Connor Cook makes progress for Raiders but must show well in pivotal preseason

Connor Cook makes progress for Raiders but must show well in pivotal preseason

Raiders reserve quarterback Connor Cook lofted a pass high enough to float over a linebacker, with proper arc to fall in front of a charging safety and into Griff Whalen’s waiting arms.

That’s exactly how you’d draw it up, from decision to accurate pass to completion that gained significant yards.

The same can be said of a strike to Martavis Bryant a few reps later in Wednesday’s joint practice with the Lions, when Cook launched a deep shot that capitalized on Bryant’s coverage-busting speed and reached him in stride for an easy touchdown .

Those moments have been relatively rare during since the Raiders traded up to draft Cook in 2016’s fourth round. The Michigan State alum has been the Raiders’ No. 3 quarterback, behind Matt McGloin in 2016 and EJ Manuel last year.

His only game action came in a playoff loss at Houston two seasons back, an unfair predicament for a rookie who barely took practice reps with the Raiders offense during the regular season.

He lost an open competition with Manuel for last year’s job, and watched as the veteran took over when Derek Carr suffered transverse process fractures in his back. Manuel completed a game at Denver, and started against Baltimore the following week.

That wasn’t the professional beginning Cook expected. There was talk of him going early in the 2016 draft, but he took a bit of a tumble and then ended up on a team with a young, established starter.

Not ideal. Neither is coaching-staff and scheme instability. Cook is one his third OC /quarterback coach combo in as many seasons. That can stunt growth, especially with limited practice reps while lower on the depth chart.

“You’re starting from scratch,” Cook said in an interview with NBC Sports Bay Area. “There was a new system waiting for me as a rookie. Coach Downing used the same scheme but added some tweaks. Now there’s another new system. Everyone’s made a conscious effort to learn it and master it.

“It is very challenging, but it’s the job and I’m going to do it well.”

Cook has been doing well working under head coach Jon Gruden, coordinator Greg Olson and position coach Brian Callahan. We’ve seen practice moments like those described above more often than before, especially in this training camp.

Gruden in particular has impressed by Cook, someone he liked coming out of Michigan State.

“He’s made great strides,” Gruden said. “Since he stepped foot here in Napa, he hasn’t turned the ball over. He’s made good decisions. He audibled two or three times today to big plays. He’s throwing the ball short, medium and deep accurately and he’s showed really good command, and this will be a really good test for him Friday night. He’ll get a good amount of playing time.”

Cook will play a bunch in the exhibition opener versus Detroit and throughout the preseason. It’s a vital stretch for 25 year old, one where he must show progress. Once the regular season starts, Cook’s reps will dry up. He must capitalize on increased opportunity and show better play.

“It’s huge. Every year it gets more important, as your career goes on,” Cook said. “Anytime you get a chance to play, you have to put out good film. Anything can happen.”

Cook’s first order of business is winning the backup job over Manuel. He doesn’t think about the competition at all, but understands solid practice and play could increase his standing over years past.

He can fare well in practice, but game performance matters most to this coaching staff when deciding Carr’s primary backup.

“It’s an import a three-and-a-half week stretch that EJ and Connor are going to have,” Callahan said. “These games are how you make the evaluation. There are several elements that go into the depth chart, but it’s ultimately about how you play. Do you move the team, get first downs and score points? Those things happen when you prepare well, but we want them to go play and show how much progress they’ve really made.”

Callahan dug deep getting to know Cook’s play, and what he needed to improve. There isn’t much game tape to go on in recent seasons, so he reviewed all of his practice reps and preseason efforts. He even went back to watch Cook’s college tape to better understand a physically gifted player with untapped potential.

Callahan has been with Cook since April, and believes he’s more accurate and is making smarter choices. Nothing matters if the ball isn’t delivered appropriately, and strides have been made there.

“There were some things he had to fix (to improve accuracy) and he has,” Callahan said. “A lot of times accuracy for quarterbacks is about footwork and body placement. Those are things you can improve.”

