What Caused Hyped NFL Draft Prospects Andrew Billings, Connor Cook to Fall?

Ryan McCrystal@@ryan_mccrystalFeatured ColumnistApril 30, 2016

Jan 1, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Michigan State Spartans quarterback Connor Cook (18) tries to elude Baylor Bears defensive tackle Andrew Billings (75) during the first half in the 2015 Cotton Bowl Classic at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 NFL draft was supposed to become an exciting memory for Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook and Baylor defensive lineman Andrew Billings. But after waiting two days without hearing their names, it might now be a memory they'd like to forget.

Every year, there are prospects who slide down the board for unknown reasons that leave us wondering why the NFL had such a dramatically different grade on them than the talent evaluators in the media. 

If we had a definitive answer as to why Cook and Billings are still on the board, their fall wouldn't be such a shock. But we can to speculate on why NFL teams are skeptical of their ability to excel at the next level.

Why Cook Fell

Sep 26, 2015; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans quarterback Connor Cook (18) prepares to take the snap of the ball during the 1st quarter of a game at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

There are two theories out there about what led to Cook's fall, and it's possible the answer is a combination of both. 

Graham Couch of the Lansing State Journal suggested the quarterback's slide could be injury-related:

Perhaps something in Cook's shoulder was discovered. Didn't see this coming. Teams usually reach for QBs. Teams are passing multiple times.

— Graham Couch (@Graham_Couch) April 30, 2016

Couch is referring to a shoulder injury Cook suffered late in the 2015 season. It kept him out of Michigan State's game against Ohio State and lingered throughout the remainder of the campaign.  

Cook eventually threw at the combine in late February, so it was presumed his shoulder was fully healthy. But he wasn't completely open about the injury this offseason. 

He claimed to be 100 percent during Michigan State's playoff run and did not originally cite his shoulder as a reason for skipping the Senior Bowl in late January. Instead, Cook worked out with quarterback guru George Whitfield in San Diego, per Mike Griffith of MLive.com.

In February, however, Cook cited his shoulder as the reason for skipping the combine when speaking to Fox Sports. 

Was this just an excuse? Or was the shoulder injury genuinely continuing to bother him? Both explanations are plausible and could concern NFL teams.

The other explanation for Cook's fall is his perceived lack of leadership in the locker room. 

It has been well documented that Cook was not voted a team captain at Michigan State. This is unheard of in college football for a fifth-year senior and three-year starting quarterback. 

You can count Bleacher Report's Matt Miller among those believing the leadership concerns are a factor in Cook's fall:

Those who said all year the "captain" thing wouldn't hurt Connor Cook?


— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 30, 2016

If Cook's lack of leadership was the reason for his fall, we may never know for certain. Teams have no incentive to give us an explanation as to why they didn't select a player, so we could be left guessing until someone finally opens up about the draft-day decision process.

The most likely explanation may simply be a combination of the two factors. If a team didn't fall in love with Cook during the evaluation process, the lingering concerns about his shoulder and leadership issues may have raised enough questions to drop him down the board—even if either concern on its own wouldn't have altered his draft stock. 

Why Billings Fell

Rod Aydelotte/Associated Press

Billings' tumble is much more confusing than Cook's because there were no obvious red flags entering the draft. 

Throughout the pre-draft process, Billings had supporters from all corners. The statistical community bought into Billlings, who was a first-round selection in Pro Football Focus' mock draft. And scouts seemed to like Billings as well, as one told Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Billings is "Strong as hell. Solid kid. This is one you can rely on.”

Some draft analysts, such as Jeff Risdon of RealGM, have passed along "rumblings" that Billings' fall could be related to an injury. But Risdon made it clear these reports are not confirmed and appear to be just speculation.

These rumors seemingly made their way back to Billings, as Jessica Morrey of KCEN passed along this response from those close to him: 

Sources close to Andrew Billings say he "doesn't have a knee injury." #baylor

— Jessica Morrey (@JessicaMorrey) April 30, 2016

It's plausible Billings has a lingering injury, but it would come as a surprise if a major injury for such a highly touted prospect was kept from the media for this long—especially when it's apparently severe enough to cause all 32 teams to pass on him.

Perhaps Billings is on the board because teams simply don't value his skill set. 

Billings is nose tackle who measured just 6'1" and 311 pounds at the combine. That height-weight combination is rare in the NFL, as most teams prefer taller interior linemen who can get their arms up into passing lanes. 

According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, there are only four active defensive linemen at 6'1" or shorter and at least 310 pounds—and only one of those four, Baltimore Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams, was a top-100 selection. 

Hopefully we'll learn more about Billings' fall once he's drafted. If there was a medical condition causing the slide, it's likely the team he eventually lands with would shed some light on that issue after the draft.

What This Means For Cook, Billings

The good news for Cook and Billings is this surprising slide doesn't mean anything for their NFL careers. 

When talented prospects fall further than expected, we often realize NFL teams were simply overthinking the evaluation process.

In 2015, for example, one of the surprise fallers was offensive lineman T.J. Clemmings. 

The Minnesota Vikings eventually scooped up Clemmings in the fourth round, and he had a productive rookie year, starting all 16 games at right tackle after incumbent starter Phil Loadholt was lost to injury during the preseason. 

Like Clemmings, Cook and Billings will likely land in situations where starting jobs aren't guaranteed. But opportunities will present themselves, and it will be up to them to take advantage and prove teams wrong.