The major takeaway from the Alex Smith trade, other than the fact that Patrick Mahomes is going to be the starting quarterback in 2018 for the Kansas City Chiefs, is that Kirk Cousins is going to be able to test the free agent market. For the last two seasons Cousins has played on the franchise tag, being paid slightly less than $20 and $24 million in 2016 and 2017, respectively. That number would inflate to more than $34 million if Washington decided to franchise him for a third straight season. The chances of that happening were unlikely to begin with, so it came down to either re-signing Cousins to a long term deal or letting him walk. The trade ultimately means Washington decided on doing the latter. Shortly after the trade was announced, Smith signed a significant deal with Washington, a four year extension worth $70 million guaranteed. Washington decided that for whatever reason a soon to be 34 year old Smith was more preferable at that price than their younger model with a better and more willing ability to throw the deep ball.
There are already a solid amount of potential suitors lining up for Cousins to be their franchise QB. The most speculated team, though, is the Denver Broncos. Denver is in desperate need for a QB to lead their franchise after the Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch experiments didn’t work as planned. The Broncos are clear favorites for Cousins, as they’ve been active players in free agency during the Elway era. In addition, they also did pretty well recruiting the last major free agent QB to hit the open market.
The Broncos are slotted with the 5th pick. Cousins destination will significantly impact Denver’s draft strategy in some shape or form no matter where he lands. Signing Cousins and not having to A.) trade up for their preferred QB prospect or B.) hope a QB falls to the 5th pick would mean that the Broncos could save draft capital and invest a premium pick in the other 52 spots on the roster.
With all that being said, let’s look at how Cousins’ strengths would fit in the Broncos offensive system with Bill Musgrave as the offensive coordinator.
I’ve studied the Washington offense and Cousins in particular quite a bit in recent seasons. In 2015, Washington excelled at play action using boot action and waggles to march down the field at their preferred pace. Despite Cousins struggling early on, staring down his receivers and not moving defenders with his eyes – the same could be said of his strengths for 2016 as well. Overall, 2015 and 2016 were excellent seasons for Cousins and the Washington offense as a whole. The 2017 Washington offense struggled a bit, but not due to Cousins’ play. The offensive regression is likely due to the injuries in the backfield as Washington had RBs Rob Kelley and Chris Thompson miss time this season. Thompson was having an excellent year, making the most out of his touches prior to suffering a fractured fibula against the New Orleans Saints in Week 11.
Statistically, Cousins remained the same QB, despite the lack of a backfield presence. He’s become accustomed to throwing for 4,000+ yards while completing 64-69% of his passes and throwing 25-29 touchdowns against 11-13 interceptions. His averages for the last three seasons are 67% completion, 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Pretty…Pretty…Pretty good!
The offense had gone through some slight changes to account for the lack of a trusted rushing attack in 2017. We saw less boot action and waggles than in previous seasons and more quick reads, spread and bunch concepts out of the shotgun.
For examples of how he did on play action rollouts take a look at my piece on Cousins’ 2015 season mentioned earlier in the piece. Here’s a play from 2017 displaying Cousins’ ability from the shotgun in a spread alignment.
Washington is in a 3×1 trips formation at the bottom of the screen with Cousins and Chris Thompson (#25) side by side in the backfield from the shotgun. To the trips side of the field, Washington runs a Zone beater with the the Stick concept. On the opposite side Washington employs a Slant/Flat concept as a Man beater with TE Vernon Davis (#85) running the slant and Thompson running to the flat.
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Pre snap, Cousins is aware that Seattle is in a single high safety look with Kam Chancellor (#31) 15 yards off the ball. This means that when Davis runs the quick slant it’ll be difficult for Chancellor to help the CB in man coverage make a play on the ball before it arrives. This allows Cousins to read and throw based off who LB K.J. Wright (#50) defends underneath. If Wright drops into coverage to defend the slant, Cousins can throw the flat to Thompson. However, Wright defends the flat, which opens up the slant route to his TE. Cousins quickly reads the LB and delivers the pass to Davis for a nice gain on 2nd and 15 making the third down try more manageable.
