Editor’s note: This is part of our summer series, The MMQB 100, counting down the most influential people for the 2015 season.
Pat Narduzzi pointed to the numbers on his tablet. The Michigan State defensive coordinator wasn’t about to rip his team’s offense to a writer with a recorder running, so on that spring day in 2013 he let the digits on his screen say what he couldn’t. Robust three-and-out statistics and other stingy measurables painted the picture of the Spartans’ otherworldly (and unappreciated) 2012 defense. But Michigan State was coming off a 7-6 season because the offense had provided next to nothing. If the Spartans were going to hoist trophies, they needed the offense to improve enough to deserve a spot alongside that defense. But that offense was missing something—or, more specifically, someone.
It turns out that Narduzzi (who left Sparty for the head coaching job at Pitt last December) had already helped find that someone. While recruiting the Cleveland area in 2009, Narduzzi had come across a tall, skinny quarterback at Walsh Jesuit in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. Narduzzi alerted the Spartans’ offensive staffers, who agreed Connor Cook deserved a closer look. In February 2010, Michigan State became the first school to offer Cook a scholarship. It didn’t take much for the Spartans to fend off Akron and Miami (Ohio) to get Cook signed in 2011, though when he arrived in East Lansing that summer, he looked at starter Kirk Cousins and backup Andrew Maxwell and worried he might not see the field until 2015. “You see a guy like Kirk who was just so accurate, who had a quick release,” Cook said. “Every throw was a perfect spiral. I looked at him and I was like, Man, I’ve got a lot of improving to do.”
That unheralded recruit probably will leave Michigan State as the best quarterback in school history, and he might also be the best quarterback in the 2016 draft. Though Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg has the prototypical measurables (6-4, 236) and skill set, and though Ohio State’s Cardale Jones boasts great size (6-5, 250) and a huge arm and showed a knack for delivering on the biggest stage, Cook is the most NFL-ready of the three. He doesn’t play in the kind of spread system that leads to video game statistics, but Michigan State’s pro-style offense more closely resembles what NFL teams will ask him to run. He has the size (6-4, 220) NFL teams covet, the arm to make every throw they want and the wheels to keep plays alive when his protection breaks down. Most importantly, since Cook took over as the starter early in the 2013 season, the Michigan State offense has clicked. The Spartans have been contenders ever since.
The 2012 Spartans had some legitimate excuses for their poor production on offense. Cousins was gone, and any quarterback would have struggled to live up to the standard he set. A rash of offensive line injuries didn’t help, either. Still, the Spartans had Le’Veon Bell at tailback and should have been able to produce more. In 2013, Cook—who had come off the bench to lead the game-winning drive in a Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl victory over TCU in the final game of his redshirt freshman year—entered the season opener splitting snaps with 2012 starter Andrew Maxwell. Bell was gone, but the offensive line was finally healthy. Still, in the season opener against Western Michigan, Michigan State’s best offense might have been stuffing the Broncos for three plays and convincing the officials to let Western Michigan skip the punt and keep the ball for another set of downs. Michigan State’s quarterbacks completed 17 of 37 passes for 116 yards in a 26-13 win. The Spartans’ defense, with an interception return for a touchdown and a fumble return for another, outscored both offenses. In Cook’s first career start the following week, Michigan State scored 21 in a win against South Florida. Not bad, except lowly McNeese State had hung 53 on the Bulls the previous week.
Cook’s comfort in a rout of FCS opponent Youngstown State gave Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio confidence that the sophomore was ready to take over permanently. The Spartans lost at Notre Dame, but Dantonio stuck with Cook. Every week after that, the Spartans’ offense improved incrementally. Cook didn’t try to do everything himself, but he made throws with a confidence that can’t be coached. He rarely hesitated. He didn’t shy away from tight windows, but he also didn’t try to jam every pass into one. Receivers who had struggled with dropped passes since Cousins left were suddenly making circus catches in front of a packed house at Nebraska. Bell’s replacement, Jeremy Langford, made defenses respect play-action fakes, and then Cook made them pay by hitting his targets. Cook’s first 300-yard passing performance came in the Big Ten title game, a win over previously undefeated Ohio State team. He repeated the feat in the next game against another elite defense: 332 and two touchdowns in a Rose Bowl win over Stanford.
