It has to be said that my interest has piqued the more I’ve looked into the possible 2012 quarterback class. There’s some intrigue and some potential depth among the tier two prospects, but more on that later.
Many would argue the 2011 group lacked quality and regulars will know I’m not one of those people. I do believe there’s at least a possibility Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick will go on to have long and prosperous career. Andy Dalton will get the chance to start early (and throw to AJ Green) while Christian Ponder appears set to start in Minnesota after being a surprise choice with the 12th overall pick.
Indeed, it’s that decision by the Vikings that’s giving me a headache trying to get a read on Kirk Cousins.
For the most part Cousins’ has been solid, but not spectacular. In his junior season (and second as a starter) he threw 20 touchdowns compared to 10 picks, had 2825 passing yards with 67% completions. Ponder missed four games with injury in his junior year (also his second as a starter) and threw 14 touchdowns to go with seven interceptions. He had 2717 yards and 69% completions.
Certainly, those numbers are comparable.
Ponder entered his senior campaign with momentum despite his injuries, with some touting him as a possible early draft pick. Cousins received similar attention towards the end of the 2010 college season, although that has been tempered somewhat as the football world focuses its attention on a much desired conclusion to the lockout.
The similarities don’t end there. Let’s look at the tape:
Ponder was a thicker set quarterback, although on tape they look more comparable than the listed 30lbs difference suggests. You be the judge – Ponder, Cousins. Height is similar, with Cousins listed at 6-3 compared to Ponder’s 6-2. Neither has a great deep ball (Cousins still has a distinct edge, Ponder’s could be a gimme at the next level) yet both operate much better in short-to-intermediate levels.
Cousins is a much better reader of a defense, he recognises threat and will progress to a secondary option. Look at the Michigan game at 1:04 where he’s in play action, looks off two outside reads before going back into the middle for his tight end. That’s not an easy pass to complete with three defenders lurking, but he fits it in there nonetheless. Too often last year Ponder telegraphed plays and risked turnovers. Too many times a badly judged wide receiver screen would be thrown teasing the defense with a pick-six (see: Boston College 2010). Cousins isn’t faultless as you see with his two picks against Wisconsin above, but I don’t get the jaw dropping frustration that would often accompany a Florida State turnover last year.
Ponder was always capable of a big game (see two performances against UNC between 2009-10), yet equally capable of a meltdown (Oklahoma and the aforementioned Boston College). Likewise Cousins turned it on against Michigan and Northwestern, but struggled badly in defeats to Iowa and Alabama. Still, he won’t be the last quarterback to perform poorly against those two particular teams and neither was on home soil. Ponder had an edge athletically, but this isn’t likely to be utilised fully at the next level because Minnesota surely cannot risk further injuries to his throwing arm. Cousins isn’t immobile and certainly has the ability to avoid pressure and roll out of the pocket, but he’s neither someone who will open up a playbook because of his running ability.
Many people talked up Ponder’s intelligence as a major positive, yet I personally felt field-IQ never truly matched his obvious academic smarts. Cousins should also score highly in this category with no highlighted character problems and a positive reputation at MSU.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re not talking about a carbon copy. There are some comparisons as stated, but the question I continue to ask is whether the greatest match between the two will come via their draft position. I struggle to accurately grade Cousins – because of Ponder. I never believed, despite some very favorable coverage, that Ponder would go as early as he did. I was wrong, although it remains to be seen if the Minnesota Vikings’ judgement will be equally flawed.
So what about Cousins? Can he go equally early to a team not necessarily looking for the athletic freak or the guy who dominates? He’ll play on a strong Spartans teams that should do well this year - Ohio State are in turmoil, Wisconsin and Iowa have both lost several key components including experienced quarterbacks, Michigan are in rebuild and the wheels fell off for new-boys Nebraska in the new year.
In 12 months time we could be talking about an adequate mid-round talent who kept things ticking over without truly bursting out. On the other hand, there’s nothing a big dose of hype can’t solve. Just ask Mr. Ponder.
If Cousins carries Michigan State into an unbeaten season while increasing his numbers, he could find himself near the top of the second tier of quarterbacks that follow Andrew Luck (Stanford) and Matt Barkley (USC). That’s a group that will include Landry Jones (Oklahoma), but could also potentially contain Ryan Lindley (San Diego State), Austin Davis (Southern Miss), Logan Thomas (Virginia Tech) and John Brantley (Florida). Although I don’t grade Nick Foles (Arizona) higher than a mid-late round grade, after seeing Andy Dalton goes as early as he did this year there’s every chance Foles could join the party.
The level of intrigue I mentioned at the start of the piece comes with the unknown element. If both Luck and Barkley declare, you’ll have instant star quality and possibly the first two picks in next year’s draft. Last year Blaine Gabbert and Cam Newton appeared on the scene despite little or no fanfare during pre-season. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility we see 3-4 quarterbacks in round one again and it’s equally possible that most of the depth could be consigned to the middle rounds. Davis, Brantley and Cousins certainly don’t possess the kind of athletic qualities that made Gabbert, Locker and Newton hot commodities. Jones has the arm, but not the mobility.
Could Cousins be next year’s answer to Christian Ponder? In a world where we constantly search for comparisons, it’s a possibility.