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Denver Broncos, Bill Musgrave Offensive System
A lot of what Cousins did well in Washington throughout his time there should align nicely with the Broncos’ new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, should he decide to play for Denver. Afterall, Cousins is familiar with iterations of the West Coast scheme from his time spent with Coach Shanahan and Coach Gruden. According to Ted Nguyen, Musgrave originally ran a power run heavy offense with the QB behind the center earlier in his career, but that changed after the coordinator spent a year as the Eagles QB coach with Chip Kelly. Musgrave combined his power concepts with Kelly’s spread concepts to create a modern spread offense while serving as the Raiders offensive coordinator in 2015 and 2016.
In this 2016 matchup against the Broncos, Derek Carr (#4) motions Michael Crabtree (#15) across the formation. The CB follows him across the field, signaling that the defense is in man coverage. Similarly to the play above the Broncos defense are in a single high look after rolling the FS over and the SS into the box late in the play clock. Carr is able to make up his mind quickly where he wants to go with the ball based off the 1 on 1 matchup his receiver Amari Cooper (#89) is facing on the slant route. The CB defending the slot receiver on the play is focused on his man and reacts when the slot helps his RT by chipping the EDGE defender. The stretches the defense and creates more of a throwing lane for Carr to complete a pass to Cooper.
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Cooper is able to get inside leverage on the CB, plant and turn as he catches the ball to get up the sideline for yards after the catch.
Implementing RPOs would also benefit Cousins should he go to Denver. On this 3rd and 6, Carr motions his RB into the backfield while trying to relay assignments to his teammates before the play clock expires.
The Raiders creatively line up with six offensive linemen in an unbalanced formation. Prior to the snap, Carr realizes that Oakland has the numbers in the box to successfully run the ball should the post snap read look favorable. The pass option part of this play are double snag routes at the top of the screen. But, Carr likes the run option immediately at the mesh point and decides to give his back, Jalen Richard (#30) the ball on the run. Richard runs well passed the first down marker for a nice gain.
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The way Cousins’ next team designs run plays could have an impact on how well he functions in his new offense. In 2015, Bill Callahan set the tone for Cousins’ play action success with his power gap blocking scheme. Musgrave’s run style should be able to do the same.
I could easily imagine Cousins running this play action from this bunch formation next season. Musgrave designs the play calling for only two routes on the play, leaving the TE and slot bunch receiver in to block. The blocks by usual receiving targets keeps the LBs at bay and help sell the illusion of the run fake. Carr’s play action fake is key to the overall execution of this play. It draws the LBs in nearly three yards, allowing Crabtree to sneak behind the 2nd level for a solid gain.
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Cousins ability to sell the fake sets him apart from most other QBs in the NFL. It’s why he’s consistently been one of the top play action QBs statistically through the last three seasons.
This next play was called on a two point conversion attempt. It was effective because it looked exactly like a run play called earlier in the game.
Carr motions Roberts toward the line of scrimmage and points out a defender for Roberts to “block” to further sell the run prior to the snap. As Carr receives the snap, he fakes the hand off to Latavius Murray (#28) and rolls to his right, while Roberts makes a sudden plant and darts across to the right side of the backfield.
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The Bills defense is unable to adjust their coverage to the motion and work across the field resulting in the Raiders converting the two point play. Ted Nguyen also had an excellent breakdown of this two point attempt as well!
This scheme allowed Musgrave to get the most out of Carr and could do the same for Cousins. The two QBs share some comparable traits that make Cousins a good fit for Musgrave’s system. While Cousins isn’t as mobile as Carr, he possesses enough mobility to execute the play calls that Musgrave will have in store for him.
I am a firm believer that wherever Cousins lands the game plan should be tailored around his ability to run play action, roll outs, bunches and quick reads. Plus, it should let him rip the occasional deep ball down the field. With Denver’s talented defense on the other side of the ball, Cousins would be allowed to control the pace of the game and play his style of offense.