2020 NFL Preview: Vikings' Kirk Cousins plan hasn't worked, even when Cousins was fantastic

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 5. 

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

Kirk Cousins was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL last season. That fact might have eluded you.

By the time the Vikings got dominated by the Chicago Bears in Week 4 and Minnesota’s receivers were complaining about the offense, the narrative was set. Cousins’ $84 million deal was a waste. Maybe that’s how Cousins’ stellar season went under the radar.

His 107.4 passer rating was a career best, fourth in the NFL and the 33rd best mark ever. From Week 5 on, he threw 23 touchdowns and four interceptions. Cousins’ Pro Football Focus passing grade was fourth among all quarterbacks, ahead of Patrick Mahomes among others. From Week 5 on, he had PFF’s best passing grade in the NFL. That’s right, for three-quarters of the season Cousins was arguably the NFL’s best passer. Then Cousins led a wild-card playoff win at the New Orleans Saints, completing huge passes in overtime to Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph.

And yet, nobody will give him much credit. It’s a bit unfair how we tie a quarterback’s worth to his team’s success. The Vikings paid Cousins to get over the hump, and in two seasons, they have no division titles and no playoff wins beyond the wild-card round. And the odds of this being the Super Bowl season with Cousins got a lot longer in the offseason.

The way the Vikings structured deals, they had a two-year window with Cousins before they entered salary-cap hell. The first year resulted in a very disappointing 8-7-1 finish, and the second year was 10-6 with one playoff win and a terrible performance in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round. The Vikings, who lost in the NFC championship game the year before signing Cousins, took a big swing for a title and seem a lot further away from the Super Bowl now.

Receiver Stefon Diggs was traded. Defensive end Everson Griffen was told he wouldn’t be back. Cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander, defensive tackle Linval Joseph, guard Josh Kline, safety Andrew Sendejo, receiver Laquon Treadwell, defensive end Stephen Weatherly were all cut or signed elsewhere. Most of the replacements will come from a 15-player draft class, the NFL’s largest since the draft went to seven rounds in 1994. The Vikings also lost offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, who was hired to be the Cleveland Browns’ head coach after a good 2019 season as Minnesota’s OC.

“It reminds me of when we were in college and had five defensive backs graduate,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “You got guys that come in who are redshirt freshmen and you got to get them ready to play. So that part kind of energizes us as coaches.”

Zimmer referred to the NFL as a “young man’s game” this offseason as so many veterans left town, and maybe he’s right. It’s not impossible for the Vikings, who still have plenty of good players, to get a boost from getting younger. It’s just hard to count on, especially in an abbreviated offseason.

There was really no avoiding a difficult transition for the Vikings this season. Minnesota almost made the Super Bowl in 2017, had the type of roster that could be in contention again, and they went for it. That included a huge deal for an upgrade at quarterback over Case Keenum. It’s hard to criticize that plan, it just didn’t work. Even with Cousins playing very well last season.

The Vikings are stuck in the middle this season. They extended Cousins with a two-year, $66 million deal. Old veterans like Thielen, Rudolph, safety Harrison Smith and linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are still around. Dalvin Cook is too, but he has threatened a holdout because he knows running back shelf lives are short. Those top players will be looking around at a lot of new faces. It looks like a rebuild, but for only half of the roster.

If the Vikings fall hard with all the depth missing, Cousins will get the blame no matter how well he plays. That’s what he signed up for when he inked his huge contract.

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins had a great season but it didn't result in a long playoff run. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar, File)
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins had a great season but it didn't result in a long playoff run. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar, File)

Just go back and look at all those players the Vikings lost. That’s a lot for one offseason. Depth could be a struggle. The Vikings were able to retain safety Anthony Harris on the franchise tag, which was expensive but important. Harris had a fantastic 2019 season. Defensive tackle Michael Pierce (three years, $27 million) was the only notable free-agent addition. The draft had a lot of volume and many solid picks. The four top-100 picks — LSU WR Justin Jefferson, TCU CB Jeff Gladney, Boise State OT Ezra Cleveland, Mississippi State CB Cam Dantzler — will contribute out of necessity, and the hope is that the large class pays off in a few years. Not only did Minnesota draft a record amount of rookies, they spent $473,300 in guaranteed money on 12 undrafted free agents, the largest amount in the Mike Zimmer era, according to the Star-Tribune. There will be a lot of young faces on this roster.

GRADE: D-minus

The beauty of Kirk Cousins’ 2019 season is he excelled in many areas. He was accurate to all levels, especially on intermediate throws. He was good under pressure, on third downs and in the red zone. Cousins avoided turnovers and still was aggressive throwing downfield. His 119.7 passer rating on deep throws was third in the NFL, via Pro Football Focus. It’s fair to wonder if Cousins can repeat all of that, especially without receiver Stefon Diggs and offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski (and the play-action heavy calls that unlocked a new level for Cousins), but give credit where it’s due. Cousins was very good last season.

