INDIANAPOLIS — As the men vying to be the first quarterback taken in the draft took their turns Thursday on Podium C, it felt less like the NFL combine and more like a battleground state ahead of a wide-open presidential primary. Stump speeches were given. Talking points were rattled off. Perceived inadequacies were downplayed. If the NFL allowed babies in the media room, those babies would have been kissed. As we hurtle toward Super Thursday on April 28, let’s examine how the campaign is shaping up.
The establishment candidate
Like the Republican field following Jeb Bush’s exit, there is no true establishment candidate in the race to be the first quarterback nominated. Marco Rubio has assumed that mantle in the political world. In the quarterback world, the closest comparison is Michigan State’s Connor Cook.
Cook has most of what the bona fide NFL teams want. He’s the correct height (6' 4") with a big-enough hand (9 3/4"). He won a lot (34–5 as a starter with two Big Ten titles) in a Power Five conference. He played in a pro-style offense and regularly took snaps under center. “It’s not like we’re scanning just one side of the field and staying there,” Cook said, aiming squarely at quarterbacks who played in uptempo spread offenses with truncated playbooks. “We have one, two, three to four different reads.” In fact, his candidate profile would be perfect if not for lingering questions about his leadership and his decision to skip the Senior Bowl.”
Cook wasn’t elected as one of three team captains by the Spartans this season. He was on Michigan State’s 12-man leadership council and was named a game captain four times, but that failure to capture that particular electorate has dogged Cook since the summer. “It’s an understandable question,” Cook said. “Why wasn’t he captain? I’ll just be completely honest with them. We had a lot of leaders on that team. … If you want to go talk to any one of my teammates and ask them if I was a great leader, they would say yes.”
Cook is correct about the abundance of veteran leaders on his team. Spend time around center Jack Allen, defensive end Shilique Calhoun and linebacker Darien Harris and it’s obvious why teammates would cast votes their way. Offensive tackle Jack Conklin, another player who did enough to be a captain, came to his quarterback’s defense Wednesday. “It’s a little bit of an overkill, at this point,” Conklin said. “Connor is a leader on our team, no doubt. I think, if you talk to anybody on our team, you’ll get the same answer.”
While the captaincy—or lack thereof—has generated the most headlines, Cook’s choice to skip the Senior Bowl has more potential to damage his campaign. Cook was trying to recover from a shoulder injury sustained late in the season, but he still could have gone to Mobile and shown his schematic chops in the meeting room. (Chiefs’ Aaron Murray did that two years ago while recovering from a torn ACL.) While it might not have given NFL coaches a physical comparison against North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz, it might have prevented Wentz from taking all the spotlight and the momentum (which Wentz did).
The fast riser from a lower level
At Senior Bowl practices, Wentz was the only quarterback who looked exactly like what NFL teams seek. From a measurables standpoint, he’s ideal. He’s 6' 5", 237 pounds and has a 10-inch hand. Like Cook, he ran an offense that is more similar to what NFL teams run. Like Cook, he won a lot. He went 20–3 as a starter with two conference championships and two national titles. So what’s the big question?
Wentz won two national titles, yet he wasn’t a household name among draftniks until after the Senior Bowl because he won those titles in the Football Championship Subdivision. North Dakota State is a juggernaut at its level; the Bison—pronounce it like the “s” is a “z”—have won the past five FCS national titles. To put it in political terms, this would be the equivalent of the two-term mayor of a largish—but not New York—city running for president. He has plenty of practical experience, but did that experience come at a level that allows him to make the leap seamlessly? This is a legitimate question. The talent gap between the FCS and the SEC or the Big Ten is huge.
Wentz understands this, so he campaigns on the issues he can control. His Senior Bowl practice performance, in which he outshone quarterbacks who played for Power Five teams, gave him an extra plank for his platform. “All you can go off of right now is what I’ve done in the past—what’s been put on the tape,” Wentz said Thursday. And while some of the other candidates took veiled shots at leadership issues or previous offensive systems, Wentz refused to resort to negative campaigning. “I don’t really pay a ton attention to the other guys,” he said. “I’m really focused on myself and being the best I can be.”
