Is Year 2 always better? Vikings believe it will be for Kirk Cousins

MINNEAPOLIS -- Based on his past experiences with free agents, Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer believes Kirk Cousins will be even better in his second season in Minneapolis.

“The big thing is every free agent I’ve had in my 25 or 26 years -- however many years I’ve been coaching -- they’ve always played better the second year,” Zimmer said at the NFL combine. “They have to learn where everything is. They have to find a place to live. You can go through our free agents: Captain Munnerlyn, when he was with us, his second year. Linval Joseph, second year. All these guys, typically, they don’t know anybody, they don’t know where their locker is, all this stuff. You throw that in with new terminology, whatever. I think he’s going to play great.”

There’s something to be said about the obvious -- that the more time a player spends on a team learning a system, the more likely it is that he'll grow and develop within those parameters. It's a blanket statement, but the probability of improvement isn’t far-fetched, given the amount of time and resources NFL teams dedicate to the success of their players.

While there’s no scientific formula to prove Zimmer’s theory, a look at the free agents he referenced and others who spent at least two years under the Vikings coach show varied results.

  • Terence Newman, who signed with Minnesota as a free agent in 2015, had 24 fewer tackles, two fewer interceptions and three fewer pass breakups in his second season.

  • During Captain Munnerlyn’s second season in 2016, the cornerback played 331 fewer snaps despite playing 16 games. He had the same number of interceptions (two) each season.

  • Both Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers saw a dip in their ability to sustain blocks through 2.5 seconds in their second year. According to ESPN’s pass-block win rate metric using NFL Next Gen Stats, Reiff held such blocks 82.7 percent of the time his first year and 80.6 percent his second year, and Remmers dropped from 81.7 percent to 73.4 percent.

  • Two seasons after winning a Super Bowl with the Giants, Linval Joseph joined the Vikings in 2014. The nose tackle had fewer sacks his second year (3.0 down to 0.5) but had more tackles (56 from 47) in four fewer games.

  • Latavius Murray saw a slight increase in yards per rush during his second season in Minnesota (up to 4.1 yards from 3.9 in 2017).

The mitigating factors that demonstrate why a player’s stats spiked or dipped from Year 1 to Year 2 are all across the board. Might a player understand a system better the second year and know what’s being asked of him but still not see major statistical improvement? Sure. Might his role change in Year 2 once coaches figure out his best fit (a la Munnerlyn in 2016)? Absolutely.

It isn't often that we see notable quarterbacks hit the open market in today’s NFL, nor do those players typically last long at their new stops. When Cousins made it to free agency a year ago, his journey was routinely compared to those of Drew Brees and Peyton Manning, two franchise QBs who switched teams in their primes. Here’s a look at how those two future Hall of Famers performed in their first two seasons with their new teams.

Drew Brees: New Orleans, 2006-07

  • 1st year: 10-6 record, 64.3 completion percentage, 26 TDs, 11 INTs, 67 QBR

  • 2nd> year: 7-9 record, 67.5 completion percentage, 28 TDs, 18 INTs, 65 QBR

Peyton Manning: Denver, 2012-13

  • 1st year: 13-3 record, 68.6 completion percentage, 37 TDs, 11 INTs, 79 QBR

  • 2nd year: 13-3 record, 68.3 completion percentage, 55 TDs, 10 INTs, 79 QBR

While Brees and Manning are anomalies, other UFA quarterbacks haven’t always been able to reach that level of consistency in Year 2.

Ryan Fitzpatrick totaled 31 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and a 62 QBR in his first season with the Jets in 2015. The following year, he threw 12 touchdowns and 17 interceptions and had a 39 QBR.

The numbers from Tyrod Taylor’s first two seasons in Buffalo mirrored each other fairly well. During his first season in 2015, he had 20 touchdowns and six interceptions with a 66 QBR. Those numbers in 2016 were 17 touchdowns, six interceptions and a 62 QBR.

Cousins reached statistical highs in 2018 but failed to lead the Vikings to the playoffs en route to an 8-7-1 finish. The hires the Vikings made this offseason to surround the quarterback with coaches whose systems he's familiar with (i.e., Gary Kubiak's connection to Mike and Kyle Shanahan, Cousins' former coaches in Washington) show a concerted effort to help him succeed in his second year. The Vikings placed an emphasis on creating continuity around Cousins, starting with basic things such as offensive terminology, to help him make the jump.

“I can just give an example of back with Brett Favre when he ran the same system in Green Bay forever, and then he went to New York that year, a totally different system, and probably didn't have his most productive year as a pro,” general manager Rick Spielman said at the combine. “Then he ended up coming back to us and got back into a system that he was familiar with, and it made a huge difference.

“With the Kubiak and the Shanahan tree coming in and Kirk coming up through that system -- and part of that with the personnel and coaching interacting together is about figuring out what this guy does and then saying, 'Let's implement that into the system we're running.' That's why we're very excited about what we've been able to accomplish so far as far as bringing in the coaches.”

The Vikings brass believes Cousins is capable of being the player to lead this franchise back to the playoffs in 2019. Some of that will be due to the influence of coaching. Some of it will be on Cousins’ ability to grow and improve at 31 years old.

And they'll count on him not carrying over the same mistakes from one season to the next.

“I think the big thing is we turned the ball over a little bit too much early,” Zimmer said. “If we look at a year ago, we were a plus-5, and this year we were zero or whatever with turnovers for touchdowns. And obviously, we had a punt block for a touchdown in Green Bay, too. I think that part, taking care of the football and not being afraid to pull the trigger as well. And I do think when he doesn't have to drop back 46 times, it's going to help. Hopefully we don't have to.”