This offseason, the NFL experienced a rare quarterback carousel that dispersed several veterans across the league.
At the centre of the game of musical chairs were Kirk Cousins and Case Keenum. After coming up one win shy of a Super Bowl appearance, the Minnesota Vikings opted to make what they believed was an upgrade at the position by signing Cousins and letting Keenum walk.
A career year for journeyman Keenum – including the legendary ‘Minnesota Miracle’ in the NFC Divisional Round to cement his status as a hero in the region – wasn’t enough to convince the Vikings. Rather than committing to the 30-year-old, Minnesota were fine with letting him leave for the Denver Broncos, who gave Keenum the opportunity to start.
This past Saturday in Week 1 of preseason, Cousins and Keenum made their debuts for their new teams, fittingly against one another. The Vikings came out on top 42-28 as Cousins looked sharp and Keenum was lacklustre, but a meaningless exhibition isn’t going to serve as a referendum on Minnesota’s decision – this season and beyond will.
There’s a reason Cousins was the most sought-after free agent this offseason. In the three years he spent in Washington as the full-time starter, Cousins recorded a passer rating of 97.5, which ranked sixth among all quarterbacks.
While his efficiency has actually regressed since 2015 – his passer rating dropped from 101.6 to 97.2 to 93.9 last season – his talent is unquestionable, and at just 29, he was the rare franchise quarterback available on the open market.
The Vikings pounced at the opportunity to sign Cousins to a three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million deal, despite Keenum having the better overall season. However, as well as Keenum performed, it remains to be seen if his breakout year was an aberration or a sign of what’s to come.
Prior to this past season, Keenum had never been a starter for a full campaign or managed a passer rating above 87.7. One of the keys to his success with Minnesota was his QBR rating (a variation of passer rating) of 58.5 under pressure, which not only ranked first in the league last year, but placed sixth all-time since 2009. Just a season prior with the Los Angeles Rams, Keenum ranked dead last in QBR under pressure with a mark of 6.5.
Clearly, the Vikings weren’t confident Keenum could produce similar magic going forward.
Cousins might have to in order to succeed in his new surroundings, as Minnesota’s offensive line has been an issue for years. The Vikings didn’t drastically improve the line in the offseason, although simply being healthier could make a significant difference.
Under pressure last year, Cousins was a mixed bag as his 11 big-time throws under pressure ranked fourth, while his nine turnover-worthy passes ranked sixth, according to Pro Football Focus.
What Cousins has working in his favour in Minnesota is the supporting cast, on both sides of the ball. He’ll have one of the best receiver duos to throw to in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, while Dalvin Cook will give the Vikings a running game to lean on – something Cousins didn’t have in Washington as they ranked 28th in rushing yards last year.
A more favourable game script may be the biggest advantage for Cousins as he’ll likely be ahead more often than not, with Minnesota’s defence expected to once again be one of the very best in the league. They allowed the fewest points last season (15.8), whereas Washington were tied for 27th (24.3).
One facet that could benefit Cousins in the long-term, but potentially result in a slow start out of the gates, is his comfort with new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo.
After shining as the Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterbacks coach in their Super Bowl run last year, DeFilippo is poised to leave his imprint on the Vikings offence. His system, however, could put more burden on Cousins to freelance – something he wasn’t used to in a more structured attack in Washington.
Because of the strength of Minnesota’s roster though, they’re in the enviable position of being Super Bowl contenders right away, even if Cousins doesn’t live up to those high expectations immediately.
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