Harrison Smith has spent much of his NFL career watching Minnesota Vikings quarterbacks come and go. Now that the Vikings have some stability there with Kirk Cousins, the safety is thrilled.
“It’s kind of unfamiliar territory for me,” Smith, entering his ninth season, said Friday, Aug. 7. “It’s nice.”
Seven different quarterbacks started games in Smith’s first six seasons in Minnesota. But Cousins arrived in 2018 and is expected to start his third straight opener Sept. 13 against Green Bay at U.S. Bank Stadium.
How rare would that be? The Vikings haven’t had a quarterback start three straight openers since Daunte Culpepper was on the field for six straight from 2000-05.
With on-field spring drills and all preseason games wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic, it’s a good time to have continuity at quarterback.
“Continuity always helps, especially at my position,” said Cousins, under contract through 2022 after signing a two-year, $66 million extension in March. “It does help to have a similar offense.”
The Vikings have a new offensive coordinator in Gary Kubiak, who won a Super Bowl five years ago as Denver’s head coach. But Kubiak last season was an offensive advisor to Kevin Stefanski, who left as coordinator to become Cleveland’s coach. Head coach Mike Zimmer has said the offense won’t change much.
It also helps that Minnesota has nine starters back on offense. Still, regarding the two not returning, Cousins said he needs to help get replacements ready.
Wide receiver Stefon Diggs was traded to Buffalo, and first-round pick Justin Jefferson most likely will take over. Right guard Josh Kline was released in a salary-related move, and his replacement could be rookie Ezra Cleveland, the team’s second-round pick last spring.
“My concern is more on young offensive linemen, our draft picks at positions we know we’re going to need to be counting on, that’s probably where my concern is,” Cousins said. “I’ve got to help them along, get them caught up to speed, and that’s as much my job, potentially, as it for the coach or the player themselves.”
Since players started reporting for training camp July 23 in Eagan, players mostly have been limited to conditioning work during the “acclimation period.” Activity will increase next week with the “gradual ramp-up period,” and the first practice in pads is scheduled for Aug. 17.
While Cousins hasn’t had a chance to work much with Jefferson, he did spend a few days with him in June, when a number of Vikings got together for workouts at Woodbury High School.
“That was one step of trying to begin that process of learning the offense, but it’s just a small step,” Cousins said. “Then you’ve got to make progress in a unique setting of virtual meetings and now these walkthroughs (this week). Every day, he’s learning something new and getting experience. Just (Thursday), there was a unique route we’re asking him to run that he was still trying to figure out.”
The Vikings have another key new receiver in Tajae Sharpe, signed as a free agent after four years with Tennessee. Overall, Cousins likes what he has seen so far from his receivers.
“I feel strongly about it,” he said. “I think we have a lot of depth. I think when you look at some further-down-the-line players, I have a lot of confidence in what they can do.”
Cousins also talked Friday about running back Alexander Mattison perhaps becoming a bigger weapon as Dalvin Cook’s backup. He’s optimistic that Mattison, who looked good running the ball as a rookie, can improve as a receiver and in pass protection.
Against the backdrop of the pandemic, Cousins spent much of the offseason playing catch with his brother, his dad, or a friend from high school. He used technology to connect with his trainer in an effort to stay in the best shape possible.
Entering his ninth season, Cousins turns 32 on Aug. 19 and has yet to miss a game to injury since becoming a regular NFL starter with Washington in 2015.
“I do want to play this game for a long time, and I know that you can’t just wake up at 37 or 38 and start to have good habits,” he said. “You have to start much younger. So, I’ve tried to do that and try to take pride in it, and hopefully, it means I can play a lot of snaps this season and for several years to come.”
That could be welcome news to Smith. In his first six seasons (2012-17) Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel, Josh Freeman, Teddy Bridgewater, Shaun Hill, Sam Bradford and Case Keenum all started games for the Vikings.
Keenum led the Vikings to the 2017 NFC Championship Game but was gone the next season, replaced by Cousins.
“We’ve got continuity with Kirk and a bunch of guys (on offense), building on success,” Smith said. “Especially without preseason games, it’ll be good to go against a group like that in practice who’s going to be clicking at a high level.”