Can Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson Become the NFL’s Top QB-WR Connection?

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksFeatured Columnist IVJuly 17, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - DECEMBER 09: Justin Jefferson #18 of the Minnesota Vikings reacts after scoring a touchdown with teammate Kirk Cousins #8 in the first quarter of the game against the Pittsburgh Steelersat U.S. Bank Stadium on December 09, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

In today's pass-happy NFL, you don't have to look especially far to find a potent pitch-and-catch duo. Last February's Super Bowl featured two of the league's best in Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase of the Cincinnati Bengals and Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp of the Los Angeles Rams.

But there's another duo. One that isn't always mentioned among the best in the league. One that pairs experience and athleticism—a quarterback with a decade in the NFL under his belt and a wide receiver who is off to a roaring start over the first two seasons of his professional career.

That quarterback and wide receiver pairing is Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings. And with a new offensive-minded head coach in Kevin O'Connell set to take the reins in the Twin Cities, it's a combo that could be set to surprise in 2022.

Now, at this point in this column, I can practically hear readers rolling their eyes. It's seemingly the natural reaction every time Cousins' name comes up.

There isn't a quarterback in the NFL with an annual salary of $35 million or more who catches more flak from fans and the media than the 33-year-old Cousins.

On some level, that's justified. If the ultimate measure of success for quarterbacks is team success (and fairly or not, to many it is), then Cousins hasn't had a lot. In four years as the starter for the Vikings, Cousins is a so-so 33-29-1. Only one of those four campaigns ended in a trip to the postseason.

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - DECEMBER 05: Kirk Cousins #8 of the Minnesota Vikings plays against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on December 05, 2021 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Cousins' critics will point to his 2021 numbers as the quarterback in a nutshell—good, but not great. His 4,221 passing yards and 33 touchdowns each ranked ninth in the league. But it's also worth noting that Cousins posted just seven interceptions with the fourth-highest passer rating (103.1) in the NFL—higher than Stafford and Tom Brady of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In his introductory press conference, O'Connell told reporters that one of his biggest priorities as head coach is to help bring out the best in his quarterback.

"I know who he is as a player, and I know what he's capable of, and part of our job as coaches is maximizing a player's ability to go out every single Sunday and have success. I feel that's going to be an advantage for us as we build our system offensively, make sure we really focus on the things Kirk does well, which I do think are a lot of aspects of playing the position. Help him on a daily basis connect with his team, lead us, be a completely quiet-minded quarterback that can go play, because he's talented enough to go do that, putting him in the best possible situations to have success."

Given the success that O'Connell had over the past couple of years as the offensive coordinator in Los Angeles with the likes of Stafford and Jared Goff, there's a measure of optimism surrounding Cousins in 2022.

Arif Hasan of The Athletic tempered that enthusiasm with the caveat that Cousins is, on some level, the quarterback he has always been. But he also noted that a 5,000-yard passing season isn't out of the question.

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - JANUARY 09: Kirk Cousins #8 of the Minnesota Vikings looks on from the sidelines during the game against the Chicago Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium on January 09, 2022 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

"If we project a hypothetical 5,000-yard, 40-touchdown, 10-interception season along with a 5.0 percent sack rate on 600 passing attempts, that would mean a passer rating of 110 and adjusted net yards per attempt (ANYA) of 8.10," Hasan said. "That would have ranked third in the league in yards per attempt last year, second in passer rating and first in ANYA. Those are elite numbers and are all within the realm of possibility with better play design, a more aggressive passing game and some luck."

If Cousins can come anywhere close to those admittedly lofty projections, then Jefferson may make a run at the record books. Since getting drafted in 2020, he has already become one of the most prolific receivers in the NFL.

Last year, Jefferson caught 108 passes for 1,616 yards and 10 scores. The receptions ranked fourth in the league. The yardage trailed only Kupp. The touchdowns were sixth.

Two seasons into his NFL career, Jefferson already has over 3,000 receiving yards. If you project Jefferson's 2022 production using Hasan's numbers for Cousins and Jefferson's stats from 2021 (28.9 percent target share with Cousins, 64.7 percent catch percentage, 15 yards per reception and touchdown every 10.8 receptions), you're left with a 2022 stat line of 112 receptions, 1,683 yards and 10 scores.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JANUARY 09: Justin Jefferson #18 of the Minnesota Vikings catches the ball in the third quarter of the game against the Chicago Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium on January 9, 2022 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

That production would lend credence to Jefferson's recent assertion that when the dust settles on the 2022 season, he'll be viewed as the gold standard at his position.

"I'll say after this year, I'll be the best receiver in the NFL," Jefferson told Complex's Kameron Hay. "I definitely have to give it to Davante Adams as of now, him being so crazy and dynamic on the field. His route running is crazy, so I definitely have to give it to him right now, but I'm pretty sure after this year, it's going to be me."

It's a bold proclamation, but given what Jefferson has accomplished, it's not an unrealistic one. The biggest obstacle standing between him and that goal may be the fact that there are just so many other great batterymates across the NFL.

Jefferson's pick as the current gold standard at wide receiver will be catching passes from a new quarterback now that he has joined the Las Vegas Raiders. But Davante Adams has a history with Derek Carr—they played together collegiately at Fresno State. Adams also has a long history of producing big numbers, including three seasons with over 110 catches, 1,300 yards and 11 touchdowns over the past four years.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - DECEMBER 09: Kirk Cousins #8 of the Minnesota Vikings celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass to Justin Jefferson #18 in the first quarter of the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at U.S. Bank Stadium on December 9, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

All Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp did together last year in Los Angeles was connect on 145 passes for 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns, making Kupp the fourth wide receiver since 1970 to lead the NFL in all three categories. Oh, and there's the whole winning the Super Bowl thing…if you're into that sort of stuff.

The most dangerous young combination lies in Cincinnati, where Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase of the Bengals picked up right where they left off at LSU last season. And as great as Chase's record-setting rookie season of 81 catches for 1,455 yards and 13 scores was, it feels closer to Chase's floor than his ceiling.

In Tampa Bay, Mike Evans has yet to fail to hit 1,000 yards in a season eight years into his career, and he and Tom Brady have combined for 27 touchdowns the past two years. Stefon Diggs has eclipsed 100 receptions and 1,200 yards in each of his two seasons catching passes from Josh Allen in Buffalo.

CeeDee Lamb topped 1,100 receiving yards in 2021 and could see a big spike in targets from Dak Prescott in Dallas this year. If Russell Wilson hits it off with Courtland Sutton or Jerry Jeudy in Denver, huge numbers could follow.

Tua Tagovailoa and Tyreek Hill or Jaylen Waddle in Miami. Kyler Murray and Marquise Brown or a suspended DeAndre Hopkins in Arizona. Justin Herbert and Kennan Allen or Mike Williams with the Chargers. The list isn't a short one. And as young talents at wideout like Chris Olave of the New Orleans Saints and Garrett Wilson of the New York Jets join the NFL, it's only going to get longer.

Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson may not top that list entering the 2022 season. But with a veteran quarterback in Cousins, one of the league's most prolific receivers in Jefferson and an offense that should cater to what they do best, don't count them out.

Jefferson may wind up being right after all.