EAGAN, Minn. — In front of Kirk Cousins’ home, in between a few shrubs, stands a curious tower. No more than four feet tall, it’s filled to the top with stones. Inspired décor? Sort of.
“It’s there to remind me how brief life is, and how important the time we have here is,” the Minnesota Vikings quarterback says.
But … a tower of stones?
Cousins laughs. “Oh, it’s a little morbid,” he admits, “but it’s a tool my Bible teacher taught me in high school, and I’m carrying it with me.”
The stones were inspired by a Bible verse, from the Book of Psalms, first shared with Cousins while attending Holland Christian High School in Holland, Michigan.
Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
“It’s about the importance of leaving a mark and making a deposit in people’s lives in a way that matters,” Cousins says. “In other words, when you have an understanding that life is coming to an end someday, and that we only have so many days? There’s wisdom in that.”
For Cousins, it was important to transform the verse into a visual reminder: 720 stones.
“Let’s say I live to 90, that would be a pretty good run,” he says. “We went month to month, and we added it all up, and it was 720 stones because I turned 30 this year.
“Every month I’m going to take out a stone, put it in my pocket, and think: ‘Once this month is over, this is gone. You can’t get it back, it’s gone for good.'”
The stone for each month represents the amount of time he likely has left, but it also serves as a reminder to Cousins on how he is spending that time, both on and off the field.
“Like everybody else, I am naturally selfish, and so I’m going to think about myself,” he says. “And I think at the end of my life, it’s not going to be about what I did for myself, but what I did for others. Maybe it’s staying after practice to do hand signals with the guys to help them get caught up to speed. To make it about others — I think that’s what leadership is all about, quarterbacking is all about.”
As Cousins removes a stone each month, the feel of it in his palm is a reminder of the time passing. But it’s the questions that come with each stone that perhaps carry more weight.
“What impact are you making, not only today, but for eternity? What impact are you making to leave a legacy?” he says.
“It’s just a healthy reminder, make life about other people, invest in other people, knowing that in the end, that’s a life well-lived,” he says.
EAGAN, Minn. — For all the ways the Minnesota Vikings‘ offense has improved with the addition of Kirk Cousins, there’s one glaring outlier causing concern.
Since becoming a starting quarterback for the Washington Redskins in 2015, Cousins leads the NFL in fumbles with 37, having lost 16, also a league-high, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It’s an issue that’s not just limited to his NFL career. As a senior at Michigan State in 2011, Cousins’ eight fumbles were tied for the second-most in the Big Ten.
Cousins has six fumbles in the Vikings’ past four games, four of which were recovered by the other team. And with every turnover created by a Cousins fumble, Minnesota’s opponent was able to capitalize.
Two first-quarter fumbles recovered by Buffalo allowed the Bills to score on each ensuing drive in their Week 3 27-6 victory. Had Cousins not fumbled at the Rams’ 48-yard line during the two-minute drill during a 38-31 loss to Los Angeles, the Vikings would have had a shot to tie the game. In a Week 6 win over the Cardinals, Cousins was strip-sacked and safety Budda Baker returned it for a touchdown.
“When we talk about how we view quarterbacks, we talk about their touchdown-to-interception ratio, and very rarely do we talk about when guys fumble inside the pocket, which oftentimes is worse because of where the turnover takes place,” said former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Tim Hasselbeck.
Fumbles come with the territory of playing the position. The top-10 list of the NFL’s all-time quarterback leaders in fumbles features league MVPs and Super Bowl champions. Two current players, Eli Manning (119) and Tom Brady (117), rank eighth and ninth, respectively. But Manning is in his 15th season and Brady his 19th.
There’s a story behind every fumble. Sometimes the blame can be pinned on the quarterback for not getting the ball out on time or trying to run with a loose football. There may also be a breakdown along the offensive line or a running back or tight end not holding up in protection. The quarterback could also be holding on to the ball too long because his receiver didn’t get his head around quick enough.
It’s different for each fumble, but it’s an ongoing problem for Cousins.
“I’m concerned about all the fumbles. We’ve got to do a better job,” coach Mike Zimmer said after the Arizona game. “I think the two times, the two that I remember that he fumbled, both times guys were coming from behind him. He’s got to, when he starts moving up in the pocket, he has to be ready to put the ball [away], so we’ll address that.”
What does it mean when a quarterback is a habitual fumbler? Let’s start with something obvious. According to MockDraftable, Cousins’ 97/8 inch hand size puts him in the 70th percentile among all draft-eligible quarterbacks since 1999. So his hand size isn’t likely to be a contributing factor.
Several of the same factors contributed to the fumbles Cousins lost against the Cardinals and the Rams, which boil down to him not responding to pressure off the left edge and not moving up in the pocket despite having the time and space to do so.
Against Los Angeles, the Vikings had just crossed into Rams territory with a fresh set of downs with 1:29 left on the clock. Cousins took a snap out of the shotgun and dropped back deep — so deep that rookie John Franklin-Myers got around left tackle Riley Reiff and tomahawked the ball loose as Cousins drew his right arm back to pass. There was room created for Cousins to climb up in the pocket, which may have helped those in protection, but he did not react fast enough to move up.
Here’s how Cousins explained his fumble against the Rams:
“I’m waiting on my first read,” Cousins said. “Adam Thielen’s my first read, I’m trying to get him the football. I’m not going No. 2, No. 3, I’m seven-step (drop), one hitch, trying to get him the ball. And I did. And before I could get it to him, the ball was out. We’ll go back and say ‘Hey, we don’t want to be any deeper than 9.5 yards in the pocket.’ So any time you’re deeper than 9.5, you’re making it tougher on your tackle to let the pass-rusher run by the pocket.
“So can you shorten up your drop? Again, if you’re at 9.5, then you’re going to say, do your best to get back up to 8.5, but it is what it is … There were many drops throughout the game that I was at 9.5, there were a couple that I was a little bit past but didn’t have a fumble, didn’t get sacked. … No matter the play, stay no deeper than 9.5.”
A quarterback is typically going to sit 9.5 yards deep in the pocket on hard play-action, not dropping back out of the shotgun. Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo noted the balance of staying 7.5 yards deep, which helps the quarterback not have to “throw from a foxhole with guys in their lap” and also makes the job easier for the offensive line.