The presumptive favorite with a few issues
When Cook mentioned how the Michigan State offense operates much like an NFL offense, he was mentioning Cal’s Jared Goff without mentioning him. In Berkeley, Goff played for an Air Raid head coach (Sonny Dykes) and an offensive coordinator (Tony Franklin) who proudly calls his offense a “system”—that’s a pejorative in NFL circles—while selling it to high school coaches. Goff averaged 40.7 pass attempts a game in 2015 in an offense that stresses defenses by pushing the tempo and keeping playcalling relatively simple.
Not all NFL teams are anti-Air Raid. Bill Belichick and his staff studied the offense of Dykes’s mentor (Mike Leach), and the Air Raid has influenced more of today’s shotgun-heavy, pass-happy NFL offenses than most NFL people care to admit. On the correct team, Goff’s learning curve will be considerably shorter than most realize. On the wrong team, Goff probably will have to learn what amounts to a foreign language.
Like a longtime frontrunner in a political race, Goff has faced extra scrutiny. The issue of the moment is his hand size. Goff’s right hand measured nine inches on Wednesday, and he was quizzed Thursday by a reporter about whether his hand size had something to do with his 23 fumbles in college. Goff showed why he’d be excellent in a debate by quickly answering the reporter’s question with a question of his own. “How many did I have this year?” Goff asked twice. “Four,” the reporter replied.
Goff then calmly explained that the Bears went 1–11 in 2013 as Dykes tried to help them out of the smoking crater left by the final years of the Jeff Tedford administration. Goff never actually ripped the talent around him early in his career, but the record and the fact that Cal allowed 34 sacks in ’13 compared to 27 in ’15. If Goff is that quick on his feet on the stump, he’ll probably be that quick on his feet in a meeting room.
We also know Goff can be diplomatic. Thursday, he was asked the following question: Would you be excited if you were drafted by Cleveland? “Absolutely,” Goff said as he pondered the noted graveyard for quarterback careers. “Yeah. I’ll be happy to go anywhere.”
The one-issue (or one-coach) candidate
Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg has one advantage that none of these other candidates have: he was recruited and coached by a sitting NFL head coach. When Houston’s Bill O’Brien coached at Penn State, Hackenberg’s decision to stick with his commitment to the Nittany Lions in spite of harsh NCAA sanctions helped keep the program from falling as far as it could have. Hackenberg loved playing for O’Brien as a freshman, and O’Brien clearly enjoyed coaching the 6' 4", 223-pounder with the cannon arm.
Will O’Brien, who needs a quarterback, take Hackenberg at No. 22? Would interest from other teams cause the Texans to trade up to get him? Or could Hackenberg drop and still be available when the Texans pick later? Or maybe they don’t pick Hackenberg at all. "I think that Christian's a very talented guy, but there’s a lot of talented guys,” O’Brien said Thursday.
O’Brien has to say that. He isn’t going to tip his hand even if he does crave a reunion.
Plus, there are question marks around Hackenberg. Specifically, his completion percentage went down every year. He completed 58.9% of his passes as a freshman, 55.8% as a sophomore and 53.5% as a junior. Despite the sophomore-to-junior percentage drop, Hackenberg’s yards per attempt rose from 6.2 to seven between 2014 and ’15. Hackenberg can make a legitimate claim that Penn State’s sanctions affected his play. The Nittany Lions had little depth on the offensive line in his sophomore and junior seasons. He also never had another target like Allen Robinson, who went to the NFL after Hackenberg’s freshman year. Because he coached all those players, O’Brien should understand that better than most.
Hackenberg, meanwhile, seems to understand the knocks on his competition. Thursday, he pointed out that he was twice named a captain at Penn State. In fact, he was the first sophomore captain in Penn State football history. He may as well have said “Next up at this podium, Connor Cook!”
There doesn’t seem to be a Trump in this race, but one quarterback could be missing a golden opportunity to surge in the polls. Ohio State’s Cardale Jones has the requisite measurables to be a first-rounder, but his 2015 benching in favor of J.T. Barrett probably will push him down in the draft.
But we know from Ohio State’s playoff run at the end of the 2014 season that Jones can dominate news cycles. He has the personality to keep people watching every day from now until the draft. Unfortunately for Jones, NFL teams don’t respond as well to that brand of campaigning as voters.
Still, if Jones shows up for throwing drills with a MAKE [INSERT TEAM HERE] GREAT AGAIN hat, you’ll know he’s ready to make his move.