With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Right up to the NFL draft, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 prospects who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins. In Cousins' 39 starts, the Spartans went 27-12, and Cousins is just the second three-time team captain in school history. Along the way, Cousins set the pace by racking up school records in most every meaningful category at his position: passing touchdowns (66), passing yards (9,131), completions (723), passing efficiency (146.1 rating), total offense (9,004 yards) and 200-yard passing games (26).
For those evaluating Cousins, there's a frustrating disconnect between the braincramps he displays too often on tape (especially under pressure), and the obvious difference in his mechanics and efficiency since he started working on specific things during the pre-draft process. Unlike most spread-offense quarterbacks of recent years, whose stats in greased-up offenses misrepresent their limited NFL potential, Cousins seems to have the potential and willingness to benefit greatly from improved and advanced coaching concepts at the next level.
Pros: Throws the ball well on slants, posts, and intermediate sideline routes; has a good sense of how to get the ball to the receiver even with tight coverage -- that's impressive because he doesn't display a great stick-throw arm on tape. Displays good timing and touch, though, on deeper throws in which the object is for the receiver to flat-out beat the corner. Will use good footwork to roll to the pre-determined read. Reads coverage exceedingly well on half-field plays created by his roll-outs; Cousins understands and exploits the advantages gained by his mobility and he's not a balky or hurried thrower on the move.
At times, Cousins will show excellent pocket mobility and presence -- he'll shoulder-fake a defender, move up in the pocket, and make the throw. Intelligent player with a real willingness to learn. Showed improved throwing mechanics at the Senior Bowl, the scouting combine and at his Pro Day after working with performance coach Chris Weinke, and those improvements were evident in greater degrees through the process (see my combine scouting report on Cousins from Lucas Oil Stadium here):
Cousins showed great touch and release -- for a guy with a supposed smaller arm, he really zipped the ball, and had no notable issues with deeper routes.
On the five-yard in routes, Cousins displayed a minimum of mechanical extras -- you can tell that he's been working on making everything as efficient as possible. On the longer sideline routes, his throws didn't sail, receivers didn't have to slow down to catch them, and he appeared to have a very good understanding of timing it up with guys he'd never thrown to before.
Cons: A better shotgun than under-center quarterback at this point; Cousins minces a bit with his footwork when he's asked to drop back and adjust, though that's probably an easy fix in his case. Sells play action decently, but needs to be more convincing with the playfake -- he won't fool smarter NFL defenses with his current moves.
He'll also need to expand his read repertoire to be truly successful at the NFL level. I did not see enough instances in which Cousins successfully looked off the safety or directed the secondary with head-fake misdirection. This could be a product of a one-read offense as it was with Andy Dalton at TCU -- Dalton improved in this regard almost immediately when he hit the pros.
Cousins is not very quick on pump-fakes, and he'll have to improve that right away in the NFL -- when pumping one way and throwing another, the speed of the play tends to get to him. Though there are enough examples of pocket presence and mobility to assume improvement over time, Cousins' primary ding based on tape is that he will unravel under different kinds of pressure. At times, he'll fall back from a pass rush and try to throw downfield, and that can only lead to bad things. When rolling out under pressure, he doesn't always show the kind of arm strength needed to adapt and hit the second receiver. Like many quarterbacks who worked from first-read determinations in college, Cousins really needs a clean pocket and relatively open receivers to operate with consistency on a game-to-game basis. Very uncertain thrower in the pocket under pressure, especially when the picture in front of him is cloudy. Needs to use more consistent footwork to drive the ball; he doesn't have the kind of arm that will allow him to fake it.
Conclusion: Cousins is an ideal developmental West Coast Offense quarterback in most aspects, specifically when it comes to his ability to be functionally mobile from the snap and make short to intermediate throws with good timing. It will be no issue for him to adapt to "Sprint Right Option." The question is, as it was with Cam Newton and Christian Ponder last year: How much can an NFL team go on faith when it comes to mechanical fixes? Judging from his post-college development, I think that Cousins' improvements are legitimate and long-lasting, and in an offensive system tailored to his strengths, he's a year or two away from having what it takes to start at the NFL level.
Pro Comparison: Matt Flynn, Seattle Seahawks