“If you’re 9.5 yards deep, then your tackle has no chance. None,” Hasselbeck said. “But if you’re 9.5 yards deep and a guy is making contact with you and you’re not climbing, to me that’s very fixable. That’s just getting trained to climb in the pocket.”
Fixing his depth in the pocket and being able to push up quicker on the initial climb is one remedy. Another is adjusting the clock in his head of when to escape the pocket before the up-field pass-rusher retraces his steps before trying to make a play.
“I think those are two very correctable things,” Hasselbeck said. “Those are easier than breaking the bad habit of running with one hand on the ball, which is not something Kirk does. He doesn’t escape out of the pocket and drop the ball the way some guys do.”
One of Cousins’ best qualities is his ability to make quick, accurate throws. He has mitigated a handful of issues (i.e. how much time he’s being given to throw) by getting rid of the ball quickly and playing fast.
“I could easily find five plays where I could say there is not a quarterback playing with better anticipation and quite honestly the quarterback play solves a huge mistake by somebody up front,” Hasselbeck said. “I think he’s done that. That’s probably as big of a compliment that you can give a quarterback.”
And even when Cousins is doing everything right by throwing on time, he may still get hit from behind while in the throwing motion. There isn’t much a quarterback can do in that situation, but finding ways to fix what he’s doing when his pocket depth and timing are the root of the fumbles could help Cousins remedy these ongoing problems.
“You can’t give up on plays or get your eyes down at the rush just to avoid fumbles,” Cousins said. “You’ve still got to be a quarterback, and you’ve still got to take your drop, try to step up, try to make plays, be a playmaker. At times you do that, you’re going to risk the occasional fumble. You’ve got to trust protection. You can’t drop back expecting protection to be loose and then you’re never going to be able to play. It’s a balance. When we look back at the fumbles, we’re going to try to really just focus in on the ones that I can control, that are correctable.”
EAGAN, Minn. — Around the time of the Minnesota Vikings‘ spring offseason workouts, Kirk Cousins discovered something about his new team that he wasn’t expecting. Despite his veteran quarterback status, the seven-year NFL veteran Cousins figured it would take time before he’d be accepted as a leader. After all, he was joining a team that was coming off a 13-3 season. There were already plenty of leaders in this locker room.
“I was surprised by how much my teammates gave me that license to lead quickly,” Cousins said at the start of training camp. “I thought they were going to want to have me prove myself a little bit longer than maybe I had to. They were very supportive and said, ‘No, man. It’s your show. Let’s go.’”
Cousins’ personality doesn’t always lend itself to him being the most vocal person on the team. At times, he says he’ll speak up and share his opinion if he feels compelled to, but Cousins considers himself more of a “reluctant” leader.
Two weeks ago in Philadelphia, Cousins was given a chance to step outside of his comfort zone. Prior to the Vikings’ rematch of the NFC Championship Game against the Philadelphia Eagles, defensive tackle Linval Joseph, a locker room leader and captain, asked Cousins to break down the pregame huddle.
It was a responsibility the Vikings had rotated among several players over the first four games but had often been the job bestowed upon Everson Griffen. The Pro Bowl defensive end excelled in playing off raw emotion and expletive-laden passion to get his guys ready to run through a wall, a la the speech he delivered ahead of the Vikings’ win in Washington last season, a game he missed because of a foot injury.
With Griffen away from the team dealing with issues related to his mental health, the opportunity became Joseph’s. And he passed the baton to Cousins.
“It was important because Linval asked me to, and you don’t say no to Linval,” Cousins said.
Cousins, whose fiery personality is seen often by his teammates but seldom in public, dove into an impassioned pregame speech, emphasizing finishing every block, every tackle, every play, and above all else, the need to “finish the damn game.”
The Vikings beat the defending Super Bowl champions 23-21. The following week against Arizona, all it took was a point from Joseph during warm-ups for Cousins to know his teammates wanted a repeat performance.
This time, the huddle was so fired up from Cousins’ message that they almost didn’t let him finish his final thought.
“Like Dan Gable said,” Cousins yelled, quoting the longtime Iowa wrestling coach, “when I shoot, I score. When you shoot, I score.”
The Vikings brought Cousins to Minnesota to carry this team to new heights as the face of the franchise. Cousins is the focal point of this team, its aspirations and how it will overcome the challenges in its path.
“I think people always look to the quarterback to be the offensive leader and he’s stepped in,” right guard Mike Remmers said. “He’s the kind of guy that you know you can count on to get the job done.”
Cousins is working to become the undeniable leader for a team that hasn’t had a consistent veteran presence at quarterback since the days of Daunte Culpepper, who was drafted by Minnesota 11th overall in 1999 and was with the franchise through the 2005 season.
Since then, the position has lacked stability with eight different starting QBs. The short and uncertain nature of Brett Favre’s time with the Vikings didn’t allow him to fully assume that veteran leadership role. Had he stayed healthy, Teddy Bridgewater, who was universally loved by the coaching staff and locker room, was on his way to assuming that responsibility for the long haul.
“There was a while I thought Teddy was going to be my guy for the rest of my coaching career and he would still be here and I’d be fired,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “Then I thought Sam (Bradford) was going to be the guy. Then I thought Case (Keenum) was going to be the guy. In the offseason we did a study on really those four guys. I knew Kirk from playing against him. The thing that I love about this guy is his passion for the game, his intensity that he has. He’s come in here and taken charge as a leader.”
The ability to deliver a great message is just the beginning. Over the course of three seasons (and likely beyond), Cousins’ leadership will be judged by how he handles his team when situations don’t go as planned and the accountability he shoulders, whether the blame is on him or not.
On the field, quarterback leadership is defined in areas like the two-minute drill, where 10 other players know the person under center has the wherewithal to come through in pressure situations. It’s seen in the trust the quarterback has to develop with his playmakers, much like he’s done with Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. They have to know he’ll go back to them even if they’ve made a mistake (like the confidence Cousins instilled in Laquon Treadwell after multiple drops in Green Bay).
