The 2016 NFL playoffs are coming to a close, with just Super Bowl 50 left to play. General managers of every team have already moved on to the offseason in hopes of setting the tone for next season. The No. 1 priority for several playoff and non-playoff teams must be to find a franchise quarterback.
One of the most mentioned top-four draft-eligible quarterbacks is Michigan State’s Connor Cook. He’s become a polarizing draft prospect for his on-field play and also off-field reputation. But the question for Cook boils down to whether he can be a franchise signal-caller.
A franchise quarterback can be defined in many ways, including as being among the most elite of the NFL. This would be the top six or seven guys such as Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and players of that ilk.
My definition is a top-15 quarterback who can reasonably become a playmaker at the position to help win playoff games—and eventually a Super Bowl.
I’ve looked at California Golden Bears quarterback Jared Goff and Memphis Tigers quarterback Paxton Lynch. Using the same standards, I watched and charted every throw of Cook’s that I could find to help get a feel for who he is as a player. The only exceptions were his Maryland game due to injury and his game against Western Michigan.
This article will break down and explain why there should be major concern for Cook’s transition to the NFL but also hope for his ability to become a capable starter. His strengths and weaknesses each lie on the extreme side. Thus, he is highly polarizing.
Let’s take a look at Cook’s credentials from a broad view and then look closely at his traits.
Who Is Connor Cook?
Coming out of Walsh Jesuit High School, Cook was a 3-star pocket-passing quarterback prospect. He was the 33rd–ranked quarterback by 247Sports in 2011. He had offers from Michigan State, Miami (Ohio) and Akron.
At 6’4” and 220 pounds and 23 years old, he has no size or age concerns as he enters the NFL. His frame is thick and appears filled out in uniform. Teams that were bothered with Teddy Bridgewater or Jared Goff’s lanky frames should quickly take to Cook’s physical appearance, since he “looks the part” of an NFL quarterback.
Cook will face questions about his personality throughout the draft process. He was never voted captain in his three seasons as a starter, which is a stark contrast to many top quarterback prospects over the last few years. It’s normal for the quarterback to be named captain at least one season.
NFL scouts have already established there are leadership concerns with Cook. According to ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay (via Mike Griffith of MLive.com), not being named captain may be a sign of an unlikable teammate.
"There are multiple people that have some concern about how he carries himself, and what kind of teammate he is and those sorts of things," McShay said on a Thursday teleconference, per Griffith. "There's a lot of digging that will go on between now and the draft."
The concerns culminated when Cook blatantly blew off two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin in a postgame ceremony. According to NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks, the moment only added to the narrative about Cook’s arrogance and intangibles. While it may seem unnecessary to care that much on the topic, teams value chemistry and camaraderie.
Many articles came forth about Cook’s leadership after the incident with Griffin; teammate Riley Bullough called Cook "a great leader," per Matt Charboneau of the Detroit News. His reasoning is that Cook wins games and plays well in big games. While that isn’t really a ringing endorsement for his personality, it helps show that if you win, all is well.
The first big positive for Cook is his experience. As a three-year starter for Michigan State, he played in a total of 43 games. He had a career record of 37-5 in games he started.
Among the big games Cook started, he played against Ohio State, Notre Dame, Stanford, Baylor, Oregon and Alabama. Below are his average numbers in those high-pressure matchups:
|Completions||Attempts||Completion Percent||Yards||Total Touchdowns||Total Interceptions||Cumulative Passer Rating|
Over the course of his career, Cook posted above-average statistics. He never had more than eight interceptions in a single season, and he was consistent with his completion percentage, yards and touchdowns. There’s certainly a negative aspect to that as well, but the positive is he was not a one-year wonder.
There’s no concern about the quality of opposition. The Big Ten is a quality conference that routinely participates against other top conferences. While level of competition is a major question mark for Lynch and Carson Wentz, Cook’s transition from Saturday to Sunday could be easier than anyone else's in the class in terms of speed of the game.
A massive reason for the polarization around Cook is because of the caliber of throws he connects on. The passing windows that he routinely targets and has proved capable of hitting perfectly are absolutely on an NFL level. These peaks are reason to believe he can be at least an average NFL starter.
Cook’s specialty is the over-the-shoulder pass. Throws like the one above are difficult because they require the receiver to be quite competent at the catch point. Michigan State had an excellent surrounding cast for Cook to work with, including Aaron Burbridge in 2015 and Tony Lippett in 2014.
The impressive part of the throw is that Cook has the confidence to even try the pass. Many quarterbacks wouldn’t even attempt this, since there’s a decent chance of an incompletion or turnover. But when surrounded by playmakers, it’s forgivable to attempt these passes because 50-50 balls change into a completion at a much higher rate.
Cook routinely shows great accuracy on downfield throws to the sideline. He doesn’t make it easy for his receivers to finish these plays, and he doesn’t allow the defender to have any chance to get the ball. At worst, this pass is falling incomplete.
Even in Cook’s terrible performance against Alabama, he showed some positives that will translate to the NFL. He’s aggressive in big moments and isn’t afraid to fail. While this certainly leads to bad plays at times, being conservative in these situations is worse than a quarterback who won’t even try to make winning plays.
These passes require touch and arm strength from Cook, which mark him as a talented passer. His natural throwing ability is as good as any quarterback in recent years, if we’re just looking at his right arm. But, arm talent is far from what ultimately determines how good a quarterback is or will be.
Cook is also a good athlete for the position. Michigan State went so far as to use him as a power rusher in short-yardage situations because of his running ability. He is absolutely a threat to scramble to create yards, even if he’ll never be the type of runner that Cam Newton is. Cook can extend drives if need be.
