A late comer to the Buffalo Bills' 2016 NFL Draft pre-draft visitor list was Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, who wrapped up a visit to One Bills Drive last weekend.
The quarterback seems like he would be an NFL darling, as a pro-style passer with a good arm and a winning record. Questions about his attitude, and his ability to complete passes that move the chains, have dogged him this offseason, and now he's not even considered a first-round prospect. Does he have NFL starter upside? Let's take a look.
I don't need to touch on this too much, I hope. Much has been made out of the news that Cook wasn't elected a team captain in his career (and the rebuttal that Michigan State uses a rotating captain system anyway), and there are other reports from reputable names like Tony Pauline that Cook's teammates really didn't like him a lot. In watching Cook's interviews and his on-field demeanor, I definitely see body language and attitude that exudes confidence. He clearly thinks very highly of himself, and I don't think he enjoys being criticized. I can't speculate on how Cook addresses criticism, nor can I say if Cook's confidence would be a boon or a hindrance for an NFL team. I leave this up to his coaching staff.
A media and information major, Cook came to East Lansing from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. He redshirted as a freshman, was a backup the following year, then took over as a starter for the following three seasons. He led the Spartans to a 36-4 record, winning the 2013 Rose Bowl, the 2014 Cotton Bowl, and losing the 2015 national semifinal against Alabama.
In terms of overall talent, Cook is a solid 'B' grade across the board. The 6'4", 217-pounder has the right size for the position, and his 4.79-second 40-yard dash and 33-inch vertical leap are right in the middle of the pack for quarterbacks. Cook is definitely the type of player that you'll see sneaking on fourth down more than you'd see running the read-option, but he's not completely excluded from that group like other pocket quarterbacks in the draft.
Cook's arm is capable of completing pretty much any throw in the NFL playbook. He has the requisite arm strength, and his forte is dropping passes down the sideline. Here's one of those passes, which didn't have a difficult degree of placement since there weren't any defenders in tight coverage, but was thrown by stepping up in a shrinking pocket.
Mechanics and Accuracy
Before we talk about Cook's actual mechanics and throwing accuracy, I'm going to toss some numbers your way. Cook didn't surpass 60 percent completions in any of his three college seasons as a starter. That number is relevant, as one of the Bill Parcells rules for drafting a quarterback.
Who are the greatest quarterbacks in the last 15 years who never threw for 60% in their college careers? Glad you asked:
Josh McCown: Has enjoyed a 10-year NFL career mostly as a backup, and the last few years of part-time starting for Chicago, Tampa Bay, and Cleveland pushed him up the list.
Tyrod Taylor: His best college season had a 59.7 percent completion rate. He has the highest average value on a per-year basis, owing to his young career and the strong season he just finished.
Shaun Hill: Just barely appearing on this list with a 59.9 percent completion rate in his second of two college seasons. Had a few decent seasons as a fill-in starter in San Francisco and Detroit, and otherwise has been a career backup.
Derek Anderson: Followed up a single Pro Bowl season with a few seasons of ugly starts, and has been relegated to bench duty since 2011.
Kyle Boller: A former first-round pick, he only started one full season in his career, and the best he could do was 13 touchdowns against 11 interceptions.
Brian Hoyer: Spent three seasons as a backup, found brief "success" in Cleveland, became the starter in Houston, and played just well enough to help the team survive until the playoffs, when he played one of the worst games in playoff history.
This is what history tells us we're dealing with, alright? If you want to know why people don't consider Cook a first-round pick, it's because he fails a rule used by NFL front offices, keeping company with a host of career backups and also-rans.
That reputation might lead you to think Cook is some sort of mechanical disaster in this draft class. But you'd be far from the truth. Out of all of the quarterbacks I've seen this year, Cook has by far the cleanest footwork and throwing motion. It's so nice to watch him without cringing when he throws a screen pass. Let's look at two examples of how he throws.
First, this play against Iowa. Note Cook's clean, quick footwork and his compact throwing motion. Nothing to worry about here, aside from a slight underthrow caused by his short follow-through. I think he and the receiver were on different pages regarding the actual destination of the route.
On this play against Indiana, you can see how Cook understands to drop the ball into the basket by throwing with touch on intermediate routes.
Why does Cook have such poor metrics? You can chalk that up to his playing style and decision-making, something we'll talk about below. Cook has the occasional blip in his footwork, which will place passes into spots where his receivers need an adjustment, but by and large his actual throwing accuracy is fine.
Cook is notorious in this draft class for his bravado. Matt Waldman likens him to a jewel thief that sneaks into your bedroom to steal the ring off your wife's finger while she's sleeping. Keeping with that metaphor, Cook's game is all about trying to take risks, steal chunks of yardage that didn't look like they were available, and catch the defense sleeping for big plays. When it works, it's spectacular, but when it doesn't, it will frustrate the hell out of his receivers.
Here is one pattern of Cook's decision-making that contributes to his low completion percentage. He tries to fit the ball into tight windows for larger gains, even if a player is open for a short underneath gain. This often happens when Cook sees his targeted player in single coverage. Granted, if he's throwing to Sammy Watkins, this trait could work out for Cook. In general, though, you'd like to see him make up the shorter distances first.
Another thing about Cook's game is that he likes to work the sideline. That's not to say he doesn't use the middle of the field - he has some excellent throws up the seam - but all things being equal, he just can't resist trying to fit one in over the head of a defender 20 yards downfield. He wasn't always on the same page as his receiver, and you won't win every contested catch. Coaches will want to see him using the full field and not locking onto his preferred zone.
Having played in a pro-style offense for three years, there's no real concern about Cook's ability to work through progressions and identify the open receiver. Here's just one example, and if you watch Cook on Jon Gruden's quarterback camp feature, their film room session does a good job of illustrating how sharp Cook can be.
Here is where I go back and forth on Cook. I've seen him stand in and make some tough throws against relentless pass rushes. I've also seen him stepping up in the pocket, or using pump fakes to buy himself some time. I've also seen him make bad decisions under duress. There have been at least two interceptions in the last two seasons where Cook was being taken down, threw the ball away, but hit his linemen in the back, causing the throw to bounce into the arms of a defender.
Here's an example of the good, which owes itself to his ability to read the field quickly. Cook pump-fakes, realizes the defender is closing in on him, and immediately throws the ball, throwing his receiver open in the back of the end zone.
Can you see why I would worry if I was scouting Cook, though? Here's my concern: if Cook is so fearless, and his field-reading prioritizes difficult throws and contested catches, won't his pressure instinct be to throw the ball into the most dangerous part of the defense? Every so often, I think back to the Cotton Bowl in 2014, which Cook won on a late comeback - but an agonizing one that saw several errant throws on the final drive.
Of the quarterbacks we've connected to the Buffalo Bills, Cook is solidly in the group of players I'd be happy to add. His value is somewhere in the second or third round, probably using Buffalos' No. 49 overall pick. I think the team that selects him is landing somewhere on the Kirk Cousins to Jay Cutler spectrum, more toward Cousins. He can make plays on the field, but the biggest concern is his alleged leadership issue. If Cook is prepared to sit on the bench for the start of his NFL career, developing his mentality, I think he would be a great addition for the Bills.