#1 best-selling author Mark Schofield reveals his list of the top quarterback prospects for the 2016 NFL Draft. Schofield, who wrote 17 Drives – a chronicle of the 2015 college football season – has ranked Connor Cook as his 3rd ranked prospect. Click here to look at all of his work on the 2016 QB class.
An experienced three-year starter for the Michigan State Spartans, Connor Cook might be the most polarizing quarterback prospect in this draft class. Though serving as a back up during Andrew Maxwell’s senior year after redshirting his freshman season, Cook came on in relief of the starter in MSU’s bowl game and led the Spartans to a win, throwing for a touchdown in the 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. He again began the 2013 year as the backup but, when Maxwell faltered in the opener, the coaches turned to Cook and he never gave the job back. He led the Spartans to the Rose Bowl that season, as Michigan State went on to defeat Stanford and Cook was named the MVP.
As a junior in 2014, Cook enjoyed both team and individual success. The Spartans finished with an 11-2 record, their losses coming against Marcus Mariota and Oregon early in the year and to rival Ohio State in early November. The Spartans closed out the year with a victory over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl. For his part, Cook was strong in 2014, completing 58% of his passes for 3,214 yards and 24 touchdowns, with eight interceptions.
Entering his final season, Cook was in the discussion of top quarterbacks in the class. The Spartans got off to a fast start – winning their first eight games – but a narrow loss to Nebraska was followed by a game against Maryland that saw Cook suffer a shoulder injury. That kept him out the following week against Ohio State, a contest the Spartans won in dramatic fashion. Cook returned to the lineup for the next game against Penn State and started the rest of MSU’s games, but the shoulder was clearly still bothering him. He led the Spartans to a victory over Iowa in the closing minutes, engineering a 22-play, eight minute drive to eke out the win. The victory propelled Michigan State into the playoffs, but they ran into a buzzsaw in Alabama, losing 38-0. Cook finished his senior year by completing 56% of his passes for 3,131 yards and 24 TDs, with seven interceptions.
“In case some of you are wondering who the best is, they are up here on this plaque. Do you think your name will be on that plaque?”
“That’s pretty arrogant, considering the company you’re in.”
“I like that in a pilot.”
Anytime is a good time for Top Gun quotes.
If you’ve read anything about Connor Cook in the buildup to the draft, you likely have an understanding of his attitude and behavior off the field. Perhaps this is one of those “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” situations. He wasn’t voted a captain by his teammates. He seemed abrasive and arrogant accepting the Big Ten Championship Trophy from Archie Griffin. Reports on his team interviews are not exactly glowing. But here’s the thing: If he’s arrogant, cocky, whatever – well, maybe that is a good thing.
Look, you cannot play the quarterback position without thinking that you are the only person in the world who can lead your team to victory and make every gosh darn throw your coaches ask you to make. It’s almost like running for President. You have to be one arrogant, self-absorbed SOB to think that you can be up to that task, whether it’s leading the free world or sticking in a seam route on 3rd and 8 in between three defenders to keep a drive alive. You can’t be timid. You can’t play scared. These supposed red flags? I look at them as good things. Because if a QB is willing to challenge the kinds of throwing lanes Cook did in big spots on Saturdays, you know he’ll be willing to do that on Sundays.
In that vein, Cook is perhaps the most adept quarterback in this class at making throws with timing and anticipation. He can throw receivers open and does not need to see a route come open before releasing the football. This throw on a blitz against Stanford his sophomore year is one I keep coming back to; he releases this post route before his target is even thinking about making his break, let alone making it. He also throws the deeper routes with timing and anticipation as well, as outlined in this piece. These are all NFL-level decisions and throws, and Cook was making them as a sophomore.
Cook has operated from the shotgun, the pistol, and under center. His footwork from each is at the top of this class. Whether on the 1-, 3-, 5-, or 7-step drops, Cook’s footwork is fluid and precise, and nearly always timed up well with the route concept being utilized by the offense. He can slide around well in the pocket, and is athletic enough to extend plays with his feet. He won’t break off long gains when running the football, but his toughness, experience, and footwork are enough to keep plays alive. He isn’t afraid to take a shot in the pocket, and always keeps his eyes downfield throughout the duration of a play to find a target. More than most in this class, Cook is willing and able to climb the pocket and make a throw rather than escaping out the back door.
