Kirk Cousins is in a class by himself when it comes to maximizing salary at the quarterback position. The signal-caller is on the eve of signing a deal with what could be the highest average annual price tag in NFL history. Few people — including the former general manager in Washington, where Cousins played for the past six seasons — think he will ever play up to his lofty contract. But no matter who signs the free agent, Cousins’s new team would be silly not to also sign a brand-new tight end. Otherwise, the huge amount of money being spent on Cousins — the Vikings have reportedly offered roughly $90 million over three years — will be going to waste.
Cousins’s recent performance in Washington offers his next employer a clear blueprint for turning him into a truly great player: employ fewer wide receivers and more tight ends. For the three-season period from 2015 through 2017, Cousins was the most efficient quarterback in football when two tight ends were on the field, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. During that time, Cousins threw 256 passes with exactly two tight ends in the formation and averaged 10.24 yards per attempt. That’s nearly a yard better than the second-best quarterback with two tight ends, Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions (9.37), although Stafford attempted nearly 100 fewer passes. And Cousins beats the NFL quarterback average of 7.76 yards per attempt with two tight ends on the field by nearly 2.5 yards.
Cousins is far less effective in more traditional formations. He averaged nearly three fewer passing yards (7.37) when not equipped with two tight ends in the formation. If you were to prorate Cousins’s two-TE production over a full season, he easily tops Hall-of-Famer Kurt Warner’s record for most yards per attempt in a single season since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. Without them, he’s 2017 Josh McCown.
But some of the teams vying for Cousins’s services don’t have even one tight end who is a receiving threat. Of the teams that are reportedly after Cousins in the free-agent negotiation period that begins Monday — the Broncos, Cardinals, Jets and Vikings — Minnesota seems best positioned to take advantage of Cousins’s talents. The Vikings have a Pro-Bowl tight end in Kyle Rudolph and last season used the two-TE more than the league average (19.2 percent of pass plays, compared with 18.2 for the league). Minnesota lost their offensive coordinator, Pat Shurmur, but replacement John DeFilippo comes from the Eagles, who ranked third in the league in share of pass plays that came with a two-TE set (24.6 percent).
The most notable free-agent tight end this offseason is quite familiar with DeFilippo’s offense and could be a great Cousins complement. Trey Burton of the Eagles is one of the league’s best athletes at the position, registering a best-in-class 40-yard dash, three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle time in his draft year of 2014. Last year, in the two games that starter Zach Ertz missed, Burton scored three touchdowns.
Burton is expected to command top dollar based on how well he projects as a receiver. So pairing him and Cousins would require ample cap room this year and beyond. But he’s not the only free agent available. Others include Jimmy Graham, 31, who led the position with 10 touchdowns last season, and Tyler Eifert, 27, who had 13 scoring grabs in 2015, his last healthy season.
Here’s the thing about these tight ends, though: There’s a case to be made that every team should load up on the position and try to use two tight ends more frequently. Overall, from the start of the 2015 season through 2017, quarterbacks averaged 0.64 more yards per attempt with two TEs than they did otherwise (7.76 vs. 7.12). This suggests a two-TE strategy might be worth a look — even for teams that aren’t paying a quarterback $30 million a year.