Case Cookus takes?
That is right dear reader, we have Case Cookus takes.
With Daniel Jones firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback for the New York Giants, the organization did not feel the need to address the quarterback position during the 2020 NFL Draft. But they did add to the quarterback room, bringing on undrafted free agent Case Cookus from Northern Arizona.
Cookus enjoyed a stellar career for the Lumberjacks, who play in the Big Sky Conference at the FCS level. He was their starting quarterback from the moment he arrived on campus, and his first season as a college quarterback was a memorable one. Back in 2015 he threw for 3,111 yards and 37 touchdowns en route to winning the Jerry Rice Award, given to the most outstanding freshman in the FCS level. He was also named to the All-Big Sky First-Team. The Lumberjacks and Cookus were hoping to build on the success in his sophomore season, but Cookus suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in late September.
Cookus returned to the starting lineup for the beginning of the 2017 campaign, and he and NAU had a very productive campaign. Cookus threw for 3,413 yards and 22 touchdowns, with just six interceptions, and he led the Lumberjacks to the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2013. They were unfortunately bounced in the first round by San Diego, losing 41-10.
Just like 2016, the 2018 campaign ended early for Cookus. Again he suffered a season-ending injury in a game against Eastern Washington (just like 2016) to his shoulder while trying to run the football. So either Cookus has an “even-year” jinx, or he will be happy to see that EWU does not play games in the NFC East.
When he was injured back in 2016, it occurred early enough in the season that he could use a medical redshirt, which gave him an extra year of eligibility. In that final season, the 2019 campaign, Cookus had another productive year as a starting quarterback. He threw for 4,095 yards and 31 touchdowns, against just seven interceptions. The Lumberjacks, however, could not replicate their quarterback’s production and lumbered to a 4-8 finish.
This is a good time to share with the gentle readers a bit of the quarterback evaluation process, at least from where I sit. Every summer during the “summer scouting season” I cast a massively-wide net and evaluate as many potential draft prospects as I can. So back in the summer of 2017 while I was looking ahead to the 2018 draft, my research led me to Flagstaff Az., and the campus of Northern Arizona. I watched as much Cookus as I could get my hands on, including that playoff game against San DIego. In that contest I also got to study Anthony Lawrence, the quarterback for the Toreros. If you were wondering, this past season Lawrence spent the fall in Japan and came within two points of leading the Panasonic Impulse of Japan’s X-League to a championship.
Anyway, back to Cookus. When I studied him and his 2017 season, I came away with these basic impressions of him as a passer. On the plus side of the ledger I appreciated his ability to throw on the move, his ability to evade pressure in the pocket, his timing, rhythm and anticipation as a passer (especially when he could attack off coverage in the secondary), his footwork in the pocket, particularly his ability to click and climb the pocket in response to edge pressure, and his arm talent. In terms of what I wanted to see him improve upon, his ability to anticipate throw against tighter man coverage, his decision-making and ball security, and his accuracy were areas that I wanted to track over the rest of his career.
Now, he lost that 2018 campaign, so there was not much to study this past summer. But throughout this draft process, and now with the news the Giants are bringing him into their quarterback room, we can utilize the 2019 scouting notes.
Before highlighting some specific areas where he excels using film clips, some additional general observations on him. In terms of the areas I wanted to see improvement on, he did get better from 2017 to 2019 in terms of anticipating throws against man coverage. He also continues to throw well on the move, although he had a bad interception against Portland State when rolling to his right. He has the ability to drop his arm angle and throw from a variety of platforms, and he does a very good job at carrying out fakes after handing the football off.
What really stood out to me were some NFL reads, and some NFL throws.
Take this throw against Portland State:
The Lumberjacks face a second-and-8 on their own 45-yard line, with the football on the left hashmark. Cookus (No. 15) aligns in the pistol formation and carries out a play-fake, before opening up to the right side of the field to read this vertical passing concept. Before the play, the Portland State VIkings’ defense shows him a single-high look, but the defender over the slot receiver on the right rotates back to a safety position, as the Vikings rotate into a Cover 2 look. Cookus reads this perfectly and attacks the newly-created “Turkey Hole,” throwing the vertical route along the right sideline.
This is both an NFL read and an NFL throw. Cookus releases this off a three-step drop and a quick hitch, letting go of the football from the 39-yard line. This pass is thrown almost on a line and is caught at the Vikings’ 24-yard line, again along the right sideline. So in terms of just yardage, the ball travels 37 yards, but Pygthagoras would tell us that the actual distance on this throw is closer to 50 yards in the air.
Then there is this completion against the Vikings, where Cookus flashes the click and climb ability in the pocket before displaying his arm talent. Cookus has to get this over the trailing defender, but with enough velocity to drop it in before the receiver hits the sideline:
Honestly, when I first saw this play my mind went right to this moment from Super Bowl LI:
One of the best Brady throws in his career. Had to be thrown perfectly pic.twitter.com/sULkhHxS1w— Ahsoka fan (@TheBG_11) March 26, 2020
Now don’t get crazy, we are not making a Cookus to Tom Brady comparison, but the throws are similar.
Here is another example of Cookus diagnosing a post-snap rotation and making an “NFL read.” On this play against the Vikings, the Portland State defense shows him another single-high look before the snap. But as the play begins, they rotate into a Cover 2 shell. Cookus deciphers it and throws a bending vertical route from his tight end, working from left to right to attack the now vacant middle of the field:
Remember that hole shot along the right sideline from a few plays ago? I hope so, because it was not that long ago that you read about it and if you have forgotten already, well, we might have bigger problems than breaking down an undrafted quarterback coming out of the FCS level ...
Diversions aside, here is a similar read and throw from Cookus against Illinois State:
This time, the Lumberjacks use a variation of the “Ohio” concept, flashing a receiver to the flat on a stop route from the slot and pairing it with a vertical route along the boundary. Cookus is reading the cornerback here, and if he squats on the short route he will have a window to throw the boundary go pattern. Cookus influences the cornerback, using a slight shoulder fake to get him to squat, before drilling in the vertical route along the boundary before the safety can rotate over to cover that route.
Now, even with these NFL reads and throws on his resume, there are still going to be question marks. His decision-making could still stand to improve, as evidenced by the interceptions he threw last year including the one previously mentioned against Portland State. A pair of season-ending injuries is going to raise some questions as well. But behind Jones the Giants have Colt McCoy and Alex Tanney, and while Tanney has stuck around for a while in the organization Cookus might be a better fit for the offense than the more experienced player. No one is expecting Cookus to win the starting job, but his resume - and the throws like these - give him a shot at sticking on the roster. Which is all you can ask for from an undrafted free agent.