The draft is less than three weeks away and there is the usual, persistent buzz about the perceived top two quarterbacks available: Carson Wentz and Jared Goff. There is also intrigue surrounding 6-foot-7 Paxton Lynch and much public hand-wringing over the swoon of Christian Hackenberg. But when it comes to Connor Cook, who by many accounts is the most tested and pro-ready quarterback in this draft, there's nearly complete silence, from the scouring community and media.
In fact, until former Super Bowl-winning head coach and noted quarterback guru Jon Gruden began openly gushing about Cook on ESPN last week, and exclaiming out loud what some scouts and execs had been whispering about the quarterback for quite some time, it was difficult to find much being said or reported about the former Michigan State star anywhere outside of East Lansing. Seemed a little fishy to me. And after spending a week sniffing around on the situation, and speaking with numerous accomplished evaluators who don't have a dog in this fight (i.e. they are not going to be taking a quarterback on the first two days of this draft), I am more convinced than ever that Cook is going to be selected higher than many would want you to believe.
The kid with the NFL frame and the most decorated college passer of the bunch who played against the best competition of the group and won the most games of any of them (and in the history of his school) and who stayed out of trouble during five years on campus and led his team to the College Football Playoff this winter and won the Johnny Unitas award is getting virtually no pub and flying completely under the radar. Meanwhile, every visit or move the other quarterbacks make is seemingly being dissected by the media, scouts, general managers and coaches. Interesting.
Looks like a classic case of teams hoping a prospect is there for them to pounce on, of them publically sleeping on someone who has caught their eye, and of them being perfectly content to do whatever they can to ensure that perception -- "he's maybe the fourth-best quarterback in the draft" -- becomes reality. Only I'm not buying that it plays out that way, and neither are several NFL people I trust.
There is at least one team mulling a move up from the second round to the late first round to grab Cook if he is there. Several teams -- again, teams who are not going to be drafting passers high enough to grab Cook -- have him rated the second-best quarterback in the draft on their boards, according to league sources -- and Cook's itinerary has been as full as any of the quarterbacks in this draft. In all likelihood, he is not going to go in the top 10, as Goff and Wentz very well may, but I wouldn't be shocked at all to see him be the third quarterback selected, and for that pick to come in the first round.
"We like him, we like him a lot, actually," said an executive from a team that has Cook as the second-best quarterback in the draft. "We have him right up there with the other two or three (quarterbacks), actually even higher than a few of them. We like the kid a lot. We don't think there is a whole lot separating some of these quarterbacks and Cook is the most ready to play. Goff, look at his tape against Utah, it's not pretty. And Wentz, there is a lot to like there, but he needs to go somewhere and sit for a year or two and develop. If Cleveland takes him at two that is going to be a disaster. There aren't any sure things at this position -- really at most of the skill positions in this draft -- and Cook is definitely high up in that quarterback mix for us."
Another scout who has spent abundant time on the quarterbacks in this draft said: "We're not going to end up taking him, but there are plenty of people in our building who like him as much as the other two. I don't see him going in the top 15 picks, but after that he is in play. There is a lot to like there, he played in a pro-style offense, he can handle the big stage. He has some things he needs to tighten up and work on -- like all of the quarterbacks in this draft -- but overall I like him." Cook has some impressive qualities, for sure.
At 6-4, 220, with good speed and athleticism, the frame is there, as are the bloodlines, with both his parents and his sister accomplished athletes as well. He played for a strong college prep program in high school, he's fought through injuries at times to play, he's faced elite competition in the Big 10 and thrived to become one of the most decorated quarterbacks in Michigan State history, a program that has recently produced NFL starters Kirk Cousins and Brian Hoyer. He threw for 3,131 yards with 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions as a senior, and was named the MVP of the 2013 and 2015 Big 10 Championship games. Yet somehow he's become the Rodney Dangerfield of this quarterback class, seemingly unable to get much respect -- at least overt respect -- through the pre-draft process.
None of this is lost on Cook, of course. How could it be? This is the longest, most-drawn out, highest-profile job audition possible, with every nuance scrutinized across all platforms. So while the Ohio native is focused on the task at hand, it would be impossible not to notice what is -- and this case, is not -- being said about you. The decided lack of buzz about Cook, in the end, could very well be a good thing, though in real-time it's understandably puzzling.
"I hear it, I hear it for sure," Cook said of what's being said about the quarterbacks, "and I respect those guys a lot. I respect Goff and Wentz and Hackenberg and Lynch and all of those guys. But I think I played against really good competition and I played in some big-time games on some big-time stages with a lot of stuff riding on it -- seasons riding on it; championships riding on it -- and I think I played pretty well in those types of game. And to be considered the fourth-best quarterback, I don't really understand why. If it's scouts or coaches, I don't know, I'm obviously not with them watching the film. Maybe it's my completion percentage, maybe that's it. But I think I have the resume to be a first rounder."