Cousins is growing comfortable as a leader in Minnesota because he’s doing it the way that fits his style. So far, it’s living up to expectations.
“He walks the talk,” safety Harrison Smith said. “He is a guy who is going to go lay it out there, run the ball for a touchdown, dive on third down, stand in the pocket and get hit by 300-pounders. No matter what, the guy gives everything he has. He is the real deal.”
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — It was the “no” that turned into a “yes!” (Marv Albert voice).
After being spurned by free-agent quarterback Kirk Cousins in March, the New York Jets made a quick pivot and took the road that eventually led them to Sam Darnold. Initially stung by the Cousins rejection — he seemingly used them to leverage the Minnesota Vikings — the Jets are now so over that chapter. In their minds, he’s a distant Cousins.
“I really don’t worry about the guys I don’t get,” coach Todd Bowles said Monday. “Minnesota got him, and they’re happy. We got Sam, and we’re happy.”
But what if? What if Cousins, who faces the Jets on Sunday at MetLife Stadium, had accepted Gang Green’s green?
Make no mistake, the Jets wanted him badly — so badly that they raised their initial offer, putting a three-year, $90 million contract on the table — fully guaranteed. They saw it as a rare opportunity to acquire an established quarterback in his prime. As it turned out, their blockbuster proposal accomplished only one thing: It forced the Vikings to raise their offer from $75 million to $84 million, based on what Cousins says in an online documentary that details his decision-making process. He jumped at the Vikings’ revised offer, also fully guaranteed, not even bothering to take a visit to the Jets.
His decision forever changed the franchise.
“Cousins or Darnold? Me, personally, I’d take Darnold,” said a longtime NFL talent evaluator, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “They gave up a lot for Darnold, but you can’t minimize the money and how it impacts their cap. They got Darnold at a fraction of the price. I thought they did a good job.”
The Cousins saga dominated NFL headlines during the run-up to free agency, capturing the attention of a certain college student at USC. Darnold acknowledged that he tracked the rumor mill, knowing the outcome would directly impact his draft position.
“Yeah, everything worked out for the best, I think,” he said with a laugh.
Imagine if it had gone the other way. Let’s examine how things would be different for the Jets if Cousins had said yes:
“It doesn’t hurt at all that we now have an awful lot of money that we were thinking we might be sending out the door to one player.”
Jets CEO Christopher Johnson
Totally different vibe in 2018
Cousins’ presence would’ve changed the narrative surrounding the team. Rebuilding? No way. That perception would’ve gone out the window. A team can’t spend $90 million on a quarterback — for only three years, mind you — and sell the slow build to its fan base. No, Cousins would’ve been an accelerator, putting the Jets in win-now mode.
That, of course, would’ve raised the stakes for Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan. There would have been less patience from the fans and media — and probably ownership. When an owner writes a $90 million check — by rule, guaranteed money must be placed into escrow at the time of signing — he has the right to expect more than five or six wins.
Chances are the Jets would be better than 3-3 with Cousins, who is undoubtedly a better quarterback than Darnold right now. Some around the team believe an experienced quarterback would have pulled off the Week 3 game in Cleveland, in which Darnold struggled in the second half and the Jets lost 21-17. At 4-2, the Jets would be tied for first place in the AFC East.
Cousins would’ve been a nice fit in Jeremy Bates’ offensive scheme, which is similar to the system he ran in his early years with the Washington Redskins. But Cousins’ supporting cast would’ve been weaker than what he has in Minnesota. That, many believe, is the main reason he chose the Vikings over the Jets, who have no Pro Bowl players (past or present) on offense.
“He’s a Cadillac in Minnesota,” the talent evaluator said of Cousins, who has the 10th-ranked offense. “He wouldn’t be that with the Jets. He’d be maybe a Pinto.”
“You have to look at the big picture,” he added. “Is it better to be 9-7 with Darnold or 10-6 with Cousins? I say 9-7 with Darnold.”
Darnold has played two good games in a row, but that doesn’t mean his growing pains are in the past. There will be rough days ahead, but he’s only 21 years old, and his career arc is climbing. Cousins is 30, probably at his peak.
“Cousins is likely who he is in terms of ceiling, but at that, it’s good and productive,” a rival general manager said. “I just think when you get a chance to draft and groom your own guy to play for 10 or 12 years, it can be special.”
Two days after being blown off by Cousins, the Jets shifted to Plan B, as Bowles called it. On St. Patrick’s Day, they finalized a trade with the Indianapolis Colts, moving up three spots in the draft to put themselves in position for the best available quarterback. It was costly, as they dealt their first-round pick (sixth overall), two second-rounders and a 2019 second-rounder.
With Cousins on board, there would’ve been no trade. The Jets would’ve retained the sixth, 37th and 49th picks, giving them the chance to grab three impact players. Who? The first-round projection is hard because the Colts could have traded the third pick to another quarterback-needy team, but the most likely scenario is the Jets would’ve ended up with pass-rusher Bradley Chubb or guard Quenton Nelson. Or they would’ve been open to trading back.
Chubb wound up going fifth to the Denver Broncos, but they were known to be smitten with Darnold and would’ve pounced on him if he had fallen — which would have happened if the Colts had stayed in their original spot. Insiders believe Chubb would’ve been the Colts’ choice at No. 3. The Jets, in desperate need of an edge rush, would’ve taken him at No. 6, but without Chubb on the board, they would’ve looked to trade down, seeking to acquire extra draft capital.
At No. 37, the Jets could have addressed the offensive line (Braden Smith) or running back (Kerryon Johnson). At No. 49, they could’ve gone for a tight end (Dallas Goedert) or a tackle (Connor Williams). All four players were selected in the second round and are playing key roles on their current teams, but it doesn’t appear that the Jets missed out on any future stars. It would’ve been a quantity-over-quality situation.
They might have picked a quarterback in the late rounds, someone to groom behind Cousins. Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty were on their way out, and the Jets would have needed a developmental player to pair with a veteran backup. Josh McCown probably would have left as a free agent. It’s quite possible that Teddy Bridgewater would be the current No. 2.
