With the signing of wide receiver Kendall Wright, the Minnesota Vikings’ offense is nearly complete. They will certainly add another offensive lineman in the draft and could pick a tight end or wide receiver, but for the most part we know the look of the weapons Kirk Cousins will have around him.
Of the three years Cousins was the full-time starter in Washington, his best performance came when he had an outstanding supporting cast in 2016. Cousins’ offense ranked 12th in points, third in yards and second in passing yards. Individually, the Vikings’ new quarterback earned his only Pro Bowl bid in ’16, ranked seventh in passer rating and third in yards per attempt.
When Cousins’ supporting cast faded in 2017 with the exit of several key weapons and injuries to tight end Jordan Reed and on the offensive line, Washington’s offensive numbers dipped to 16th in points and yards and 26th in turnovers.
The Vikings are banking on their top-flight group of offensive players helping Cousins raise his play back to 2016 level. Do the Vikings have enough talent to recreate his 2016 performance? Could they be even better? Or will they struggle to provide him with as much help?
Let’s have a look, position by position….
Washington (2016 stats)
Robert Kelley – 72.2 PFF grade, 704 yards, 4.2 YPA, 12 catches
Chris Thompson – 77.6 PFF grade, 356 yards, 5.2 YPA, 49 catches
Matt Jones – 74.4 PFF grade, 460 yards, 4.6 YPA, eight catches
In two of three years that Cousins started in D.C., his running games were putrid. In 2015 and 2017, Jay Gruden’s offense ranked No. 30 in the NFL in yards per attempt. But 2016 was the outlier as the combination of Kelly, Thompson and Jones ran effectively, posting the ninth best yards per attempt in the NFL.
In the passing game, the three mainstays of the Washington offense combined for 69 receptions. When Cousins threw in Thompson’s direction, his QB rating was 118.6 and he averaged 9.4 yards per attempt. Thompson is simply one of the elite NFL receiving backs.
It’s safe to conclude that for at least 2016, Cousins had a tremendous backfield.
Minnesota (2017 stats)
Dalvin Cook – 83.0 PFF grade, 354 yards, 4.8 YPA, 11 catches
Latavius Murray – 77.1 PFF grade, 842 yards, 3.9 YPA, 15 catches
It didn’t take very long for Cook to prove himself to be one of the most talented all-around running backs in the NFL. Through four games, he was toward the top of the league in yards and yards per attempt. He also added catching ability out of the backfield and pass blocked effectively. An ACL injury cut his season short, but the first four games of his career weren’t likely a fluke considering Cook is the all-time leading rusher at Florida State.
While Murray got off to a slow start behind Cook (and due to offseason surgery), he stepped up as the season wore on creating explosive runs and pounding the ball in at the goal line. You’d be hard pressed to find many better No. 2 backs.
The Vikings will have one of the best backfields in the NFL as long as cook bounces back. With that said, it would be a win if Minnesota matched the 4.5 yards per attempt and 69 receptions out of the backfield that Washington’s 2016 group averaged. Cook may be more talented than any of the other backs, but for at least one season, the D.C. group was in the top third of the league. You would expect the Vikings to match their production. Asking for more would be lofty.
Pierre Garcon – 87.2 PFF grade, 79 catches, 1,041 yards
DeSean Jackson – 79.1 PFF grade, 57 catches, 1,005 yards
Jamison Crowder – 71.8 PFF grade, 67 catches, 847 yards
Jackson may have been the star of the group – and he averaged 17.9 yards per catch, so he was creating consistent big plays – but not enough credit is given to Garcon for his consistent excellence. He posted as many as 113 receptions in a single season with Washington and averaged 81 catches at 12.1 yards per reception over 16 games during his five years in the nation’s capital. Crowder also provided Cousins with a quality slot receiver who grabbed 67.7 percent of the passes his way in 2016.