Cook has the offense working in harmony. But he wanted more. It burned as he watched Florida State play Auburn for the national title. Cook thought the Spartans could have hung with either team.
In 2014, as he led the Big Ten in passing yards (247.2 per game), Cook looked ready to make the jump to the NFL. He didn’t have the buzz of Florida State’s Jameis Winston or Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, but there would have been little debate: He would have been the third quarterback off the board. Still, Cook never gave the NFL serious thought. Losses to Oregon and Ohio State—in which Cook threw for a combined 701 yards and Michigan State scored 64 points, but allowed 95—gnawed at him. After a frantic comeback to beat Baylor in the Cotton Bowl (another 300-yard performance in a big game), Cook began preparing to spend his final year of eligibility in East Lansing. “I want to get my degree. That’s important to me. And I had unfinished business,” Cook said. “Last season was a great season. We went 11-2. We won a major bowl. But we didn’t win our conference. That’s the main goal—to win your conference. When you don’t do that, it’s kind of a letdown.”
Cook pauses, then explains his mindset more succinctly: “Not being able to play for a championship kind of sucks.”
So Cook will work this season to play for a title and to refine his game for the next level. “I don’t think anyone is necessarily ready for the NFL,” Cook said. “I think you go there and you adjust. There are things I need to work on, that I can fine-tune this year.” He knows he needs to improve on the 58.1 percent completion rate he posted in 2014. Though Cook doesn’t get to pad his stats with the dump-offs employed by many spread teams, he still missed his share of open receivers last season. For example, Cook wouldn’t have needed that perfect back-shoulder throw to Tony Lippett on fourth-and-10 to keep alive the final drive against Baylor if he didn’t miss open receivers on the previous two plays.
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He doesn’t plan on showcasing his ability as a runner this year. Cook’s father, Chris, told MLive.com that in high school, Cook was timed at 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash at a camp at Cincinnati and 4.46 at a camp in Kentucky. Cook is quick to downplay his dual-threat capabilities, though. “If I’m running a 40, I’m decently fast,” he said. “But my game speed needs to improve.”
The tape disagrees with that statement. While Cook won’t be confused with Mariota, he can do serious damage when defenses get too tied up with his receivers and backs. Cook also can deliver something extra at the end of the run. Last year against Michigan, Cook kept on a read option and squirted up the middle for 13 yards. Wolverines safety Delano Hill tried to stop him and got blasted onto his back for his trouble. Don’t expect a repeat performance often in 2015. “I’m trying to keep my body healthy,” Cook said. “I’m not trying to hurt anything or trying to run people over. I only save stuff like that for Michigan, Ohio State or Oregon.”
Regarding another top college quarterback this fall, Penn State’s Hackenberg is tough to project because he spent much of 2014 running for his life behind a banged-up line. Cook, on the other hand, is tough to project because his line has been so good. (Ohio State’s Jones has the same pleasant dilemma, though he also still has to beat out Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett for the starting job.) Watching Cook fire a rocket on a skinny post to beat Baylor in the final minute, it’s impossible not to notice how beautifully left tackle Jack Conklin, center Jack Allen and the rest of the line slide their protection to pick up the Bears’ blitz. That leads to an obvious question: What happens when Cook faces the kind of pressure he would behind the line of, say, an NFL team that was bad enough to own a top-10 pick? His mobility suggests he could still get the pass away, and his career TD-to-INT ratio (47-to-15) suggests he makes prudent choices with the ball.
Still, the most important stat when assessing Cook might be his 23-3 record as a starter. The NFL is littered with washed-up quarterbacks who won in college only to flop at the next level. But with Cook, it’s a little different. He is primarily responsible for turning around the Spartans’ offense, leading a unit capable of outscoring some of the nation’s most prolific offenses when necessary, and transforming a .500 team into one capable of winning a Big Ten title.
Now Cook is the front-runner to be the first quarterback taken in the 2016 draft. He was the missing piece for the Spartans. He could be the same for an NFL franchise.