Major impact on salary cap
This is big. The Jets have Darnold under contract for four years, $30 million. His cap charges over the first three years add up to $20.6 million — a $69.4 million savings on what they’d be paying Cousins over the same span. This gives them a tremendous amount of flexibility as they approach free agency in the coming years.
“It doesn’t hurt at all that we now have an awful lot of money that we were thinking we might be sending out the door to one player,” CEO Christopher Johnson said in the aftermath of the ill-fated Cousins chase. “Now we have that back with us, and we can spread that out over a lot of other players over the next few years.”
In fact, the Jets will have a league-high $96 million in cap room in 2019, according to overthecap.com. They can re-sign their own players — defensive end Leonard Williams and wide receiver Quincy Enunwa loom as the top priorities — and engage in another offseason spending spree if they choose.
With quarterback salaries skyrocketing, the Jets are in an advantageous position in that they have a promising quarterback on his rookie contract. Only 10 of the 32 teams can say that about their starters. When a team is paying megabucks to its veteran starter, it changes the entire salary-cap dynamic.
If Cousins had said yes, the Jets still would have been aggressive last offseason, but there would have been a limit to their spending. Chances are they would have passed on cornerback Trumaine Johnson ($34 million guarantee), leaving a hole in the secondary. Cornerback would have become a priority with one of those second-round picks.
Bottom line: Cousins would have made the Jets a better team in 2018, assuming he didn’t mentally implode under the big-city pressure. Beyond that, it could be a different story. The organization, which acts as if the infatuation with Cousins never existed, believes it has something special in Darnold.
“They get a player they identified, drafted high and now have a personal investment in his development,” the rival GM said. “They can mold and groom him. He’s been in the spotlight. He was handpicked, and he seems to fit well in the New York spotlight.”
EAGAN, Minn. — Sustained quarterback success in the NFL is often derived from making plays while under pressure and/or in a less-than-desirable pocket. Whether it’s a weakened offensive line, facing a plethora of elite pass-rushers or seeing pressure frequency rise in correlation with blitzes, a handful of circumstances determine why some quarterbacks are forced to throw under duress more than others.
Production will suffer for some, but in the case of Kirk Cousins, the Minnesota Vikings quarterback is actually seeing his output near its best in the face of constant pressure.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cousins has been pressured on 28.8 percent of his dropbacks through five games, which is the 13th highest rate among qualifying quarterbacks. With pass-rushers breathing down his neck aiming to disrupt the pocket and get home on the quarterback, Cousins has been forced to get rid of the ball quickly. His average time in the pocket is 2.03 seconds this season, which is the fourth fastest in the NFL.
As evidenced by a handful of throws Cousins made in the Vikings win over the Eagles, including the 68-yard pass to Adam Thielen he executed while getting hit at his own 5-yard line, the Minnesota QB has had to rely on the chemistry he has built with his receivers to know that they’re going to be in the spots they’re supposed to, even if he has to throw the ball before they get there.
Cousins’ 64.7 completion percentage and 8.1 yards per attempt under pressure rank second and fifth, respectively. His 51 passing attempts when pressured are the most of any QB without an interception in that situation this season, and he has three touchdowns in those situations.
Throwing from a clean pocket is obviously preferred, but Cousins hasn’t seen that much of a bump in production. His completion percentage is higher (72 percent) when not throwing under duress, and he has thrown seven touchdowns from a clean pocket, but his yards per attempt is lower (7.4) and his two interceptions came when he had more time to throw.
Part of the reason he’s having success is the experience he has gained from these situations. During three years as a starter in Washington, Cousins was pressured on 25.0 percent of his dropbacks. Everything from understanding how to manipulate protections, trusting his receivers to know their route depths, angle and how to create separation to get open quickly helps him beat pressure.
Oftentimes, Cousins says, if more of his offensive personnel are in pass protection, he actually has more vacant space to work with on the back end.
“Sometimes you love seeing pressure, because you say, ‘Now I only have to go against three deep/three under as opposed to three deep/four under, which opens up a zone,” Cousins said. “And if our back, our tight end or our line can pick it up, now I’m free to sit back there and have more space to throw.”
One of the ways Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo helps Cousins mitigate pressure is by utilizing play-action. Moving where the quarterback is in the pocket is the same concept that frustrated the Vikings’ defensive line in establishing a pass-rush against opposing QBs early on. Cousins’ 81.6 completion percentage with play-action passes ranks first in the NFL, and he has been pressured on 38.5 percent of his play-action plays.
“If you do a good job in the running game, you can get some of the underneath guys sucked up a little bit and possibly safeties, depending on coverage and things like that,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “It just opens up a lot more areas to manipulate the field.”
Much has been made of the Vikings’ offensive imbalance and Cousins’ pace to throw for 5,402 yards this season. With the run game struggling, the Vikings have leaned on using quick screens to force plays to the perimeter.
“The screen game is huge,” Zimmer said. “You see more and more of it and all around the league now, especially off of play-action, because linebackers start to hopefully get depth and get out of there and then the line has a chance to sift over toward to where they’re in front of the running back.”
It’s also a concept that has helped Cousins when he’s facing more than a four-man rush. The Vikings QB has a 110.9 passer rating when blitzed, which is the seventh-best among all QBs. Knowing how to diagnose these blitzes relies first and foremost on getting the ball out quickly.
“We always talk about, ‘What are you going to do if it’s not there?’ and what’s your answer to get the ball out of your hand if you got fooled?’” Cousins said. “And so that’s very important to know where that element is, and that quick pass, that outlet, to get the ball out of your hands, and some plays have better ones than others, but just always asking yourself that question is very important to stay ahead of what a defense does throw at you.”
A clean pocket is always desired but not always attainable. Moreover, keeping a quarterback upright and limiting the hits he takes each game is part of the process in scheming around pressure. Through five games, Cousins has shown how well he can perform under these circumstances.
Kirk Cousins shared a story following the Minnesota Vikings‘ second straight loss on Thursday against the Los Angeles Rams. It allowed him to look past the frustration of a 38-31 loss, even if just for a minute, as he discussed the tenacity of his top receivers.
