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Vikings receivers highly encouraged by Kirk Cousins in OTAs

EAGAN, Minn. -- There was an audible reaction inside the Minnesota Vikings' new indoor practice facility as Kirk Cousins' pass evaded All-Pro safety Harrison Smith's reach and connected with Adam Thielen, who has been seeing throws like these from his new quarterback for a couple of months now.

"The ball comes out of [Cousins'] hand differently," Thielen told me with a smile after Wednesday's OTA practice, the second open to reporters this spring. "Every quarterback has their strengths and weaknesses, and I'm not here to evaluate that, but all I can say is, the ball comes out of his hand differently.

"(Stefon) Diggs said it the other day -- the spiral he puts on it just makes it easy for us to catch. It just kind of pops out of his hand differently than you're used to, and you don't see that kind of stuff on film. You can only see that when you're out here practicing. It's been fun, and we have a lot of work to do."

Far greater tests await than a non-padded spring practice as Cousins tries to live up to the three-year, $84 million, fully guaranteed contract he signed with the Vikings in March, ramping up expectations for a team that reached the NFC Championship Game last season and the QB it's paying to lead it even further. Still, Thielen's words about Cousins are notable when you remember all the comparisons at his disposal. Just since Thielen cracked the active roster in 2014, the Vikings have started six quarterbacks: Matt Cassel, Teddy Bridgewater, Christian Ponder, Shaun Hill, Sam Bradford and Case Keenum.

The Vikings won a lot of games with Bridgewater and Keenum, and Bradford (when healthy) is regarded as one of the best pure passers around. Yet, from the moment Cousins got on the field here, everyone in the building seemed to take note of the way he throws. Smith told me he kept glancing over during Phase 2 of the offseason program, before the offense is allowed to go against the defense, to see Cousins dropping dimes on the other end of the field.

New offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said last week: "I knew he had a strong arm coming in. I didn't know he was able to drive it as well as he does. He has a very compact release. The ball just jumps off his hand because he has a short stroke back."

One of Cousins' former coaches once told me he also processes as well as any QB in the league, reacting to what he's seeing and getting the ball out without thinking. That trait probably contributed to high interception totals early in Cousins' career, but he'd learn from those mistakes and improve.

"That's the cool thing about him that you notice out here. You notice when his eyes get to you -- boom! -- it's out," Thielen said. "When you're running a route and all of a sudden he finds you and he puts his eyes on you, it's coming out. And that's a great feeling for a receiver. That's what you want, because you don't want to get too close to a safety, or you don't want the ball to be late, because that's when you get popped."

Again, this is all happening in OTAs. Nobody's getting popped -- not even Cousins when he's diving for the goal line, as he did during a red-zone period Wednesday. There's no pass rush. Frankly, an $84 million QB had better look good in this environment. It'll be a while before Cousins, 29, gets a chance to live up to that monster contract after six seasons (three as the starter) with a Redskins team that always seemed to be in some state of flux and never made him feel he was their guy.

For all the premature debate over whether he's "worth" the money, Cousins does have strong numbers -- 81 touchdown passes vs. 36 interceptions total from 2015 to 2017, and over 4,000 yards each season. Now he's on a Vikings team with one of the NFL's best defenses, a competent O-line and an established group of skill players, including Thielen, Diggs, tight end Kyle Rudolph and running backs Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray.

"Each play helps build a confidence, helps build a rapport with the receivers, with the tight ends, continue to try to get on the same page with the centers, making the right protection calls," Cousins said Wednesday, speaking at the Vikings' "Team Up to Give Back" event at a local middle school. "It is a lot of new, a lot of chemistry that still has to be built, but every day we're out here, we take another step, and that's exciting to be a part of."

Coach Mike Zimmer echoed Wednesday that everything is still new to Cousins, from his teammates to his coaches to the install of an offensive system that's getting a shakeup under DeFilippo. But when I spoke to Zimmer at his foundation's youth football camp a couple of weekends ago, even he used an answer to a question about Cousins establishing himself as a leader to mention his new QB's accuracy and ability to anticipate throws.

"Like a lot of times, leadership -- if you do your job really good, then you become a leader," Zimmer said, "and he's done it very well this spring."

Before the offseason program began, Cousins invited Thielen and Diggs to Atlanta, where Cousins' wife's family lives, for a few days of work, in addition to golf, watching basketball and just getting to know one another. I asked Cousins on Wednesday how much something like that can help, and before he could answer, Diggs -- quietly stationed behind a semi-circle of cameras -- yelled out: "I hope a lot!"

The balls that count won't be thrown for a few months yet. But for a team that has seemingly had someone different throwing it every few weeks for years, what the Vikings have seen so far from Cousins -- and the knowledge that, barring injury, he's the guy for at least the next three seasons -- is certainly encouraging.

"It just kind of gives you a little confidence when you're out there, just to go out there and play football," Thielen said. "You know you have a guy that has a great track record and has done some really great things in this league. So now we're just out here to help him take it to the next level, and hopefully, he can help us take our game to the next level as well.

"It takes a lot of time, though. There's a lot of repetitions that we need still in a short amount of time. But I think that's what's so great about OTAs. You get to come out here, you get to try some different things, and you get to go against the No. 1 defense every day."

Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.

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