80. Ted Wells, Special Investigator, NFL
You know my favorite saying: There will be lawyers. And over the past two years no lawyer has been more front and center among the NFL’s cavalry of outside counsel than Ted Wells. A partner at the prestigious Paul, Weiss firm, Wells has had clients that have included Citigroup, Bank of America, Merck, Scooter Libby and Michael Milken. His and his team’s work for another client, the NFL, has earned the firm approximately $4 million to $5 million on top of the millions it has received from the league for its defense in the massive concussion litigation. (While the NFL is certainly a prestigious client, its receivables do not tilt the needle much at Paul, Weiss. The firm reported gross earnings of $1.036 billion last year.) The NFL initially retained Wells in the fall of 2013 to investigate a radioactive Dolphins locker room, and he produced a lengthy report detailing a toxic environment fueled by Richie Incognito and his cabal. That report led to new NFL protocols regarding harassment and respect in the workplace. Impressed by Wells’ work in Miami, the NFL reached out again this January for inquiry into the Patriots’ alleged tampering with footballs, and another four-month investigation produced a 243-page document that has been the focus of some attention. Though some questioned the potency of terms like “more probable than not” and “generally aware,” Wells was writing with the NFL’s “preponderance of evidence” standard. As a lawyer used to speaking in cautious and measured tones, he was not going to deliver a “hot take” or use phrasing that would have been more headline-worthy. Having said that, Wells is no shrinking violet. When Tom Brady’s agent/attorney Don Yee took issue with the credibility of the report, Wells lashed out at Yee’s personal attacks, detailing Brady’s noncompliance and challenging Yee to publish his notes concerning Brady. Wells has been, and will continue to be, one of the more important faces in terms of how the new NFL does business. Since being scolded about its lax investigatory process in the Ray Rice disciplinary matter—by both a former judge and another investigation, the Mueller Report—the NFL has enhanced its investigatory force; time and cost are not an issue. Wells is emblematic of that. Now, after Wells Report I (Dolphins) and Wells Report II (Patriots), my sense is that, even as others question his “independence” from the NFL, we will see more Wells Reports to come.
—Andrew Brandt (@ADBrandt)
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79. Bruce Arians, Head Coach, Arizona Cardinals
When you get your first chance at your dream—an NFL head coaching job—at 60, after being sure it was never going to happen… well, you have a tendency to go for broke. That is what Bruce Arians is doing as he enters year three with the surprising Arizona Cardinals. In year one he took over a broken-down team with no quarterback, traded for Carson Palmer and went a surprising 10-6. Arizona handed the Super Bowl champion Seahawks their only home loss that season. In year two Arizona went 11-5 despite two crushing quarterback injuries and limped into the playoffs. This year Palmer is healthy (for now, coming off midseason ACL surgery he’s on pace to be healthy opening day on Sept. 13). Arians needs Palmer to be great. He is convinced this is the season he can push his team past the 10- and 11-win marks of the last two years to Super Bowl contention. His irascible style has won over his team. That style began to form while Arians was an assistant on Bear Bryant’s last Alabama team in the ’70s—the Bryant advice that has most stuck with Arians? Coach ’em hard. Hug ’em later. “The players have accomplished a lot in two years,” Arians said as spring OTA practices ended this month. “They see the young guys and the depth we have. After Week 10 [of 2014], they know how close they were. They still got into the playoffs but didn't get it done. There are a lot of feelings that, 'Hey, we left it on the table. But we can also get back there.’ ” This is probably Arians’ best chance, with the Niners rebuilding and the Rams so questionable on offense. Seattle is still the king of the NFC West, but look at what the Cardinals accomplished from late October 2013 to November 2014, when they were healthiest: In a 19-game span, they went 16-3, and Arians’ deep-strike offense shredded Dallas, Indy and New York Giants defenses. This is a dangerous team, with a coach who has nothing to lose. “I’m gonna do it my way,” Arians said when he took the job, “and if it doesn’t work, at least I know I had my shot.”