Trailing by 11 with 4:24 to play in the third quarter, Cousins sensed a blitz coming off the right edge by John Johnson III and threw a high pass over the Rams safety. Stefon Diggs ran a quick slant and high-pointed the ball to haul in the reception, making cornerback Marcus Peters miss in the process. The catch pushed Diggs over 100 yards receiving (he finished with 11 receptions for 123 yards) and set the Vikings up for a scoring drive. On the next play, Cousins moved Johnson out of the middle of the field, leaving Adam Thielen wide open for a 45-yard touchdown reception.
“Adam’s walking back to the huddle, he looks at me and he said, ‘The other dog came out, you better start getting him [Diggs] the ball,’” Cousins said. “And he could tell, and I’ve been around Stef that, you know, long enough, but he’s been around long enough that when he gets that look in his eye, like, get him the ball. I love to see that competitiveness and then to see how Adam and him feed off one another.”
Much like what led to the Vikings’ Week 2 tie in Green Bay, Minnesota’s success on offense in their loss to the Rams came in large part due to excellent performances from Diggs and Thielen. Both saw double-digit targets and they combined for 19 catches on 27 targets, 258 yards receiving and a touchdown.
The “other dog” came out for Cousins, too, against the Rams. Without the support of his run game, Cousins kept the Vikings alive by completing 36 of 50 passes for 422 yards and three touchdowns.
He also ended their hopes of a comeback, losing the ball when his right arm was hit from behind by John Franklin-Myers with 1:29 to play, fumbling away the Vikings’ attempt at tying the game.
Issues of pocket awareness and sensing pressure have been well-documented struggles for Cousins long before he arrived in Minnesota. Since he became a starter in Washington in 2015, Cousins leads the NFL with 35 fumbles.
It’s certainly not all Cousins’ fault. For a second straight week, a defender got around left tackle Riley Reiff to strip the ball from Cousins as he was trying to throw. The Rams’ defense pressured Cousins on 46.4 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. The Vikings’ offensive line allowed 29 pressures in back-to-back games, coming in the form of three sacks, three hits and 23 hurries on Thursday.
Cousins performed better against pressure (15-of-21 passing for 163 yards and a TD) than he did when facing Buffalo in Week 3, but the end result was the same. While Cousins has shown at times why the Vikings paid $84 million to sign him, he also has committed costly mistakes that continue to raise questions.
A lot of what has transpired on offense through the first quarter of the season might feel like déjà vu for Cousins. Over his three years as a starter in Washington, the Redskins’ inability to formulate a successful ground attack frequently forced Cousins to win games on his own. Without that offensive balance, more times than not the Redskins’ fortunes rested on whether Cousins played well.
Washington never had a run game that ranked higher than 20th during Cousins’ three-year stretch as a starter, nor did he have the support of a defense that could bail the offense out when things went awry.
That was supposed to change when he arrived in Minnesota. For the first time in his career, he was expecting to play with the backing of the league’s No. 1 defense and a run game touted as the centerpiece of this offense.
Through four games, the defense has been a bitter disappointment, putting the pressure on Cousins to come through in shootouts with late-game heroics. The same can be said for a run game that ranks 31st, averaging 63 yards per game. Cousins’ gaudy passing stats through four games (he’s on pace for 5,548 passing yards) are due to his being forced to keep up with his opponents in situations when the offense is playing from behind (every game except Week 1’s win over San Francisco) and win with his arm.
The Vikings are at their best on offense when they have Dalvin Cook running downhill and Cousins utilizing a play-action passing game to keep teams off-balance. Cook’s hamstring injury has kept him limited while Minnesota’s other backs have struggled to pick up the workload.
The lack of offensive explosion in the run game has much to do, arguably, with the play of the offensive line. Despite being pressured on almost half his dropbacks in Los Angeles, Cousins had the most time he’s had to throw this season (2.86 seconds). But the problem remains that Cousins is holding on to the ball too long on obvious passing downs. Several times in the Vikings’ past two losses, Cousins had a clean pocket to throw from and failed to connect with his receivers.
The first quarter of the season has yielded a display of ups and downs for Cousins. Some of that was to be expected with a new quarterback in a new system, particularly during a brutal stretch of the Vikings’ first five games (vs. 49ers, at Green Bay, vs. Buffalo, at Rams, at Eagles).
“I kind of figured it was probably going to take a little bit of time with some of the new pieces,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “Just because everybody expected us to be 4-0 at this point or whatever it is, doesn’t mean that’s realistic.”
And the thought that Cousins will be able to consistently pull Minnesota out of holes isn’t realistic either. When his supporting cast has struggled, so has Cousins.
“I always go back and look at the plays that I can control,” Cousins said. “Those are the ones that I agonize over. If I feel like I can control a better result. Sometimes the fumble, sometimes the sack, sometimes the incompletions are not so much something that I can control as much as just unfortunate. You know, so I think it’s a balance.”
That key word — balance — is one the Vikings aim to find going forward. If Minnesota’s defense and run game can bring out its “other dog” like Cousins and his top receiving duo did in Los Angeles, he will finally have the support that’s been missing during his first four games as a Viking.
DENVER — Kirk Cousins was perfect in his Vikings debut, and then kicked back and watched two former Broncos quarterbacks tear apart their old teammates.
Cousins completed all four of his passes in the Vikings’ 42-28 exhibition victory Saturday night, including a 1-yard touchdown strike on a quick slant to Stefon Diggs.
“I think it was a smooth first drive, but it is a small sample size, and the next couple of weeks will be a good test for us,” Cousins said.
Diggs called it a good first step.
“He’s a good quarterback,” Diggs said. “He makes some great throws.”
Case Keenum wasn’t nearly as sharp in his Denver debut, completing just 1 of 4 passes for 5 yards spanning two drives.
“It’s just frustrating not playing well, and you don’t have a chance to bounce back from it,” Keenum said.
Cousins was the crown jewel of this year’s free-agent class of quarterbacks, signing an $84 million, three-year deal with Minnesota. That meant Keenum was out of a job two months after leading the Vikings to the NFC championship, and he signed a $36 million, two-year deal with Denver.
The Broncos then traded their starter, Trevor Siemian, to the Vikings to serve as Cousins’ backup — so long as he beats out Kyle Sloter, another former Denver QB.
So, this preseason opener was filled with quarterback intrigue.