The reality is, on the prescient metrics, Cooks grades quite well. He's studied the situation himself, including researching what Hall of Fame Coach Bill Parcells valued most when evaluating college quarterbacks. Once again, Cook checks virtually every box, and most of them probably merit a gold star sticker as well.
"If you look at the Bill Parcells rules to draft a quarterback I think I measure up pretty well," Cook said after completing a visit with the Buffalo Bills over the weekend and driving to visit his girlfriend in Pittsburgh for a brief respite from his circuit of NFL teams. "He should be a college graduate and start at least 30 games (Cook graduated last year with a degree in media and information) and I started 40. He must have 23 wins; I have well over 23 wins (Cook was 35-5 as a starter). He must have a completion percentage over 60 percent; that's the only thing I don't have (Cook completed 57.6 percent of his passes as a starter).
"If you look at his other rules he has to be at least a three-year starter. I did that. So he has to be consistent, and it wasn't like I had just one good year. I proved myself each year I played and I got better as a junior than as a sophomore, and I was better as a senior than I was my junior year. So I don't know why there isn't more talk and I'm not one to be boastful or anything, but this is important stuff, this is the NFL Draft and I am a competitor and I want to be the best. And when people talk about me in a negative way it does upset me, but you can't do anything about it, and I think I've earned every bit to be considered a first-round draft pick."
Some have lazily ascribed Cook's low-key run up to the draft to the fact that he wasn't a team captain, but that's not anything that has resonated with the scouts and evaluators I spoke to. Several scouts who have dealt directly with Cook said they have been very impressed with his personality, some coordinators have raved internally about his demeanor following his visits there. He's also a kid who gave his MVP trophy of the Big 10 Championship to his offensive linemen to parade around the team hotel after their defeat of Iowa, and someone who was clearly one of the leaders and premier players on one of the best college football teams in the country.
"The team captain thing is totally overblown, totally overblown," said one scout who has done extensive work in the Big 10 and on Michigan State in particular. "(All-American center) Jack Allen is the alpha male of that program. Period. There was no way he wasn't going to be named the offensive team captain. He is the toughest guy there.
"You wanna know somebody else who wasn't a team captain in college? I'll give you a hint -- it's somebody you work with ... Boomer Esiason. You think he wasn't a tough guy? You don't think he was a leader? It was just the same sort of situation with him at Maryland at the time, and that's a Pro Bowl quarterback. I'm not saying Cook doesn't have some things he needs to work on, but not beating out Jack Allen as offensive team captain isn't an issue for me at all."
Cook's profile received a boost last week when he went down to Orlando to be grilled by Gruden as part of his annual examination of the top quarterbacks in the draft. And it quickly became evident what the offensive savant thought of Cook. Gruden proclaimed him the best QB in this draft, and expressed his dismay why he isn't in play with the top pick.
"This is awesome man, this is great stuff, you seed the whole field," Gruden said at one point while reviewing film with Cook, in a way that only Chuckie can. "My pass offense got better by meeting you, Cook."
Gruden clearly has a soft spot for quarterbacks in general, but he raved about Cook's prowess in a way reserved for very few. "You started making plays that really weren't there -- not just making system plays ... making plays that I've never seen before … Your mentality playing the quarterback position is different than any kid I've had in here in three years."
Of all the praise coming his way, what had Cook beaming about most was when Gruden referred to him as a "gunslinger" -- Gruden, you'll recall, worked with a young Brett Favre, the quintessential slinger of them all, in Green Bay. "Coach Gruden is a great guy, he's really funny, and he seemed to really like me for whatever reason," Cook said. But there was no time to revel in that.
From Orlando it was back to campus on East Lansing for about 12 hours (about long enough to do some laundry) and then Cook had visits with the Ravens and Bills before a weekend of respite in Pittsburgh and then back to the grind. Cook begins a visit with the Dallas Cowboys on Monday, then heads to Miami to meet the Dolphins on Tuesday, then he is with the Denver Broncos on Wednesday and with the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday.
He has already met with the Cleveland Browns -- where offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton handed him a bundle of pass plays, run plays and protections to study for 15 minutes and then saw how many Cook could recall and correctly draw up on the board. "That was a cool challenge and I thought I did pretty well," Cook said. And following the visit with the 49ers, Cook has trips with the Jets and Bears scheduled as well, and then a workout for the Rams.
Literally every team in the market for a quarterback of the present, or the future, has done at least some amount of work on him – some more exhaustive than others – and when draft day finally comes around, I doubt that Cook remains a forgotten man anymore. Certainly not for as long as some would have you believe. He may not go as high as Gruden would draft him, but then again, this time of year you never really know.
"I'm just going with the flow at this point and trying not to get too caught up in where I go," Cook said. "Obviously, I want to be drafted in the first round, but it's all about going to the right team as opposed to what round and what pick you are. If I can go to team with a good coaching staff and I am lucky enough to go to good organization, I'll be very happy."