7 numbers behind the Vikings' decision to spend lavishly on Kirk Cousins

Kirk Cousins proved himself as a bonafide starter in three seasons as Washington’s full-time quarterback, but his franchise’s proficiency in failure always meant he was graded on a curve. Cousins was able to put up big numbers between the 20-yard lines, but he was saddled with a 24-23-1 record as his club rose up to the standard of mediocrity set by owner Dan Snyder.


Getting to nine wins in Washington was an accomplishment. Now, after agreeing to a deal with the Minnesota Vikings for three fully guaranteed years and $84 million, a similar performance would be a disappointment.

Minneapolis has been a boomtown for quarterbacks in recent years, pushing Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford, and Case Keenum to the best seasons of their respective careers while bolstering them with one of the league’s top defenses. Keenum’s ascendance was particularly impressive; last year he boasted career highs in passing yards per game, passing efficiency, touchdown rate, and the league’s seventh-ranked passer rating — five spots ahead of Cousins.

But those aren’t the only numbers that are worth investigating as we usher in the new league year.

$10 million

Keenum also agreed to a new contract this week, leaving the great white north for Denver, where he will sign for two years and $36 million. That leaves the Vikings paying $10 million per season extra for the chance to upgrade from a 30-year-old passer with a checkered past to a soon-to-be 30-year-old passer who has never won a playoff game.


In a small sample size vacuum, Cousins doesn’t *look* eight figures better than Keenum was last season. The former Vikings quarterback completed more of his passes, had a lower turnover rate, and provided a higher approximate value (according to Pro Football Reference) than his replacement.

While Cousins worked with a lesser supporting cast, he was forced into a more conservative game plan last fall. His average yards per pass was just 7.6, barely higher than the 7.4 Keenum recorded in a season that began, like with Sam Bradford before him, by focusing on short, accurate passes to help build his momentum as a starter. But in 2016, that figure was up to 8.1 yards — more accurately reflecting the value Cousins provides with the right tools.

So while 2017 may not suggest he’s a $10 million upgrade, the Vikings are paying that premium for stability.


That’s what Keenum’s career completion rate was before landing in Minnesota. His big season was aided by the presence of offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who has worked wonders with his quarterbacks as an assistant coach. He won’t work with Keenum or Cousins this season, as he’s now head coach of the New York Giants. That leaves the very legitimate concern the journeyman quarterback could turn back into a pumpkin.

Or, as SB Nation’s Broncos site puts it:

Cousins has three sustained seasons of above-average play. That track record pushed the Vikings to spend an extra eight figures per season for the peace of mind their expertly built roster wouldn’t be wasted on a struggling passer.


Another big factor in Minnesota’s decision to cough up heaping amount of cash for Cousins? He found ways to win, even on an average Washington team. He tied for the league lead (alongside new division rival Matthew Stafford) with four game-winning drives last season, a number made even more impressive by the fact his squad only won seven games. He’s had 11 such drives in the past three seasons — more than Aaron Rodgers (six).


Aside from the temperate, windless conditions of playing inside U.S. Bank Stadium eight games per year, Minnesota has plenty to offer its new starter. The league’s No. 1 ranked defense was able to take over on Keenum’s less prolific days in 2017, providing the backbone for the team’s run to the NFC title game. In three seasons with Washington, Cousins won just two games when his team scored less than 18 points. Keenum matched that total in just 14 starts during the regular season, while making sure his higher scoring efforts didn’t go to waste.

Kirk Cousins vs. Case Keenum in low-scoring games

QB Team Record when scoring 19+ points Record when scoring 18 or fewer
QB Team Record when scoring 19+ points Record when scoring 18 or fewer
Kirk Cousins Washington, 2015-2017 22-11-1 2-12
Case Keenum Vikings, 2017 9-1 2-2

That’s not especially surprising. Via the NFL’s research department, Cousins’ defense ranked 21st, 28th, and 28th in the league in his three seasons as the team’s primary starter.


He’s also upgrading his receiving corps. In 2017, Washington’s top three passing targets were Jamison Crowder, Josh Doctson, and Vernon Davis. He’ll upgrade to Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, and Kyle Rudolph, a move that should benefit all parties.

Kirk Cousins’ top three receivers, 2017 to 2018

Team Top 3 targets Yards/catch Drop rate Total yards Touchdowns
Team Top 3 targets Yards/catch Drop rate Total yards Touchdowns
Washington, 2017 Crowder, Doctson, Davis 13.5 3.60% 1939 12
Vikings, 2017 Thielen, Diggs, Rudolph 12.5 2.52% 2657 20

Cousins’ stronger deep ball play made his Washington cohorts more of a deep ball threat, but Minnesota’s wideouts were more productive, more likely to find the end zone, and had fewer drops while playing with Keenum.


Cousins will also have a more comfortable pocket in which to work; the Vikings ranked seventh in the league after allowing sacks on just 4.65 percent of their dropbacks last fall. Washington ranked 19th (7.06 percent). Cousins had an average of 2.69 seconds to throw the ball in 2017; Keenum had 2.78.

These numbers tell a story; Cousins will have all the tools he needs to succeed in his new home. If his pinnacle in Minnesota is another Wild Card Round exit, the blame will be placed squarely at his feet. The Vikings built a plug-and-play contender just waiting for the right quarterback to lead it to glory, and Keenum’s revival paints a rosy picture for the former Washington quarterback’s success. If he can’t do that, there’s one last number that should absolutely terrify the franchise:


Minnesota will be doling out $84 million to field the third-best quarterback in the NFC North — Cousins falls below Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford in the division rankings. Maybe that’s no way to win a Super Bowl but the Vikings did get closer than the Lions and Packers last season, with Keenum at quarterback.

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