Every week during the 2020 NFL season, we’re going to — just being honest here — overreact to what we’ve seen on the field the previous Sunday and start projecting NFL draft prospects to teams that might need help at certain spots.
Think of it as a mini one-team mock draft, with early (Rounds 1-2), middle (Rounds 3-5) and late (Round 6 and later) prospects at each team’s respective position of concern.
This week’s NFL draft makeover is the 1-5 Minnesota Vikings. Who will Kirk Cousins’ successor be?
The Minnesota Vikings signed quarterback Kirk Cousins to a two-year, $66 million extension this offseason, ostensibly rewarding him for one of his better seasons in 2019 that included a road playoff win at New Orleans.
But things have turned sour in 2020, and that contract is looking worse by the day. Cousins leads the NFL in interceptions with 10 — after throwing only six in 15 starts last season and 10 in 16 starts in 2018.
“The reality is, if the pace I’m on in terms of the interceptions, if that were to continue, I won’t finish the season [as the starter],” Cousins said Monday. “That’s what the rest of the season will be about for me, is trying to protect the football as best I can. Because when you turn the ball over, it really hurts your chances to win. I know that. I just need to improve as we look ahead to the rest of the season.”
Cousins is right: The Vikings have lost the turnover battle in all five of their losses and won the TO battle in their lone victory this season.
The Vikings rank third in yards per pass attempt and have been a top-10 running team through six games. They have two Pro Bowl-caliber receivers, too. Adam Thielen leads the NFL in TD receptions. Rookie Justin Jefferson is fifth in receiving yards despite being only tied for 37th in targets.
But Cousins’ turnovers and a struggling defense are not helping matters. At this point, it’s hard to imagine Cousins getting much better than what we’ve already seen.
And the scarier part is that Cousins’ eventual replacement doesn’t appear to be on the roster. The current backup is former Rams castoff Sean Mannion, with two young unknowns, Nate Stanley and Jake Browning, residing on the practice squad. Stanley was a seventh-round pick and Browning an undrafted free agent, and neither appear to profile as a future NFL starter.
Luckily for the Vikings, there might be multiple veteran QB options at their disposal this offseason, along with a quarterback draft class that is looking better by the day.
Could the Vikings use an early-round draft pick on a quarterback for the first time since taking Teddy Bridgewater in 2014? With each passing game, that possibility looks more and more likely.
Ohio State QB Justin Fields
First off, there’s a bit we don’t know about how the 2021 Vikings will look.
Will Mike Zimmer and his staff be back? Will Cousins be pegged as the transitional starter? And if there are coaching changes, what kind of offense will the next play caller be running?
But for this exercise, we’ll assume both Zimmer and Cousins return. Zimmer signed an extension in the offseason through the 2023 season, and Cousins’ contract is such that axing him before the 2022 offseason is highly unlikely.
Also, Gary Kubiak’s offense — we don’t suspect — is the issue at hand here. So let’s assume that the major elements remain static.
But given where the Vikings currently sit in the draft order, picking No. 6 overall, we can’t give them Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, as much as that might sting fans up there. The only way they land Lawrence, we suspect, is if they are picking first.
North Dakota State’s Trey Lance would be an intriguing fit certainly, and it wouldn’t hurt that Lance grew up in Marshall, Minnesota, about three hours west of the Twin Cities. But there’s even a chance he could be the second quarterback drafted, if what we’re hearing in scouting circles has any merit to it.
Of course, Fields has yet to improve or hurt his draft stock this season. Making his season debut Saturday against Nebraska, Fields will try to display the interesting mix of skills he potentially brings to an NFL offense.
The 6-foot-2, 224-pound QB might be known by casual fans as a talented runner, which he certainly showed in 2019 with 484 yards, 10 TDs and 22 runs of 10 yards or longer. He possesses both the quickness and the size to hold up as an NFL runner, too, we believe.
But Fields also possesses an uncanny knack for ball placement and touch; time and time again in our summer notes while watching Fields, we wrote down the words “catchable passes.” Also impressive are his mere three INTs on 396 career pass attempts, as well as his effectiveness throwing downfield (36 of 78 passing for 1,070 yards and a 20-2 TD-INT ratio on attempts 20 yards or longer).
Fields’ pocket poise, escapability and work against blitzes all were stronger than what we saw from Dwayne Haskins with the Buckeyes the year before.
Did he hang onto the ball too long and take too many sacks (31) behind a gifted offensive line? Yes. Fumble too often (11 last season) for our liking? Indeed. And did OSU’s rare talent at receiver pad his stats? Certainly.
But Fields, assuming he doesn’t regress this season, profiles as the kind of high-floor, medium-high ceiling prospect who could thrive in a Kubiak system that is based on play action off the zone run game, crossing routes in the middle of the field (such as the ones Ryan Day employs at OSU) and moving the QB out of the pocket on bootlegs and waggles.
Fields also projects to have the kind of maturity and talent to step right in whenever the Vikings might deem Cousins eminently replaceable.
Texas A&M QB Kellen Mond
Mond is a gifted but sometimes frustrating QB prospect to watch.
Earning some Day 2 grades this summer, Mond clearly has NFL-caliber talent. But we’ve repeatedly been frustrated at his lack of considerable improvement since earning a starting role for the Aggies as a freshman in 2017.
But the 6-3, 217-pound QB possesses some of the same qualities Fields does, namely in Mond’s ability to deliver some high-end throws and do so on the move. Jimbo Fisher operates an offense steeped in pro-style concepts, which could make Mond’s transition to the NFL a little smoother in some respects.
The last Fisher-coached QB the Vikings drafted high (Christian Ponder) didn’t work out. But Ponder was an intentional reach during a lockout-shortened season in which there was no free-agency period for the Vikings to land the quarterback they badly needed in 2011 until training camp was underway. And for all of Ponder’s warts, he showed the readiness to start 11 games as a rookie.
Mond’s consistency in terms of ball placement and timing are lacking. But given that the Vikings are tethered to Cousins for at least the next year, they feasibly could draft a talented project such as Mond and develop him at a reasonable pace.
We could see him working well in this type of offense, if he has a chance to succeed in the NFL. There would be a fun tie-in here, too, with Kubiak (who played at A&M in the early 1980s) being united with a fellow Aggie.
SMU QB Shane Buechele
Buechele has remade his college career after transferring from Texas, leading the Mustangs to a 15-3 mark as a starter and completing 426 of 667 passes (63.9 percent) for 5,639 yards with a strong 46-12 TD-INT mark.
The “Air Raid” system they run at SMU certainly accounts for some of that effectiveness, and Buechele has been throwing to NFL-caliber receivers — including 2020 Baltimore Ravens sixth-rounder James Proche last year and Reggie Roberson Jr. the past two seasons.
The real test for Buechele, one that ultimately could determine his final draft standing, is how he operates without either going forward. Roberson suffered a season-ending knee injury recently, although Buechele certainly passed his first test without his leading receiver last week, averaging more than 10 yards per pass attempt and playing turnover-free ball without him.
Even with improvements throughout his career, Buechele’s mechanics and decision-making could drive some teams batty. He throws off-balance when unnecessary, plays a bit loosely at times and can vary wildly with his accuracy. His big-play mentality is both a strength and, at times, a detriment.
But a patient team willing to invest in him for the longer term might be able to make Buechele into a semi-effective starter, especially a team such as the Vikings, who have some legitimate skill-position talent to make most QBs look better.
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