While watching quarterbacks, I chart where the passes are going and how successful they are at delivering a catchable pass. Putting together accuracy charts and totals helps give some context to statistics. While this isn’t an all-encompassing measure, I value accuracy more than any trait from a quarterback.
In Cook’s accuracy chart below, I didn’t count completions and took out obvious throwaways that skew data. This is subjective, but I found just 63 percent of his 357 qualifying throws to be reasonably catchable. This is anywhere from 5 to 15 percent lower than his 2016 draft class peers.
Connor Cook’s full accuracy chart for 2015, minus the Maryland game since he was hurt. pic.twitter.com/E1SezfwLGt— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) January 2, 2016
Accuracy just doesn’t improve in the NFL. What determines accuracy encompasses many aspects of the throwing motion, including footwork, how the ball is released and mental processing. The area where Cook is clearly lacking is in his footwork.
Throughout Cook’s career, his feet were in cement as he waited for his primary target to get open. He didn't make progressions in the Spartans’ simplified offense, and he rarely bothered to align his body with his intended target to enhance his accuracy.
This has two effects. The first, as mentioned, is accuracy. No one has any idea where the ball is heading when Cook is using all arm and no lower body. Even the velocity on the pass will suffer because he is not driving his hip through the throw.
While there are examples for every quarterback of this being a non-issue, the majority of quality throws at the NFL level come with proper passing mechanics. Cook’s three-year history at Michigan State featured zero improvement in this area, among others that will be touched on later.
Cook’s atrocious career completion percentage of 57.5 is not from the lack of playmakers around him in college. In fact, I’d say he had one of the strongest supporting casts of any major quarterback prospect to come out in the last few years. He was as reliant on receivers who make great plays at the catch point as they were on him to deliver an accurate pass. Far too often he would airmail the throw to an open man.
Behind a good offensive line, Cook rarely saw much pressure compared to his peers. But his play was noticeably bad when even a hint of pass rush got near him. Cook crumbles quickly when a defender enters his line of sight. He’s prone to giving up on plays early and taking a sack just to get the play over with.
Other issues against the pressure showed even against lower competition. He’s so quick to drop his eyes that the sack becomes a matter of when, not if. This is what made Jake Locker, EJ Manuel and Blaine Gabbert draft busts.
Another pressure-related issue that affects Cook’s accuracy is that he sweeps his back leg into his throw when a defender is closing. Instead of driving through off his plant foot, he is creating a spin on the ball and his body by inexplicably using his back through the motion.
Cook often misses high on his passes, which is the worst kind of miss in the NFL. With so many athletic linebackers and safeties just waiting to pounce, throws like the one above are hazardous.
Earlier in the article, I mentioned how Cook’s stable statistics can be both a positive and a negative. Take a look at his career numbers below:
|Year||Completions||Attempts||Completion Percentage||Yards||Touchdowns||Interceptions||Passer Rating|
What’s most noticeable is his poor completion percentage and lack of increased production in more passing attempts as a senior. Although Cook threw the ball 43 more times in 2015, he had fewer yards, a lower average per attempt and the same number of touchdowns.
He dealt with a shoulder injury in the second half of the year, which could have affected his numbers, but his production splits from before the injury to after the injury didn’t see much change. If he was aching, his performance didn’t dip.
The stagnant nature of Cook’s film and statistics points to a limited upside. While some teams may see the need to swing for a high-risk, high-reward quarterback such as Lynch, others can offer a more stable situation with great playmakers who just need a caretaker.
Cook can be that, as he is used to playing in a run-heavy scheme with talented pass-catchers and a great defense. That’s not meant to be a knock, but it should set expectations that he's destined to be an average quarterback.
The lack of improvement both statistically and with Cook’s flaws is a red flag. There are some exceptions, such as Jameis Winston in 2014, but top quarterback prospects rarely see a drop in production unless significant drops in surrounding talent took place. That didn’t happen with the Spartans, though.
Where He Can Improve
The first thing that an NFL coaching staff must do with Cook is work on his feet. While he is athletic in the pocket and has a strong arm, he does not stay ready to throw or make progressions. The Spartans may not have asked him to do more than make one read, but that means he is completely inexperienced working toward second and third receiving options.
It shows in his dropback and throwing process. He must get bouncier with his feet instead of standing still and using just his arm to throw the ball. The process should encompass his entire body and be repetitive.
The next step is to get Cook to learn how to read a defense. He stares his targets down, and NFL defenses will punish him for it. Many coverage options are available to defensive coordinators who can prey on his bad habits.
If Cook becomes more turnover-prone, which is possible as the competition level jumps and his habits are exacerbated, then his appeal would lose shine. He’s not good enough at his best to overcome turnovers.
While Cook has redeeming qualities, he remains a big projection as he enters the NFL. Not only is he facing questions about his on-field talent, but his locker room presence hasn’t instilled any confidence in NFL scouts. He’s a risky prospect despite coming from a situation that should have made him more pro-ready.
As highlighted above, Cook makes enough throws into tiny passing windows with great touch and confidence to believe he can be an NFL starter. But he lacks consistency and nuance for the position. Add those factors together, and Cook is reminiscent of Andy Dalton as a prospect.
Dalton was questioned for years in Cincinnati, as he never took the next step in his development. He somewhat developed in his fifth season, but it also took a good situation around him to do so. He had the perfect offensive coordinator in Hue Jackson, great receiver depth, two quality running backs and a top-five offensive line.
Cook will require the same support system. Not many teams can offer that and the patience to let him get to a fifth year to develop, though. With that type of risk attached to him, Cook should be a third-round pick who is given at least one or two years to develop. A situation with a long-term opening at quarterback would be best.
All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.