After Cousins’ single series — one in which he didn’t have to face Von Miller — Siemian led Minnesota on three scoring drives, most notably a screen pass to Roc Thomas that beat the blitz for a 78-yard score.
Siemian was 11-of-17 for 165 yards, two TDs and an interception against his old team.
“It was a little weird for sure, but good to see old buddies,” Siemian said.
Lynch, the former first-rounder twice beaten out by Siemian in Denver, was just 6-of-11 for 24 yards and an interception.
“Obviously I’m upset,” he said.
Despite 17 yards passing overall in the first half, the Broncos only trailed 24-14 at halftime thanks to Isaiah McKenzie‘s 78-yard punt return for a TD and rookie Royce Freeman‘s 23-yard TD scamper — Denver’s only first down before halftime.
Just when the crowd was starting to lament losing Siemian and Sloter, in came Kelly to fire up the crowd.
Kelly threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to tight end Matt LaCosse. Amid chants of “Kelly! Kelly!” he also drove Denver 85 yards in 11 plays, capping the drive with a 19-yard strike to running back Phillip Lindsay to put the Broncos on top 28-27 with 10 minutes remaining.
Sloter, who was cut by Denver a year ago, responded by throwing a 9-yard touchdown pass to Chad Beebe with six minutes left to put the Vikings back on top. His strike to Jeff Badet for the two-point conversion made it 35-28.
Safety Jack Tocho picked off Kelly at the Denver 30-yard line with 5:23 left, and Sloter sealed it with a 14-yard bootleg for the score.
Sloter was 9-of-11 for 69 yards and Kelly was 14-of-20 for 176 yards.
Lynch might be losing in his battle to be the backup, but he insisted he’s “excited for Chad.”
“Chad’s been playing really well and he deserves that,” Lynch said. “He’s a good kid.”
Broncos coach Vance Joseph wasn’t quite ready to elevate Kelly to No. 2 QB, saying he had to study the film.
“Obviously, Case is the starter, so that’s my main concern,” Joseph said. “Chad has played well. He played well tonight, outside of the one interception, which led to a score for those guys. He’s a guy that plays with a lot of confidence. That’s a good deal.”
I did it for you, folks. Make no mistake. I didn’t want to hop on a plane in late July and leave the oppressive humidity of the East Coast for a long stretch of perfect, breezy California sunshine. I did it for work. For football journalism. For the people. For you.
This year’s camp tour took me (mainly) west. I saw the Rams and Chargers in Southern California. I went to Minnesota for a day, then back to California to see the 49ers and Raiders, up to Seattle to see the Seahawks and then back to Cali for a day with the Cowboys. Seven hotels, six one-way flights, five rental cars, four days on TV, three trips to In-N-Out Burger, two hotel laundry days and one oversized, nearly spent can of spray-on sunscreen. All for you.
The point, of course, was to talk to as many of the people as possible who play for and run those teams. To learn. To educate myself so I could pass that information along to you to make you a better educated football fan and, in this case, fantasy football player.
Oh, yes. Much of the information I glean from talking to sources on these trips is especially useful for those of you who are preparing for your fantasy football drafts in the next couple of weeks. So here you go: 15 fantasy tips I learned on my 2018 training camp trip.
Cook isn’t even wearing a brace on his surgically repaired knee. He’s full-go in practice and told me his focus this offseason has been learning and applying lessons that will help him take better care of his body “because in college, you know, you just do your thing.” I got the sense around the Vikings that the offense will lean heavily on Cook, especially early, while new quarterback Kirk Cousins and new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo get to know each other. For his part, Cook says his focus going into the season is trying to start games faster: “Get on the defense early, so we can open this thing up for those receivers we’ve got. That’s why we paid these guys. But for me, I’ve always been a guy who was going out there trying to feel a defense out. Now I want the defense to feel me out. Gonna flip the script on that.”
2. What was that about Cousins again?
Yeah, sorry. Cousins obviously has a lot going for him in Minnesota, with guys such as Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph and Cook to throw the ball to. I believe he’s in position to have a big year. But my conversation with him gave me the feeling that he’s still settling in.
Now, this was a July 31 conversation, which means there’s plenty more settle-in time before the games count. But a couple of people around the league have told me they’re waiting to see what DeFilippo installs before predicting big things for Cousins. He has succeeded in structured systems run by coaches such as Kyle Shanahan and Jay Gruden, and it’s possible that DeFilippo’s system will put Cousins in a similar position to succeed. But some believe he could struggle if the system forces him to freelance too much and make plays on his own.
One of those people, believe it or not, is Kirk Cousins, who brought it up unsolicited when I lobbed him the old standby training camp question, “What part of your game are you working on?”
“I’d love to be a better quarterback off-schedule when the pocket breaks down,” Cousins said. “Although, I have been a very good quarterback, I believe, on keepers, meaning bootlegs outside the pocket, which are very similar to off-schedule plays. So I’d like to see that translate more, where when a dropback breaks down and I leave the pocket, I can have the same kind of production that I’ve had when we’ve run bootlegs and things like that.”
Seriously, a lot of guys answer that question with stuff like “everything” and “consistency.” Props to Kirk for helping us with specifics.
3. Oh, and yeah … the Vikings’ defense
I know we all say don’t draft defenses early, but when the time comes and someone already has grabbed the Jaguars … In my whole trip, I didn’t see a defense that looked better in practice than Minnesota’s did the day I was there. The pairing of Sheldon Richardson and Linval Joseph on the defensive line is going to wreck a lot of people’s Sundays.
I loved this nugget from my interview with Jimmy G, talking about the difference now that he has a whole offseason instead of just a couple of days to learn Shanahan’s offense. I asked, “So this year it’s really studying, whereas last year it was CliffsNotes?”
“Yeah, on a good week it was CliffsNotes,” he said. “Sometimes, he would call something, and I’d be in the game like, ‘I’m not sure what this side has, but I know what this side has, so we’re going to run it to this side. So now it’s full understanding and things slow down, which in a quarterback situation is the best thing.” If you needed another reason to like Garoppolo’s chances this season, there you go.