—Peter King (@SI_PeterKing)
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78. Joe Flacco, Quarterback, Baltimore Ravens
Joe Flacco got a pair of presents from Ravens management on draft weekend: The team nabbed Central Florida speedster Breshad Perriman with pick No. 26 and traded up for Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams in Round 2. The two new weapons, designed to offset the losses of Torrey Smith and Owen Daniels in free agency, came just in time for another contract year—of sorts—for the starting quarterback. Flacco, who has led the team to the playoffs in six of his seven seasons, signed a six-year deal in 2013, with both sides expecting to be back at the negotiating table in three years. The contract was front-loaded in cash and back-loaded in cap, and with his cap hit spiking north of $28 million in 2016, the Ravens will look to work out an extension after this season. The last time Flacco faced a contract year, of course, he won a Super Bowl.
—Jenny Vrentas (@JennyVrentas)
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77. Tom Coughlin, Head Coach, New York Giants
The 68-year-old Giants coach signed a one-year contract extension in March, running through 2016. But while the organization’s policy has been not to send their head coach into a season as a lame duck, it’s no secret that Tom Coughlin’s future depends on success in 2015. “He knows that his legacy is kind of on the line here,” co-owner John Mara said in December, after the Giants finished 6-10, their second straight losing season. Coughlin has won two Super Bowls over the past eight seasons, but his teams have also missed the playoffs five of the past six years, an awkward paradox for both him and the team. The NFL’s oldest head coach has long been reluctant to put a timetable on his career, but what is for certain is that he wants to retire on his own terms. His ability to do that depends on this season.
—Jenny Vrentas (@JennyVrentas)
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76. Connor Cook, Quarterback, Michigan State University
He proved to be exactly what Michigan State needed under center, and passed up a possible spot in the first-round of the 2015 draft to play for a title in East Lansing. Just as Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota loomed over the 2014 NFL season for teams desperate for a quarterback, such clubs will keep a close eye on the early front-runner to be the first quarterback taken in the 2016 draft. FULL STORY
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75. Jimmy Haslam, Owner, Cleveland Browns
Jimmy Haslam is certainly not afraid to spend what it takes to get things right. Beyond predictable player turnover, Haslam burned through a coaching staff (led by Rob Chudzinski) and his top two football executives (Joe Banner and Michael Lombardi) in one year. Emblematic of a new breed of increasingly impatient owners, Haslam is now paying tens of millions in collective salaries to non-player personnel no longer with the team. His impatience may manifest itself most publicly regarding the Browns’ quarterback situation. Although Cleveland used the valuable currency of a first-round pick on Johnny Manziel in 2014, it has since (1) signed Josh McCown to be the team’s presumptive starter, (2) tried unsuccessfully to maneuver into position to draft Marcus Mariota and (3) made repeated inquiries—first to the Rams, then to the Eagles—about acquiring Sam Bradford. NFL officials and owners welcomed Haslam into the membership, citing his substantial funds (truck stops, who knew?) and impressive bloodlines (his brother is governor of Tennessee). After two years of headlines for all the wrong reasons (including his company, Pilot Flying J, paying a $92 million criminal penalty for cheating customers out of promised rebates and discounts), Haslam is on the spot to improve the Browns’ product. He will continue to take big swings—he tried to woo Jim Harbaugh to become the Browns coach before hiring Mike Pettine—in his impatient approach to reward a restless fan base.
—Andrew Brandt (@ADBrandt)
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74. Matthew Stafford, Quarterback, Detroit Lions
Year Two in Jim Caldwell’s offense has the makings of a defining season for Matthew Stafford. He was supposed to improve in accuracy playing under Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, but statistically he held steady (his completion percentage, 60.3, hovered just above his career average of 59.6) as Calvin Johnson was sidelined by injuries and the interior offensive line fell apart. Caldwell defended his quarterback last winter, citing some roster deficiencies: “He hangs in there, and there may be one he’d like to have back, but then there’s a couple others, or one other, that’s probably not all his fault.” Stafford also made up for some mistakes by leading five fourth-quarter comebacks, some in spectacular fashion, tops during the regular season. Johnson is back and healthy, and LG Rob Sims and C Dominic Raiola are gone, to be replaced by some combination of veteran Manny Ramirez (acquired from Denver), 2014 third-round pick Travis Swanson and 2015 first-rounder Laken Tomlinson. Headlined by Johnson and Golden Tate, last year’s free-agent prize, the Lions spend more on wide receivers than anybody in the NFL by a wide margin. And Stafford’s own cap hit of $17.7 million is the eighth-biggest in the NFL, more than Peyton Manning and just below Aaron Rodgers, two guys who don’t deal in excuses for leaky rosters. All that eaten-up cap space was a big reason why the Lions were unable to retain the elite interior defensive line tandem of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. With expectations lowered on the defensive side of the ball, a heftier burden will fall onto Stafford and his right arm.
—Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko)
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73. Dirk Koetter, Offensive Coordinator, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
He’s the man tasked with tailoring Jameis Winston into franchise-quarterback form, and fast. With Tampa going all-in on the electrifying (and controversial) Winston, the 56-year-old Koetter has no margin for error. The offensive coordinator struggled with rookie Blaine Gabbert and the Jaguars in 2011 and needs to prove those failures were due to circumstance, not his ability to develop young QBs. He is coming off a solid three-year run with Atlanta, but the Bucs provide a much different challenge. Tampa has one of the league’s youngest offenses—according to the Philly Voice’s annual calculations, the Bucs’ average starter is 25.73—and Koetter is trying to create something durable while squeezing the most out of the talented but at times erratic Winston. All eyes may be on Winston this fall, but Koetter will feel equal, if not more, pressure.
—Emily Kaplan (@EmilyMKaplan)
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72. Colin Kaepernick, Quarterback, San Francisco 49ers
Colin Kaepernick has always had limitations: iffy mechanics, a lack of pocket patience and poise, erratic accuracy due to a proclivity for rifling the ball at full might regardless of the situation, etc. Very early in his career, these limitations were managed by a shrewd run-oriented scheme under Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, and they were often camouflaged by Kaepernick’s lethal long-striding mobility. Though Kaepernick’s rushing numbers increased last season, his mobility overall had less of an impact on games (there were more scrambles, fewer read-options). Defenses capitalized. Kaepernick’s numbers—19 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, sacked 52 times—were the worst of his career, as the Niners missed the playoffs for the only time in Harbaugh’s four-year tenure. Now Harbaugh is gone, and Roman has been replaced by QBs coach Geep Chryst, who figures to have carte blanche over the offense under new head coach Jim Tomsula. Chryst most likely will run a more rudimentary system, leaving Kaepernick with more defined reads, removing “quarterback decision-making” from the equation. Here, Kaepernick can rely on his athleticism. To propagate this approach, GM Trent Baalke signed wide receiver Torrey Smith, who gives the offense a newfound vertical speed element (but only that) to lift safeties deep, helping clarify coverages for the QB. And then there’s the multidimensional Reggie Bush, who at 30 isn’t quite what he used to be but is still dynamic enough to make defenses scheme around him. Bush’s versatility will also help define looks for Kaepernick. The circumstances are in place for Kaepernick to succeed. If he doesn’t, that considerably team-friendly contract he signed a year ago could get torn up.
—Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit)
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71. Todd Gurley, Running Back, St. Louis Rams
It’s hard to believe the two-year drought without a running back drafted in the first round ended with a player five months removed from ACL surgery. But that’s the kind of talent Todd Gurley is. The combination of power and speed he showed during three seasons at Georgia led some NFL evaluators to proclaim him the best thing to come out of a college backfield since Adrian Peterson—and convinced the Rams to rank him No. 1 overall on their draft board. “You can’t teach the things he was doing,” former Bulldogs teammate Malcolm Mitchell says. “Watching tape won’t even help you prepare for playing against him. His power, his speed—he was jumping over people. Everything about his game was impressive.” The Rams eagerly made Gurley the No. 10 pick on draft night, believing they can build an offense around him. Now the question is, will he and his knee be able to live up to the lofty expectations, and how soon?
—Jenny Vrentas (@JennyVrentas)