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Top QBs ward off their weak points as combine circus begins

From small hands to leadership questions, three of the draft’s top QBs had some unique hurdles to clear when they met the media at the NFL combine.

INDIANAPOLIS — Dispatches from day two of the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium, when the top-rated quarterbacks got the spotlight treatment in the meet-the-media stage of the proceedings. Here are some quick-take perceptions of three potential first-round passers and how they played their introduction to the silly season before the cameras and notepads, two days before they hit the field for the more important stuff. (Memphis QB Paxton Lynch, who also may be bound for Round 1, has yet to make his media room appearance at the combine.) ...

• When it comes to the issue of Connor Cook’s supposed lack of leadership skills, it seems to me that there’s practically no there, there. Michigan State’s all-time winningest passer is eager to correct the “misconceptions” that exist about his reputation for being a less-than-stellar teammate, but it’s always possible the story is mostly a creation of the media, with one misperception leading to another and quickly giving way to a narrative that doesn’t really exist.

That’s never happened before, right?

Like the knock that Cook couldn’t have been highly thought of by his teammates because he wasn’t named a captain for his full senior season. As it turns out, Cook was named a captain for four of the Spartans’ games, and they were pretty much the four biggest of the year: MSU’s opener against Oregon, its game against Ohio State, the Big Ten title game against Iowa, and the national semifinal against Alabama. Somebody must have thought he had a little something on the leadership front.

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“We had a great group of leaders that were seniors,” said Cook, who handled every red-flag question in a direct, non-defensive manner. “We had a leadership council of 12 guys, and they would pick, each and every week, a different guy in that council, which I was in, to be a captain. I was selected for four games. Usually only guys get selected once throughout the season.

“We had a lot of leaders on that team. We had 22 seniors, I believe, and we had the leadership council, like I said. If you want to go back and talk to any of my teammates and ask them if I was a great leader, they would say yes. But it’s an understandable question: Why wasn’t he captain? I’ll just be completely honest with them.”

That burst of honesty also should be able to clear up Cook’s so-called “snub” of former Ohio State two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin during the MVP trophy presentation at the Big Ten title game, an incident Cook said he wasn’t even aware of until well after the fact, when he was getting dinged for it on social media. He later apologized to Griffin and admitted it made for a bad look on television, but Cook said there was absolutely no intent to embarrass or ignore Griffin.

I find it hard to believe that NFL scouts are really going to care about a postgame incident that displayed no malice on anyone’s part, but it did feed into the negative image of Cook not being as aware and on top of every part of his game at all times.

Cook was asked what he thinks the misconceptions are when it comes to his character.

“That I’m a cocky football player, arrogant, stuff like that,” he said. “And it couldn’t be further from the truth. That’s why I’m looking forward to sitting down with these teams and let them find out who the real Connor Cook is. That I’m a nice, humble, hard-working kid.

“I think I can settle those in the team meetings with the teams, with the coaches, with the GMs. Let them know who I am as a person. ... Anything I can do to show them that I’m not just a good football player, I’m mentally sound. I know the game inside and out and I’m just a complete football player.”

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Here’s what the league most wants to know about Cook about now, and what may determine whether he’ll sneak into the bottom third of the first round in late April: Is the throwing shoulder he hurt late in the season, which prompted him to skip the Senior Bowl, completely sound and ready for him to throw his best, as he hopes to do here on Saturday when the quarterbacks work out? If his arm delivers this weekend, it’ll overwhelm most of the other chatter that surrounds Cook. A strong combine showing could entice teams like the Jets at No. 20, the Texans at No. 22, the Cardinals at No. 29 or the Browns at No. 32 to consider Cook (if Cleveland ignored its quarterback need with the No. 2 pick).

“That’s a big question, too, a lot of people are asking that,” Cook said. “I want to prove to everyone. Because I’m going to go out there, I’m going to throw, I’m going to compete and show to everyone that it’s 100%. There’s no issues, no problems and I’m going to go out there and sling it.”

If he slings it well, Cook might just manage to throw off all those half-baked misconceptions that have been following him around.

• It was somewhere between a sneer and a chuckle, but I liked the way Jared Goff got his message across from the podium on Thursday. After his third or fourth hands-related question, Goff had heard enough. In case you missed it, the Cal quarterback’s hands measured only nine inches from thumb to pinky here at the measurables-happy combine, which isn’t exactly tiny, but isn’t the optimum 10-inch range that the NFL prefers its quarterbacks to have.

Oh, the humiliation of it all.

