The draft process is sick. It turns itself on its head at an alarming rate. Players are pumped into the first round, then torn back down into day three status without having seen the field since being talked about as a first rounder- or vice-versa. It’s as if the community gets bored with a player and his status, and finds a way to change it for the sake of something being new. It happens every year, almost always to players who had already garnered a lot of praise heading into their final season in college.
Sometimes this shift in opinion lies in deeper film dives after the season has ended, though that is not always the case. For Michigan State’s Connor Cook, the book on him and his skill set has been out for a while. It’s been known exactly what kind of player he is for some time now. He is a fairly smart, hyper-aggressive pro-style quarterback who has the ability to be a serviceable starter, at least, in the NFL. Cook is nothing special, but he has the ability to maintain lasting relevancy in the league.
More than anything, Cook’s decline has to do with the pettiness of the draft process. As mentioned before, people love to change a prospect’s story to keep them interesting. To all of a sudden turn on Cook solely because of his ability on field would have been suspect considering how long the community had been comfortable with his ability. Instead, the backlash on Cook became about his character. Many began to question his leadership skills and feel the need to look further into his off field presence.
In the heart of the season, rumors of Cook having a questionable attitude (thought to be reserved; arrogant, even) began popping up. For the most part, it did not yet lower his value in the minds of evaluators. Though, Cook later made a ‘mistake’ on live television following Michigan State’s conference victory. College football legend Archie Griffin was at the game to award the conference title trophy to the winning team. After what was a close game, Cook, still in the thrill of the moment, snatched the trophy from Griffin without acknowledging him much. Cook then proceeded to get directly to speaking with the media about the victory.
Analysts everywhere used this occurrence as ‘evidence’ that Cook has issues with how he carries himself. The situation explained and fixed itself rather quickly, though. Griffin himself said that the act was not nearly as ugly as it appeared. In addition, Cook called Griffin to apologize for what had happened. Rather than trying to get inside of Cook’s head and understand what was going through a player’s head after having just squeaked out a victory in a crucial game, people immediately turned on Cook. The trophy snatch was an excuse to brush Cook under the rug in favor of Paxton Lynch, Jared Goff and/or Carson Wentz. The community grew bored with Cook’s tired narrative/skill set and found a way to rid themselves of it without directly changing their evaluation.
Now, fast forward a month after the conference championship. The famed Senior Bowl, where the best senior college football players meet for a week of practice and an all-star game, was becoming the talk of the town and there was much speculation as to which quarterbacks would be invited and show up. While the Senior Bowl has legitimacy, there is a lot of ugly politics that surround the event. Those who decline their invite are seen as players who lack fire. They lack true “football spirit” or “competitiveness” or whatever the narrative is. The thing is, some players don’t need to go.
Their is a notion that having an incredible Senior Bowl week, especially at quarterback, will propel a player up draft boards. EJ Manuel had a very good Senior Bowl week and was eventually drafted in the 1st round. His stock skyrocketed because of the Senior Bowl. Though, Manuel was more of a desperation pick than anything else. The 2013 quarterback class was horrendous and recency bias seemingly got to the Buffalo Bills front office. Those who have a good Senior Bowl week do not always reap great rewards like Manuel did.
The following year, Derek Carr lit up the Senior Bowl and established himself as the best quarterback there by a good margin, even with Jimmy Garoppolo there. Despite his performance, Carr was drafted in the 2nd round and was the fourth quarterback selected. All three quarterbacks that went ahead of him were underclassmen who, by rule, did not go to the Senior Bowl. Carr’s Senior Bowl performance did not really do him any favors. Teams knew who they wanted and went after those guys.
This was likely what was preached in Cook’s camp leading up to the Senior Bowl. Cook was already highly regarded by teams, he did not need to go to the Senior Bowl for the off chance that he boosts his stock well above the others in the class. Many have paralleled Cook’s decision to not attend with AJ McCarron’s decision to not attend in 2015, but that is off based, too. McCarron was not as highly regarded as Cook is. McCarron was clearly behind a lot of other quarterbacks in his draft class and could have used the Senior Bowl to scratch his way up closer to the top. Cook did not need to do that. In terms of how he was viewed among the others at his position, Cook was already near the top.
He did not need to go to Mobile and put himself at risk for an injury. Cook was still dealing with a lingering shoulder issue during the week of the Senior Bowl. The shoulder was healthy enough for him to have performed, as he had through the tail end of the season, but there was no need to put the shoulder at risk again. Cook had no need to put his body on the line again, seeing as how much he had already rolled the dice by finishing the season with the injured shoulder.
Of course, Cook’s decision did nothing but provide cannon fodder for those looking to devalue him more. Again, his decision was criticized without context. There was no entertaining the idea that he did not need to be there. Instead, he was thrown back into the fire for “not being competitive.” For a quarterback who played through shoulder pain for a good portion of the year and became known for being aggressive when he needed to be, competitiveness should have never been in question. Alas, people needed to find a way to push Cook down for the sake of having someone to push down.
Cook’s supposed attitude problems are much more speculation than they are substance. Many of his teammates have publicly said that the stories about him not being a leader are false. Bruce Feldman recently released a piece with multiple quotes from Cook’s left tackle, Jack Conklin, in which Conklin defended Cook being a leader for the team. Conklin went on record to say that people are “trying to read into things that are not there,” among other positive things. Cook has not done anything in the public eye that suggests he is going to be a problem in the locker room, and every rumor that has been spread about him either has little substance to it or has been diffused by teammates.
Connor Cook got caught in the ugliness of the draft cycle. As some players mysteriously rise up (looking at you, Carson Wentz), others have to be pushed down. Cook became a victim of being pushed down out of “necessity” instead of being punished for legitimate problems. Many felt as if the top of the quarterback class was getting crowded, so Cook was escorted from the conversation. Cook did not deserve for his brand to be tarnished. He earned his status on the field and did not do anything off of it to take away from that status. If you want to forget what Cook did on the field at Michigan State, that is fine, but don’t be dumbfounded when he still gets drafted high and is given an immediate opportunity to start.