A couple of weeks ago I had a look at Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins and drew some comparisons to Florida State’s Christian Ponder. Statistically there’s a lot of similarities as discussed and certain elements of their game are comparable. However, there are aspects to Ponder’s game that I found a real concern that had so far not shown up with Cousins.
Although it’s quite vague I’d describe Cousins as being neat and tidy, not restricted in any obvious way but certainly not physically dominant without brilliant accuracy to make up for it. The mobility helps him move around in the pocket and extend plays, but athletically he’s a level below Matt Barkley (who himself is a level behind Andrew Luck and Blaine Gabbert). You’re not going to see Cousins break off a significant gain with his legs, but he’s capable of running boot legs and play action and moving freely. Indeed, his ability to sell play action is a big plus.
Cousins doesn’t have a huge arm, but it’s better than Christian Ponder’sand not a major weakness. The release point is a bit slingy but I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest this is a big problem and certainly he gets the ball out quickly enough. Jimmy Clausen had a similar release and had a lot of passes batted and tipped at the LOS, yet we don’t see that from Cousins. However, that’s not the only similarity between the two quarterbacks. Clausen regularly leans back on to his heels and throws off the back foot, losing any kind of velocity and putting too much air on the deep ball. Cousins does it too (although not quite as often) which is a shame because when he steps into passes he generates a lot more velocity.
It appears that Cousins resorts to throwing off the back foot more so under pressure, which in turn also impacts his accuracy. When he feels the rush he sits back and spears the ball. Given his agility in the pocket you’d like to see a little less panic, stepping up into the pocket and driving the pass. I think he could be more composed in the pocket which will ultimately lead to better technique.
I’d be interested to see how much better his deep ball could become if he didn’t lean back and really drove into the pass. Lofted deep ballsaren’t the only problem though, he often appears to put little thought or placement into the long range pass and certainly he’s more of a short/medium range specialist than a great deep ball quarterback. Then again, Luck or Barkley are not great deep ball passers either and while Blaine Gabbert certainly has the best arm, statistically he grades poorly for long passes.
Clausen isn’t generally an accurate comparison to Cousins, because he’s a lot less mobile and played in a simple offense based on high percentage passes that limited turnovers. The Michigan State scheme asks more of Cousins and he’s at least shown a capability within that system. However, he does have a tendency to telegraph too many passes. Interceptions in the tape above are often because he’s looked to the hot read from the snap, lingered and thrown late. He needs to do a better job looking off his targets, which is a problem a lot of college quarterbacks take into the NFL and struggle to shake off (see: Charlie Whitehurst).
The one other area of real concern is his penchant to take risks under pressure, often throwing badly judged passes when chased out of the pocket. If he’s taking a sack, he’ll still lob it up for grabs and risk a turnover rather than a loss of yards. Cousins had ten interceptions in 2010 but it really should’ve been more (he had twenty touchdown passes).
2011 provides a brilliant opportunity for Michigan State and their quarterback, playing in a conference that has taken some hits while MSU maintained a lot of their stars. The target should be an unbeaten season. There are tough games on the schedule (road trips to Ohio State, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Iowa) but they do face OSU in the final game where several of the Buckeye’s top players will be suspended. Can Cousins become a technically better passer? Can he get up to around 210-215lbs (he was listed at just over 200lbs for 2010) and step into those deep passes?
If he answers some of the question marks and becomes a more physically capable player, then the sky’s the limit. Lockout or not, if a team is willing to spend the #12 pick on Christian Ponder and a high second rounder on Andy Dalton, then there’s no reason to suggest Cousins couldn’t go in the first round. I never felt Ponder took a similar chance last year and with injuries also on the report card, it was a surprise that a team felt that compelled to draft him early.
Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley are clearly the top two ranked quarterbacks with a secondary group that could change dramatically during the new college season. Cousins is my top ranked senior quarterback and there’s no reason he couldn’t challenge Landry Jones to be the third ranked passer should both Luck and Barkley declare (Luck is a shoe-in to enter the draft, Barkley much less so). That’s the positive angle. As things stand today without that further progression and development, he looks like a round 2-3 level quarterback who would still have a shot at starting down the line. I dropped Ponder down to a round 4-5 grade after viewing a number of FSU games in 2010 and that also remains a possibility for Cousins if he regresses or gets injured.
The one player he reminds me of a lot is Kevin Kolb. Similar slingy release, similar size and mobility. Both have a tendency to make bad or risky decisions and take chances that lead to turn overs. At the same time, both are not severely limited and given a nice collection of playmakers, can succeed as a starter. Kolb was drafted with the 36th pick in 2007 and it wouldn’t surprise me come next April if we see Cousins go in a similar area.