The 49ers’ big free-agent running back signing is going 30th on average in drafts, which means late third, maybe early fourth round, depending on league size. I don’t see too many guys behind him whom I’d rush to take ahead of him (though my hunch is Joe Mixon‘s opportunity in Cincinnati might be larger than McKinnon’s in San Francisco), but I wouldn’t move him up too far, based on the conversations I had while at 49ers camp.
Shanahan definitely has a role in mind for McKinnon, but I don’t think it’s “bell-cow running back.” Before you point out that they gave him $7.5 million a year, you should know the Niners don’t think that was an overspend. They believed the running back market was depressed (pre-Todd Gurley, at least) and that $7.5 million per year for a versatile running back who can catch the ball and run it was a better financial play than, say, spending the $9.6 million the Jaguars spent on receiver Donte Moncrief. McKinnon fits in a lot of ways, but Matt Breida should have a role in this offense too, and don’t be surprised if there are weeks when Breida is the early-down guy and outscores McKinnon even in PPR leagues.
Currently being drafted as the No. 41 wide receiver, right behind Sterling Shepard and somehow 23 picks later than teammate Pierre Garcon, Goodwin is — I believe — underrated. The 49ers view him as their clear No. 1 wide receiver, and so does he. Long known as a speedster, Goodwin improved enough as a pass-catcher last season that one of his coaches told me, “Now he has the mindset that he really believes he’s the best.” Confidence oozes out of Goodwin, and he’s the most known quantity among the Niners’ pass-catchers. Garcon is a reliable, old Shanahan favorite but not as explosive as he used to be. If there’s a sleeper in this group, it’s probably rookie Dante Pettis, who coaches say is showing a remarkable ability to get himself open. If he picks up the offense quickly, he could be a factor right away.
Chargers coach Anthony Lynn told me that one of his regrets in his first year was not getting Gordon more work in the passing game. He believes Gordon can help more as a receiver out of the backfield. That’s after a season in which Gordon had 58 catches (tied for eighth among running backs and 47th in the league), so if you’re playing PPR leagues and wondering about Gordon, that should perk up your ears. Lynn thinks backup Austin Ekeler showed enough last season that he feels OK about spelling Gordon in the running game if the Chargers need to do that to get Gordon more involved in the passing game.
As for Gordon, his goal is to deliver more explosive plays, and he told me that he thinks the addition of center Mike Pouncey is the key to that.
“It means everything,” Gordon said. “We had [Matt] Slauson, but Slauson’s more of a guard. Now we’ve got a true center, so I’m happy. Just a guy getting off blocks, getting downfield on a ‘backer, that helps plays go a long way. He can help with those explosive plays. It’ll be a big difference — someone who can move out there. Slauson was more of a powerful man, run you over. Pounce can get to the second level quick.”
The Chargers’ first-round pick in the 2017 draft suffered through an injury-plagued rookie season but says he feels healthy now and is working in practice to develop trust with quarterback Philip Rivers. When I asked Williams what the team could do to overcome the loss of tight end Hunter Henry, he mentioned a specific way the Chargers have been working to find use for his massive size.
“I’ve got a big role in the red zone right now,” Williams said. “Henry was a big red zone threat, and that’s a spot where I can help. So we’re working on a lot of that stuff right now.”
The Raiders are a mystery team this season. After spending a couple of days with them, I’m still not sure whether they’ll be a good team, a bad team or somewhere in the middle. I’m not sure they know either. But what I did come away believing is that Jon Gruden’s offense plans to throw, throw and throw some more — and that Gruden wants the whole thing to run through Derek Carr, with Cooper as his No. 1 receiver. Gruden told me veteran Jordy Nelson was brought in, in part, to help Cooper elevate his game. It seems clear that Gruden and the Raiders coaches want to lean on Cooper as the star of the passing game and work off that.
Maybe, maybe not. But on the days I was there, Gruden was talking up Switzer as a player who has shown more than the coaches expected as a slot receiver. The WR picture in Oakland is wide-open after Cooper right now, with Gruden still not sold on Martavis Bryant and Nelson heading into his age-33 season. Seth Roberts is still on the team but is a candidate to be traded by camp’s end — especially if Bryant starts to show more consistency. But Switzer is a sure thing to make the team because of his role as a return man, and it seems that there’s a regular role in the offense for him too. If you’re in a deep league and need receivers late, this is a guy who could be a Derek Carr safety net. Honestly, it’s not as if the Raiders are going to lean on the running game out there.
The Rams wanted Watkins back but were outbid by the Chiefs. Then they traded for Cooks, ostensibly to replace Watkins as the “X” receiver in Sean McVay’s offense. But McVay had some interesting things to say when I asked him about the comparison between those two players:
“I think there’s a lot of ways I could have done a better job using Sammy, just in terms of getting him more opportunities and really just getting him more touches, things like that,” McVay said. “But I think, as we get more comfortable with understanding what exactly does Brandin do best, there’s a lot of ways that we anticipate using him: moving him around the formation, not necessarily just exclusively playing the X, but on the outside, in the slot … I think he’s a rare type player. He’s obviously had the deep ball production, but I think he can do a lot of other things as far as the short and intermediate game as well because he can beat bump-man, he’s got real aggressive hands, real good step to the football, and you look at the way New England used him and even New Orleans on the jet sweeps and different things like that.”
Quarterback Jared Goff said receivers Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp know all of the WR positions on the Rams’ offense already, which means the ability to move Cooks around the formation could make this an unpredictable fantasy offense week-to-week. But the Rams should run enough plays and score enough points that everyone delivers value.
This is one of the first things you realize when you show up at Seahawks camp. Carson is getting the first-team reps, and everybody is talking about how great the dude looks. Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright offered a bit of an old-school comparison that should hold particular appeal for people (like me!) who were playing fantasy football 15-20 years ago:
“He reminds me a lot of Fred Taylor. That’s a good comparison for him,” Wright said. “Fred Taylor was just all cut up and kind of stickily built. He’s just straight-ahead, man, and he can make you miss in the open field too. He’ll be fun to watch.”
Yeah, I know the Seahawks drafted Rashaad Penny in the first round (get to that in a sec), and obviously things change as the season goes along. But Carson was a hot name coming out of last year’s Seahawks camp before he got hurt, and assuming he stays healthy, the bet here is that he leads the team in RB touches in 2018.