The problem with Dalvin Cook’s holdout promise is he has little leverage. He wants an extension and says he won’t report until he gets one. Maybe the Vikings pay him to keep one of their stars happy, but Cook doesn’t have many options. Cook wouldn’t accrue any time toward unrestricted free agency if he sits out, and he’d still be unlikely to get the deal he wants as a restricted free agent in 2021. Cook is a fine back. He posted 1,654 yards and 13 touchdowns in 14 games last season. But the Vikings can be patient, like the Los Angeles Chargers with Melvin Gordon last season, and there’s not much Cook can do about it. It’s not fair to be a star running back and in a more ideal NFL world, Cook would get what he’s worth. We’ll see how the Vikings and Cook play the standoff.

The under of 8.5 wins for the Vikings at BetMGM has plus odds, at +130. Given the talent drain, I can see the Vikings finishing 8-8 or worse. I think there’s also value in the Vikings finishing in last place of the NFC North at +800. If Dalvin Cook holds out, that’s another piece the Vikings have lost. Even if they didn’t lose many essential players, they lost enough that depth will be tested. I just assume a step back for the Vikings, and it could be a big step back with a few tough breaks.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Fantasy football is ridiculously simple at times; find a talented player with a bushel of opportunity, repeat until you’re drowned in success. That’s the story with Adam Thielen in 2020, as he is the clear alpha talent at the top of Minnesota’s receiving tree. Thielen averaged 147.5 targets in the 2017-2018 seasons, and he might sail past that number now that Stefon Diggs is out of town. Kirk Cousins isn’t necessarily a star-maker at quarterback, but he’s good enough. Thielen is a reasonable pick in the third round of 2020 fantasy drafts, and a steal for anyone who can land him after that.”

[Create or join a 2020 Yahoo Fantasy Football League for free today] 

Adam Thielen’s production fell off last season as he posted a 30-418-6 line. He played in just 10 games due to a hamstring injury. Thielen had never missed time with injuries, but now that’s part of the concern as he turns 30 before the season. Thielen’s usage will also likely change with Stefon Diggs gone. First-round pick Justin Jefferson was almost exclusively a slot receiver last season, running 575 of his 583 routes from the slot, according to Pro Football Focus. Last season, Thielen played 155 snaps, or about 29 percent of his total snaps, in the slot. Thielen believes he and Jefferson will be interchangeable in the slot and outside, but some of that might depend on how the rookie adjusts to NFL life. Thielen is a versatile player, and he faces a big test this season to be the primary outside receiver for the Vikings.

What will happen with Mike Zimmer in a contract year?

Coaches don’t often reach the final year of their deal; they’re usually extended and eventually fired with years remaining on the contract. Teams and coaches don’t like lame-duck seasons. But Zimmer is in the final year of his deal. Vikings ownership has expressed that it wants to extend Zimmer, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Zimmer is 57-38-1 over six season and hasn’t finished under .500 since his first year. That’s very good. Yet, two playoff wins in six seasons leave him in the “good not great” tier of coaches. The lack of an extension for Zimmer is probably telling. What happens if the depleted Vikings roster falls back under .500 for the first time since Zimmer’s rookie season? That would put the Vikings in a tough spot. The best way for Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman, also in a contract year, to ensure their future would be to get Minnesota back to the playoffs.

“At the end of the day, it ends up being a young man’s game,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said after last season, when assessing the team having to make tough salary-cap decisions on veterans.

Zimmer wasn’t wrong. Teams often make the mistake of sticking too long with trusted veterans. Maybe the exodus of older players won’t affect the Vikings as much as it seems. There is still plenty of blue-chip talent and Zimmer is a good coach. If Cousins plays well again, with Gary Kubiak now calling plays, and the Green Bay Packers take a step back, an NFC North title could happen.

There’s a scenario in which Dalvin Cook holds out, Adam Thielen shows he’s on the wrong side of his career at 30 and young players like Alexander Mattison, Irv Smith Jr. and Justin Jefferson don’t rise to the occasion. The Vikings lost a lot on defense and maybe it takes time for everything to come together. There’s a possibility the bottom falls out for Minnesota. Then it seems likely a full rebuild would start.

It’s possible I’m overrating the loss of old veterans and an unhappy Stefon Diggs, as well as the potential holdout of Dalvin Cook. The Vikings were a very good team last season, and even if the roster isn’t as good in the middle anymore, the top end is still talented and maybe the fall won’t be that bad. Still, there are a lot of questions, and I’m not sure the Vikings can answer them all in one offseason. I’ll be a little low on the Vikings — they’re my lowest-ranked NFC North team in these rankings — and be prepared to move them up quickly if their issues get resolved quickly.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. 
Washington Football Team
30. 
Cincinnati Bengals
29. 
Carolina Panthers
28. 
New York Giants
27. 
Detroit Lions
26. 
New York Jets
25. 
Atlanta Falcons
24. 
Miami Dolphins
23. 
Las Vegas Raiders
22. 
Los Angeles Chargers
21. 
Houston Texans
20. 
Arizona Cardinals
19. 
Minnesota Vikings
18. 
Chicago Bears
17. 
Los Angeles Rams
16. 
Cleveland Browns
15.
Pittsburgh Steelers
14.
Denver Broncos
13.
Indianapolis Colts
12.
Philadelphia Eagles
11.
Seattle Seahawks
10. 
Green Bay Packers
9.
New England Patriots
8.
Tennessee Titans
7.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
6. 
Dallas Cowboys
5.
Buffalo Bills
4.
San Francisco 49ers
3.
New Orleans Saints
2.
Kansas City Chiefs
1.
Baltimore Ravens

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