down to business.

Down in Atlanta, where he spent part of the offseason, Cousins met up with Vikings wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen and running back Mack Brown in April to sling the ball around with the players he'll share a field with this fall.

Cousins labeled the session "productive," and that's aside from the always-beneficial extra reps a quarterback can get in with his receivers.

"More than just the football," Cousins said. "Just to get to know one another a little and build somewhat of a foundation before we started with the whole crew."

As Cousins and the Vikings begin OTAs this week, Minnesota's new QB will continue to build upon the chemistry he started to form with his pass-catchers before the voluntary offseason program began. He has all the pieces in place to be on the cusp of something great this season with a career year while solidifying his status as a franchise quarterback.

Cousins knows having strong chemistry with the playmakers around him leads to success, the likes of which he experienced during the best year of his career in 2016 with the Washington Redskins.

He reached his first Pro Bowl surrounded by a strong supporting cast. At the forefront was his receiving corps, highlighted by DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Jamison Crowder.

Jackson established himself as one of the NFL's top vertical threats dating back to the start of his career in 2008 and helped Cousins become one of the league's most productive deep-ball passers that season. He made 39 of his 94 deep-ball attempts (passes that traveled 20 or more air yards) for an NFL-best 1,359 yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions in 2016. Regularly at the other end of those passes was Jackson, who averaged 17.9 yards per catch and became Cousins' favorite vertical threat.

Garcon churned out high-volume production over his five years with the Redskins. In 2016, he posted a career-best 69.3 percent catch rate on 79 receptions for 1,041 yards and three touchdowns. Over the course of their Washington careers, the duo recorded a handful of memorable clutch moments, and elevated each other's games two seasons ago. In turn, when it was time for Garcon to vote for the NFL's top 20 players in December 2016, the receiver listed Cousins for every answer, 1-20.

In the midst of Cousins' career year, Crowder had one as well as a reliable target in the slot who caught almost 68 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns in 2016.

When his supporting cast was at its best in Washington, complete with a dynamic tight end duo and an exemplary group of pass-catching running backs, so was Cousins. Without Jackson and Garcon last season and a rash of injuries to his crop of playmakers (not to mention the dire state of the offensive line), Cousins struggled. He was labeled by some as a system QB, incapable of being the difference maker his team needed.

That's why when exploring options for a fresh start and the chance to become a franchise quarterback, few, if any teams, were as appealing as the Vikings, given all they had to offer.

Cousins' clean slate comes with a host of established weapons, the NFL's No. 1 defense and one of the most complete rosters in the NFC. The players surrounding him in 2018 hold the key to Cousins' success, particularly the group of receivers that may be even better than the ones he had in 2016.

Diggs and Thielen elevated themselves into an elite category of wideouts last season while simultaneously elevating at times mediocre quarterback play. Establishing themselves as the league's top receiving duo, they combined for 12 touchdowns and 155 receptions. Thielen had the Vikings' best season at receiver since Randy Moss, and Diggs led the NFL in contested catches.

Entering their third season as a duo, having Thielen and Diggs on the same team creates a matchup nightmare. Teams struggled to figure out which guy to shadow and that often led the other receiver to break out for a big performance. Thielen and Diggs have become interchangeable chess pieces, finding success via the slot and as vertical threats.

The sheer versatility presented by both of these receivers should make Cousins' job easier. Diggs did most of his work out of the slot in 2016 (43 catches, 478 yards) and shifted to a role outside last season whereas Thielen lined up inside more often than not (46 catches, 592 yards) in 2017 and caused mismatches with his speed. Both of these receivers can torch defenders who show an ounce of hesitation in coverage, are tremendous route runners and can create space and separation.

Under new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, it's safe to assume Minnesota's offense will feature a high dose of movement sparked by where its top two receivers line up, how the backfield is utilized in the passing game (Dalvin Cook in the slot, maybe?) and the use of multiple tight ends at a time. All of that should benefit Cousins, who will have plenty of reliable pass catchers on the other end.

There are a couple of areas to zero in on in determining how having Thielen and Diggs can take Cousins' game to the next level. The first goes back to his bread and butter with Jackson: the deep ball.

Few receivers are as prolific a deep threat as the former Washington receiver, but the Vikings' top two pass catchers boast impressive numbers of their own. From 2015-17 on throws of 20 yards or more, Thielen posted a 51.4 reception percentage on 35 targets. Diggs notched a 43.5 reception percentage on 46 targets, with five of his touchdowns coming on such deep routes. That should help Cousins pick up where he left off with consistent, reliable vertical threats. He ranked third in completion percentage (48.9), third in passing touchdowns (30) and fifth in yards per attempt on passes of 15 yards or more during this same stretch, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Additionally, Diggs coupled his pristine route-running ability with his physicality to become one of the best wide receiver threats in the red zone. He has a league-high 132.2 receiver rating inside the 20-yard line since 2016, according to Pro Football Focus. Along with tight end Kyle Rudolph's 15 touchdowns in the red zone over the past three seasons, Cousins has plenty of weapons to help him improve in an area he struggled last season.

Thielen quickly established himself as Case Keenum's go-to guy on third down, receiving 32 percent of Minnesota's third-down targets. Crowder was Cousins' guy on third downs last season, with 24 percent of Washington's third-down targets going to him. This is another area where Cousins struggled -- producing a passing first down on just 30.4 percent of dropbacks on third down last season with a completion percentage of 57.2 percent. Cousins typically zeroes in on one player in these situations. Lucky for him, Thielen is used to being that guy.

As the Vikings offense gets to take the field as an entire unit over the next four weeks, Cousins will begin to learn the intricacies of a system built just for him. The things he does well likely will be magnified between his play-action passing, deep-ball accuracy and decision-making. The areas where he's struggled in the past (ball security, red zone, third down) could eventually be mitigated given the combination of scheme and playmakers to help elevate his game.

Cousins walked into a situation in Minnesota with few questions about the talent around him. He won’t feel the need to overcompensate for the players around him like he had to at times in Washington due to injury and when his top playmakers left in free agency. These pieces were already in place when the Vikings sought Cousins as the missing link to a Super Bowl. With Pro Bowl talent at every skill position and the tools to succeed around him, Cousins is primed to achieve the success from two years ago.

As the quarterback found out then, when others around him are playing at a high level, it elevates his game to the same place.