Fantasy Football: Kirk Cousins Has the Potential to Be a Top Quarterback in 2018

Coming off a strong fantasy finish in 2017, a change in scenery could make Kirk Cousins an even more valuable fantasy football asset in Minnesota.

Fantasy Football players are always looking for that late round hit that will help propel them to their league championship and garner bragging rights over their friends. Every owner wants that "sleeper" to hang their hat on and show off their knowledge of fantasy football.

Even with drafting quarterbacks late becoming commonplace, you won't find many players available as late as Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins that offer the same combination of floor and ceiling that he does. According to FantasyFootballCalculator, Cousins' average draft position (ADP) sits in the eighth round, making him a prime candidate to crush his draft position and produce as a top-tier quarterback.

Road to Minnesota

Cousins was drafted in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL draft by Washington, seemingly as an insurance policy to their quarterback of the future at the time, Robert Griffin III. Knee injuries and inconsistent play for Griffin opened the door for Cousins to become the starting quarterback in 2015, and his strong play allowed him to stick as a starter, pushing Griffin out of town.

Season Cmp Att Cmp% Yards TD INT Rush TD
2015 379 543 69.8 4,166 29 11 5
2016 406 606 67.0 4,917 25 12 4
2017 347 540 64.3 4,093 27 13 4

numberFire's models expect similar numbers out of him in 2018, projecting him to complete 344 of 554 passes for 4,290 yards and 27.9 touchdowns, while adding 2.4 scores on the ground.

Since becoming the starting quarterback for Washington in 2015, he has fantasy football finishes of QB10 (2015), QB3 (2016) and QB6 (2017). That's three straight years as a top-10 quarterback, while his best weapons in the receiving game were a 29-year-old DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder, and the oft-injured Jordan Reed.

Cousins also produced his strong 2017 number behind an offensive line that was marred by injury. The team was forced to give at least 140 snaps to 11 different linemen. So before you worry about his new line in Minnesota, know that Cousins has dealt with worse.

He became a free agent after the 2017 season and signed a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 Million contract. Vikings invested heavy capital in Cousins, but smart fantasy owners can pick him up without having to pay a premium.

New Offense, New Weapons

Minnesota lost offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur to the New York Giants this off-season, but replaced him with an up-and-coming talent in John DeFilippo. DeFilippo served under Doug Pederson on the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles last season. Among his notable impacts in Philadelphia was helping bring the run/pass option (RPO) play to prominence in the Eagles' offense.

Philadelphia originally installed the RPO so that Carson Wentz could threaten defenses as a mobile threat. But even the statuesque Nick Foles and his 77.0 (9th percentile) SPARQ-x score was able to average 7.16 adjusted net yards per pass attempt (regular season and playoffs combined) in the system. That compares favorably to his career-average mark of 6.22. Cousins has a similar athletic profile to Foles (16th-percentile 79.3 SPARQ-x score), and his lack of mobility shouldn't be an issue in this system.

Cousins will move from a wide receiver corps that featured Josh Doctson, Ryan Grant, and Crowder in 2017 to a group with Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs and former first-round pick Laquon Treadwell in 2018. He will also be trading Vernon Davis and Jordan Reed for Kyle Rudolph at the tight end position.

Here at numberFire, we go beyond mere counting stats when analyzing player performance on the field. Our signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP), uses historical down-and-distance data to determine the expected points a player contributes to his team.

For context, the average Reception NEP per reception mark for 2017 was 1.11, the average Reception NEP per target was 0.65 and the average Target NEP per target was 0.22. Reception NEP numbers also sat much lower for tight ends (0.89 per reception, 0.57 per target). With those averages in mind, we can compare how Washington's pass-catchers performed compared to the Vikings'.

Player Reception NEP per Reception per Target Target NEP per Target
Jamison Crowder 0.84 0.54 0.08
Josh Doctson 1.23 0.55 -0.03
Vernon Davis 0.88 0.56 0.23
Ryan Grant 1.15 0.80 0.41

Using the NEP averages, you can see that Washington's top receiving weapons mostly produced at a below-average level. Despite this, Cousins posted a Passing NEP per drop back of 0.06, which was right in line with the league average.

Player Reception NEP per Reception
per Target Target NEP per Target
Adam Thielen 1.12 0.71 0.37
Stefon Diggs 1.24 0.83 0.52
Kyle Rudolph 0.87 0.61 0.29
Laquon Treadwell 0.70 0.40 -0.08

At just a quick glance using NEP data, we see that the Vikings offensive weapons were more efficient than Washington's. Their two main pass-catching options in Thielen and Diggs produced above the league average in all three NEP categories. At tight end, Rudolph was right at and above those league average numbers.

The top three target hogs, still on the Vikings, produced at a more efficient level than Cousins' receivers, and they raised Case Keenum's efficiency to a 0.19 Passing NEP per drop back clip. That marked a career-best. When you consider Keenum's shaky play outside of Minnesota, there's reason to believe that it was his weapons elevating him last year, not the other way around.

Potential Pitfalls

The biggest worry for Kirk Cousins 2018 production won't be the Vikings offensive line or the new targets he will be working with. It will be his own teammates on the defensive side of the ball. The Vikings defense is absolutely locked and loaded with talent, and are ranked as the league's top unit on numberFire's Power Rankings.

If the defense locks down opposing offenses and limits the Vikings' need to pass, Cousins may not see much volume. Luckily, drawing two matchups each with a healthy Aaron Rodgers, an improved Chicago Bears offense and strong Detroit Lions team with Matthew Stafford at quarterback will give Cousins six games that should be competitive and high-scoring. Road games against the Rams, Eagles, Patriots, and Seahawks should also be competitive matchups in which the Vikings won't be able to shy away from the pass.

2018 Outlook

Target Kirk Cousins late in drafts and you will be acquiring a player who has already finished as the QB3 and QB6 the last two seasons, and who also stands to benefit from a change in scenery. Going from Doctson and Crowder to Thielen and Diggs should lead to a nice bump in Cousins efficiency.

Cousins has a strong floor and, in this new offense, great upside. Our main worry is not in the potential of Cousins himself, but in the defense being too dominant and limiting the volume and opportunity of the pass offense.

Cousins may not be a true late-round quarterback, still going top-10, but he gives you the upside of those guys being taken in the three-to-six range at a fraction of the cost.