With his experience, it might be no surprise that Cook can work full-field progressions and is skilled at influencing defenders with his eyes. Whether a safety in Cover 3 or an underneath-zone linebacker, Cook can get a defender to bite to one side of the field and make a throw into the lane the defender vacates. He is also skilled with both full- and half-field reads, and makes quick decisions with the football as he works through progressions. He is also patient enough to let underneath traffic clear and gives routes the necessary time to break open rather than forcing throws too quickly in the route structure and into coverage.
Many detractors point to the completion percentage and argue that Cook lacks the accuracy to transition well to the NFL. I would submit that this is a somewhat flawed reading of the situation. Many of the incompletions I saw on film were not caused by poor accuracy or ball-placement, but rather because of his willingness to challenge throwing windows others would avoid. This is one of the things you live with with a quarterback like Cook: His aggression might lead to incompletions, but it can also lead to extended drives – and big plays. I would argue that his accuracy and ball-placement, particularly in the short- and intermediate-areas, is among the best in the class, a position shared by the great Matt Waldman in his Rookie Scouting Portfolio.
We begin where we left off: with the aggression to challenge narrow throwing windows. Cook might fly the F-14 right to the edge of the envelope, faster than he’s ever flown before, which gets dangerous. But with that comes risk. There are times when aggression becomes unsafe, and Cook might force throws into coverage and take unnecessary risks with the ball. But, as I have stated with other QBs, I would rather address this issue of reining things in than try and coach a player to dial up the aggression and take more chances with the ball. It is, in my opinion, much easier to dial it back than to turn the aggression up.
Despite his ability to work full-field reads and influence defenders with his eyes, there are moments when Cook is prone to bird dog a route, staring his receiver down and leading defenders to the football with his eyes. NFL defenders will pick up on this quickly, so he will need to be better in this area and keep his eyes moving, and not lock onto a target so quickly.
When Cook makes mistakes, they can be confounding ones that leave you scratching your head. They tend to come when pressure breaks down the pocket and he is forced to improvise. He is at his best when making plays on structure and within the design of the scheme. When forced to go off structure, he is not at his best and can make some curious decisions. Additionally, when he makes a poor decision or two, it can take more than a few plays for him to start trusting himself once more. He’ll need to improve on this when he starts playing in the NFL.
With the way Cook attacks the intermediate area of the field, I think he fits best in an Erhardt-Perkins system that thrives on the short- and intermediate-passing attack while building in the occasional deep shot or two a game. He could also fit in a West Coast system, given his quick decision-making and processing speed, but the first system is a better fit for him in my opinion.
Here is the throw against Stanford described earlier. On this play, the Spartans face a 2nd and 10 early in the second quarter. Cook is in the shotgun with 20 offensive personnel, using slot formation to the right and WR Tony Lippett (#14) split to the left. The Cardinal have their 4-2-5 sub package on the field, showing Cover 2 in the secondary:
The defense runs a twist up front, with the linebacker and right defensive end crossing inside, while the left defensive end and the rest of the defense drops into zone coverage:
Lippett runs a skinny post from the weakside, and Cook delivers a perfect throw just before the blitz gets home:
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To truly appreciate the execution here, we turn to the end zone angle. As the quarterback starts to release this ball, his target is nowhere near making his break. But Cook throws him open, leading him to the inside between the two-deep safeties, and putting Lippett in a position to pick up yardage after the reception with a perfect anticipation throw:
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At the moment Cook releases the throw, the WR still has yet to plant his left foot to make the cut. But because of the anticipation from the quarterback – and the great ball placement – Lippett is able to secure the throw in stride and race into Stanford territory with a huge play.
Out of the countless plays I have seen from Cook, this might be my favorite. It illustrates many of the upper-level traits coaches seek in a quarterback, from pocket presence, to accuracy, to anticipation, as weall as a deep understanding of defensive schemes and the offensive playcall.
Late 1st – Early 2nd Round
One- to Three-Year Projection
Connor Cook is comfort food. He’s good, and you know what you are going to get when you select him. Of all the quarterbacks in this class, he is the one I would be most comfortable seeing lined up under center in Week 1 next season, absent the unforeseeable. He’ll likely be selected by a team picking later in the draft that already has weapons in place and is close to being a contender. The Denver Broncos, with uncertainty at that position, would seem to be a great fit for him; he can come in and start early with a Super Bowl-winning roster around him. Now, because he is closer to a finished product than some of the other QBs in this class, he might not have the upside or ceiling of some of the other guys. But his baseline starting point is higher than most, and he can start earlier in the NFL.