“I’ve played football my whole life and never had any problem with that,” Goff said, as if the history of his entire career should matter when it comes to what the NFL deems best. “I just heard about [my hands measurement] yesterday. I’ve been told I have pretty big hands my whole life. I heard I have small hands yesterday apparently. I’ve never had a problem with that or expect it to be a problem at all.”

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But what about your fumbles, Jared? You lost 23 of them in your three-year career with the Bears, undoubtedly because your hands lacked that 10th inch of wingspan.

“I mean, I don’t know,” Goff said, barely concealing his disgust. “How many did I have this year?”

Four, came the answer. “Four? That’s pretty good. My freshman year we went 1–11, so it wasn’t going very well. I probably had a bunch that year. But I think I improved on that, if I had 23 total, and had four this year.”

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Of course, to be fair, there is some difference of opinion on the whole hand-size issue in the NFL. New Browns coach Hue Jackson, who might well take the first quarterback in this year’s draft, said Wednesday that big hands are very important to him when he’s evaluating passers, because it gives them the ability to better grip and throw the ball in bad weather conditions. Like the ones that tend to prevail late in the season on the shores of Lake Erie.

Goff no doubt leans more toward the opinion prevalent in the NFL’s other Ohio city, Cincinnati. Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin downplayed the importance of the hand measurement, calling it “a little bit useless.” Tobin said: “When you shake a guy’s hand, you know whether or not if they have a big hand or not.”

Showing a little bit of an edge to him, Goff treated the hands issue with all the seriousness it deserved here, but still managed to stop short of telling the media to get a grip. I really don’t grade much of what goes on at the combine every year, but I give him high points on both of those fronts. Now we get to see if the throwing arm that’s connected to that not-quite-up-to-snuff hand makes everyone forget what we were even debating.

• There was nothing not to like in what I heard from Carson Wentz during his 11-minute-plus media session Thursday afternoon. He was polished, comfortable in the spotlight, and exuded a sense of confidence and calm. He seems to be enjoying his combine experience, and if there’s anything overwhelming about his trip to the Underwear Olympics, it certainly didn’t show from the podium.

Not that succeeding on this stage will necessarily translate to whether the North Dakota State quarterback can cut it in the NFL on game days, but taking a serious step up in weight class doesn’t seem to be too big for Wentz in terms of the off-field part of the job. His strong Senior Bowl showing behind him, he’s convinced he’ll continue his momentum in Saturday’s QB workouts. He doesn’t burn with the necessity to be seen as the draft’s consensus No. 1-rated quarterback, but he knows he belongs.

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“I believe in myself,” Wentz said. “I’m confident. I believe in myself to be a franchise quarterback. (But) I think first and foremost, you’ve got to win. Being a winner in the NFL, that will take you places for sure. For me, coming from North Dakota State, my track record speaks for itself as a winner (43–3 in the past three seasons). So when I think of a franchise quarterback, not only do I think of the physical ability, but I think of being a winner, winning ball games, taking command, being a leader—all of those things really come to mind.”

All that said, in the case of Wentz, Goff, Cook and the other leading quarterback prospects at this year’s combine, I came away from Thursday’s media availabilities convinced that none of this year’s first-round contenders will likely walk in the door of whatever club that drafts them as a day-one, slam-dunk starter. This quarterback class may wind up being a very good one, but it’s going to take some time and some development. And it’s definite that none of these guys will hit the league with the big-time sizzle factor of Cam Newton in 2011, or Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III in 2012, or Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota in 2015. That’s just not in the cards in this year’s draft.

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Wentz correctly pointed out that quarterbacks like Joe Flacco (Delaware) and Tony Romo (Eastern Illinois) have come out of the ranks of the FCS and had long, successful careers in the NFL despite their small-school background, and he may well join them in that distinction. But initially at least, it doesn’t feel like the cream of this year’s quarterback crop will move the needle much in terms of being the face of their franchises, at least not at the level we’ve seen from many recent first-round quarterbacks.

If Wentz goes in the top two picks, he’ll be the highest drafted player ever coming out of the FCS. But he refuses to take public aim at being the first quarterback selected, making it clear that the where is more important than the when in regards to the launch of his NFL career.

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“As a competitor everybody wants to be the top guy, no doubt about it,” he said. “But what matters to me is the team that picks me believes in me. I want to go in somewhere they believe in myself to be that franchise quarterback, whether right away or down the road. That’s what’s important to me. I want to go into a good situation, get good coaching and keep playing ball.”

Alas, quarterbacks who get taken near the top of the draft rarely go into good situations. Just ask any Browns fan. But Wentz has already beaten long odds just to get to this point, and maybe his hot streak continues. In this year’s quarterback class, nothing seems entirely certain.