They didn’t take him in the first round to NOT use him. People I asked about this situation in Seattle said the reason behind the Penny pick was that the Seahawks needed another explosive player in the running game in addition to Carson and that their 2017 season was a lesson in the need for multiple options at running back. They had so many injuries at that position last year that quarterback Russell Wilson led the team in rushing by 346 yards, with 586.
A couple of things to remember here: First, the Seahawks’ program is based on development, and they usually draft players with an eye toward using them down the road. Ideally for Seattle, Carson can handle the No. 1 running back workload this season, Penny slides in as a useful backup and change-of-pace guy, and Penny is a better player for the experience next year or the year after when his role increases. Second, the Seahawks have a very unsettled situation at wide receiver, with Doug Baldwin the No. 1 but in his usual specific role and Tyler Lockett the most likely candidate for the No. 2 receiver role. There’s a pretty good chance the running backs will figure prominently into the passing game, in which case there’ll be plenty of touches to go around. Don’t reach for Penny, but don’t forget about him — especially in keeper leagues.
14. Not even the Cowboys know who’s going to catch the ball
They’re not trying to kid anybody. You ask their decision-makers, “Who’s going to catch the ball?” and the answer comes back, “Yeah, we need to figure that out. But that’s what camp is for.” They have a month until the season and need to sort out roles in the passing game, where right now they have slot man Cole Beasley set and believe they can throw it more to Ezekiel Elliott. Beyond that? Your guess is as good as mine. The Cowboys really like rookie Michael Gallup, but he has a long way to go as far as learning the offense. Allen Hurns and Terrance Williams haven’t been fully healthy. Tavon Austin and Deonte Thompson are in the mix. Geoff Swaim and Blake Jarwin are getting some attention at tight end, but there are other guys in the mix too.
The Cowboys are going to be a run-heavy team. They make no secret of that. But Dak Prescott will have to throw the ball sometimes, and it’s too early to know for sure who (besides Beasley and Elliott on the short stuff) will be on the other end of those throws.
15. And, oh yeah … draft Elliott
This should be a no-brainer, but there’s no reason to be any less excited about Ezekiel Elliott than there was either of the past two years. Given the fact that he was a rookie in 2016 and was facing suspension in 2017, there might be reason to be more excited. If you’re picking fourth and Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley and David Johnson are gone, you’re still fine. Don’t overthink it.
EAGAN, Minn. — After a whirlwind three months that required Kirk Cousins to move his family across the country, learn a new offense and develop relationships with new coaches and teammates after signing a three-year, $84 million contract in free agency, the Minnesota Vikings quarterback can finally exhale.
All of the changes that Cousins experienced came with the territory — moving on to the next chapter of his career after six years with the Washington Redskins. That didn’t mean the transition would always appear seamless.
Cousins felt the spring offseason was “a bit like drinking through a fire hose,” given the amount of new information he had to process and execute in expedited fashion. At the forefront of learning a scheme designed around his strengths, Cousins’ first few months in the Twin Cities centered on building continuity with his offensive line and skill players.
Cementing that connection is a drawn-out process that takes longer to perfect than several weeks of OTAs and minicamp. Finding a common ground between the way his receivers like to run routes and the way Cousins has executed throws to his offensive weapons in the past was where it all started when the quarterback invited Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs down to Atlanta for an impromptu throwing session in early April. Those conversations continued to evolve during the spring as Cousins was able to expand upon that chemistry in full practices and leave feeling all parties were on the same page.
“It’s a process of saying, ‘Hey, this is the way I’ve done if for six years. You’ve done it a different way for five years. Let’s try to talk about why you’ve had success, why I’ve had success. Let’s find some middle ground, let’s decide whether I’m going to learn your way, you’re going to learn my way,'” Cousins said. “That’s the process I’m talking about. Every route, every concept, really we could talk about each individual one. The best part of the whole thing is you know you have a chance when the communication is as healthy as it is.
“[Thielen is] receptive to listening; I can understand what he’s getting at. It’s the same with Stef. That’s where when I say I’m really excited about the locker room and the players I work with, it’s moments like that, where I feel really good about the communication, that they’re hearing you and you’re hearing them.”
During the six weeks until the Vikings report back for training camp at the end of July, Cousins will work to perfect the balance between relaxing and staying mentally prepared. Though he doesn’t have any concrete plans in place to work with his receivers in the summer, he will dedicate his efforts to the areas of the offense he didn’t grasp the first time around.
“I think the more important level of communication will be between me and the coaches, talking about some philosophy things and how I want plays to be designed,” Cousins said. “I’ll have my iPad with me as I go home, and I’ll spend time every day going back.
“All the stuff I didn’t catch, go back through and see that I had starred this, I had checkmarked this as something to go back to when we had time rather than take time when we were so busy.”
“I’m going to go back, I’ll make a list,” he continued, “probably get on the phone with [offensive coordinator] Coach [John] DeFilippo or [quarterbacks] Coach [Kevin] Stefanski and email and just go through it all to get each question answered over the summer.”
Because he feels like he’s “a little behind the eight ball,” Cousins’ summer plans include ample time in the playbook each day to prevent losing the knowledge and muscle memory he has built up in a short amount of time. But if there’s anything his first six years in the NFL have taught him, it’s the importance of pushing back at this time of year to prevent burnout.
“Last year, we got to like Week 2 and because of how much I was grinding all camp and even in the summer, I felt like we were in Week 12,” Cousins said. “I couldn’t believe that we were only in Week 2 because I had treated July and August like it was game day.”
A change of scenery is part of that plan. Cousins is scheduled to be in his hometown of Holland, Michigan, for his two-day youth football camp June 29-30. Last year, Cousins broke ground on a beach house on Lake Michigan that he told MLive.com he was looking “forward to it being a family gathering spot for many years.” The backdrop of the water and serene western Michigan beaches might provide the perfect space for Cousins to unwind at points over the next two months while poring over the concepts he hopes will have him ready to go when training camp arrives.
“Just keep stacking a brick up every day and believe that by the end of August or early September we’ll be where we need to be,” he said.