Stefon Diggs – 85.4 PFF grade, 64 catches, 849 yards
Adam Thielen – 84.6 PFF grade, 91 catches, 1,276 yards
Kendall Wright – 76.3 PFF grade, 59 catches, 614 yards
In 2017, Diggs and Thielen elevated their status to elite wide receivers. They both ranked in the top 10 by PFF, Thielen put his name in the top 10 seasons in franchise history by a wide receiver and Diggs led the NFL in percentage of contested catches. Neither can be slowed one-on-one and both have the ability to line up in the slot or go deep on post or go routes. As for Wright, he caught 80.4 percent of throws in his direction (41 of 51) while lining up in the slot. He’s also experienced enough to move outside and beat opponents off the line or with his strong route running.
The wide receiving groups are very comparable in strength, but the versatility of Thielen and Diggs gives the Vikings a slight edge. As one of the best deep receivers of the last decade, Jackson gave Cousins a remarkable boost. He didn’t have as much success on short throws or line up in the slot as often as Thielen or Diggs. The weak point in 2017 was the rotating No. 3 spot. Wright shores that up and should provide equal or slightly better play than Crowder.
Jordan Reed – 86.0 PFF grade, 66 catches, 686 yards
Vernon Davis – 76.1 PFF grade, 44 catches, 583 yards
Cousins was blessed with one of the most impressive TE duos in the NFL in 2016. Reed, who has often been injured during his career, played 12 games and ranked at the very top of TE ratings by PFF, while Davis provided a vertical threat from the position that few teams possess (the Vikings learned in 2016 just how dangerous Davis could be). The speed and hands of these two tight ends essentially gave Cousins five quality wide receivers.
Kyle Rudolph – 73.1 PFF grade, 57 catches, 532 yards
David Morgan – 78.4 PFF grade, 10 catches, 95 yards (No. 3 blocking TE)
Rudolph was better for the majority of 2017 than his grade would suggest. An injury toward the end of the season slowed him significantly, especially when it came to blocking. Even if the Vikings don’t add another TE in the draft, they should have a quality duo with a red zone threat and one of the league’s elite blockers in the run game.
The Vikings’ tight ends are effective, but not as dangerous down the field as Reed and Davis were in 2016. Maybe this will be the year that Minnesota takes a TE in the top three rounds and rotates him in to create a versatile attack like the Eagles had last year with Zach Ertz, Trey Burton and Brent Celek. If they don’t take one fairly high, the advantage goes to Cousins’ former team.
PFF rank: Seventh
Highest rated player: T – Trent Williams, 92.8 (No. 1)
Washington had one of the NFL’s best offensive lines in 2016. At the most important position, Cousins had the No. 1 ranked player in Trent Williams, who will someday have a case for the Hall of Fame. Guard Brandon Scherff scored an 81.7 PFF rating and Morgan Moses posted an 85.1 in ’16, putting both within the top 10 at their positions.
2017 PFF rank: 22nd
Highest rated player: G – Joe Berger, 75.7 (23rd)
The PFF ranking doesn’t fully tell the story of the 2017 Vikings offensive line. Before Nick Easton went down, they were a strength of the group. Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers both earned their paychecks in Year 1 and center Pat Elflein was a game changer, despite his unimpressive grade. With a guard to be drafted in the top two rounds in the draft, there’s some uncertainty with a rookie compared to the reliable Joe Berger, but a higher ceiling as well.
While Cousins will inherit a solid line with toughness and strong run blocking, the pass blocking is likely to still have some ups and downs. The Vikings’ 2018 line would have to make huge leaps to compare with a HOF left tackle and Pro Bowl left guard.
A deeper look at the 2016 supporting cast for Cousins reveals that he was surrounded by supreme talent. It’s hard not to wonder what that team might have done had their defense not ranked 19th in points allowed and 28th in yards allowed. Even if the Vikings can’t quite compare in some areas, we’ve seen the impact Thielen and Diggs can have on a quarterback. If the Vikings are largely healthy, they should elevate Cousins’ play beyond the type of help he received in Washington in 2018. And without question Minnesota will put on a better defensive performance.