Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
» What NFL teams should look for in prospective head coaches.
But first, a look at one rookie getting thrown into the fire on Wild Card Weekend ...
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Not so fast.
No disrespect to McGloin and what he has accomplished after entering the league as an undrafted free agent, but the game looked too big for him during the Raiders' regular-season finale, and I can't imagine him effectively handling the pressure of playing in a high-stakes playoff bout against the NFL's top-ranked defense.
That's why I believe that, after the soul-crushing injury to Carr, fate might've dealt the Raiders a winning hand when it came to who would replace the MVP candidate in the postseason, with Cook being forced into the lineup. The rookie is not only a superior talent as a passer/playmaker to McGloin, but he's built to play in high-pressure moments based on his experience at Michigan State. During his time as a Spartan, Cook posted a 34-5 mark as a starter, with a 4-1 mark in postseason play. Although he tossed an interception in each of his postseason appearances, he still managed to routinely get his team to the winner's circle, which is ultimately the goal of the quarterback.
Looking back at my notes prior to the 2016 NFL Draft, I thought Cook's awareness and management skills were his biggest strengths as a player. As the director of a pro-style offense that placed a number of responsibilities on the quarterback to make "check with me" calls or audibles based on defensive fronts or coverage, Cook was exposed to some of the nuances that are routine for NFL quarterbacks. In addition, he was taught how to play complementary football in a program that has produced a number of NFL quarterbacks in recent years (such as Kirk Cousins, Brian Hoyer and Drew Stanton). As a result, Cook concluded his college career with a high touchdown-to-interception ratio (71:22) and learned the importance of ball security as it relates to winning games.
From a physical standpoint, I loved Cook's size (6-foot-4, 217 pounds) and pocket-passing ability. He was one of the few prospects in the 2016 class capable of making every throw in the book to every area of the field. Most impressively, Cook could change ball speed and trajectory to hit receivers in open windows on timing or anticipation throws between the hashes. With Cook also adept at firing lasers to the boundary on comebacks or "Okies" (deep outs), the Sparty QB forced opponents to defend every blade of grass, from sideline to sideline and end line to end line.
From a critical perspective, I worried about Cook's inconsistent accuracy and ball-placement issues. He never completed 60 percent of his passes in any given season at MSU -- well below the standard for elite QB prospects. Although I thought some of his accuracy issues could be resolved with better footwork, Cook's puzzling misfires routinely stalled drives. With that in mind, I thought it was important for Cook to land with a team that already had a strong supporting cast in place. A talented WR corps with multiple pass catchers capable of expanding the strike zone would minimize his accuracy issues. In addition, the presence of a strong running game would alleviate some of the pressure on him to carry the offense on the strength of his right arm. When pressed to make a pro comparison, I frequently likened Cook to Carson Palmer, based on his skills and style of play.
Looking at the pairing of Cook and the Raiders, who selected him in the fourth round of the draft, I thought the marriage was a nice one, based on the personnel in place on the perimeter and along the line. If he was pressed into action, I thought Cook would have enough ammunition around to succeed as a young player in the lineup.
Evaluating Cook's performance in the preseason and in Week 17, I believe he is still a work in progress as a quarterback, but the traits that stood out on his college tape are still prevalent in his game. He can blow you away with his ability to drop the ball in the bucket on intermediate and deep throws, as evidenced last week by his 32-yard touchdown throw to Amari Cooper or his 17-yard completion to Michael Crabtree down the boundary.
Cook was efficient working from under center or in the shotgun, particularly out of empty formations that allowed him to quickly identify blitzes or static coverage. He routinely delivered the ball on time and excelled with quick-rhythm passes thrown within 10 yards of the line.
On the flip side, Cook committed two turnovers against the Broncos and didn't seem to fully understand how to secure the ball against strip-happy pursuers in the pocket. He must do a better job of protecting the ball when rushers are in close proximity or he will continue to struggle with fumbles. On his interception, Cook sailed the ball late over the middle of the field. Although pressure clearly prevented him from stepping into the throw, he has to anticipate the pressure and open window to avoid making a costly error.
Considering his problems in the preseason (Cook posted a 55.4 completion rate and a 0:3 TD-to-INT ratio), Cook will need to heed the messages of his coaches regarding turnovers to help Oakland return to its winning ways. Remember, the Raiders finished the season with only 14 giveaways (fourth-fewest in the NFL), and their ability to win the turnover battle was a major factor in their success.
In the end, the Raiders are still in good position to win their wild-card matchup with Houston, even with the rookie at the helm. Despite the concerns over his inexperience and judgment, he is a bigger threat at the position than McGloin, and the presence of a talented WR corps gives him a chance to put up big numbers as a passer. Part of his success will stem from having a full week of practice with the starters. The extra reps will lead to better chemistry with Cooper and Crabtree. Most importantly, the coaches will craft a game plan that is catered to skills as a playmaker from the pocket.
Before Carr went down, the Raiders were considered a Super Bowl contender because of a high-powered offense directed by an MVP candidate at quarterback. While Cook is certainly not on Carr's level, he is more than capable of driving the Raiders to the winner's circle on Saturday by following the script that made him a winning quarterback at Michigan State.