Cook credits this new staff with helping the mental side of his game. Working with offensive coaches can be tough – Gruden especially can be hard on quarterbacks – but have him seeing things clearer.

“I’m better in my reads, in my decision-making,” Cook said. “I’m seeing the field better and understanding protections and opposing defenses. They do a good job of teaching me why we want to run a certain play. It makes it so much easier when you know why.”

Understanding why and what he’s supposed to do has helped get the ball out faster, an issue in previous year’s practices, which still shows up on occasion. Coaches will continue working on Cook’s development, even with an important decision on the No. 2 job coming quick.

“He has made a lot of progress,” Callahan said. “I’ve been impressed with how him and EJ both approach their job. They’re always geared toward getting better. It’s not always easy around here. Jon challenges those guys. He isn’t easy to be around sometimes, because we’re always testing them and pushing them. Connor has done well. “

NFL draft: Could Raiders be trying to trade up for Kyler Murray?

NFL draft: Could Raiders be trying to trade up for Kyler Murray?

With six days to go until the 2019 NFL Draft,  Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock reportedly closed their ranks, sending all of their lower-tier scouts home due to a lack of trust. 

It makes sense for the Raiders to send people home for a few reasons, mainly the fact that they have all the information they need and now it's up to Gruden and Mayock to make the decisions.

But, what if the Silver and Black want secrecy for a different reason? What if there's a prospect who likely will be selected before the Raiders are on the clock at No. 4, that Gruden and Mayock want to try and maneuver a trade to go up and get? An electric quarterback who dazzled during his lone season as a college starter and has all the tools to be successful in the modern NFL.

Kyler Murray.

Of course, the prevailing thought is that the Arizona Cardinals will select Murray with the No. 1 overall pick and jettison quarterback Josh Rosen to parts unknown. But reports leaked Thursday that the Raiders could make a "big move" for Murray, and now it makes a little more sense that Mayock and Gruden shuttered themselves in with only the trusted surrounding them. 

After an underwhelming first season in Gruden's offense, many have wondered how long Derek Carr would remain the quarterback in Oakland. While Mayock and Gruden have offered some support for the 28-year-old signal-caller, it hasn't been overwhelming, at all. 

In fact, despite Mayock and Gruden claiming Carr is their guy, the Raiders met with Murray and worked him out in Dallas earlier this month.

It's actually pretty well known that both Mayock and Gruden love Murray.

To be fair, what's not to love?

During his lone season as the starter at Oklahoma, Murray captivated the college football world, throwing for 4,361 yards and 42 touchdowns while also rushing for 1,001 yards and 12 touchdowns en route to winning the Heisman Trophy.

Plain and simple, Murray would be the perfect quarterback for the Raiders' revamped offense.

After adding Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, J.J. Nelson and offensive tackle Trent Brown, the Raiders are in need of a dynamic quarterback who can extend plays with his legs and utilize the team's new field-stretching weapons by taking down-field shots.

Last season at Oklahoma, Murray averaged 11.6 yards per pass and a ridiculous 16.8 yards per competition. He was the very definition of a stretch-the-field passer.

Compare that to Carr, who averaged 7.3 yards per pass and 10.6 yards per completion last season, and it's easy to see why the Raiders might be looking to make a splash. Sure, Carr's numbers could be the result of lesser down-field weapons, or perhaps the Fresno State product just isn't as confident in going downfield as he needs to be in the modern NFL.

Carr, 28, was an MVP candidate in 2016, but he has failed to take the next step in his progression over the past two seasons. During that time, Carr has completed 66 percent of his passes while accumulating a 41-to-23 touchdown to interception ratio. Carr is a solid NFL quarterback, but he doesn't have the upside and playmaking ability that Murray does and perhaps a fresh start would do him good.

In today's wide-open NFL, a mobile, playmaking quarterback and a star receiver can take you a long way. Just ask Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and the Kansas City Chiefs. The very thing a number of NFL teams are trying to replicate now.

If Gruden and Mayock really are as in love with Murray as it appears, perhaps they closed ranks in order to try and work out a trade with the Cardinals, knowing that should it fall through, they can deny and throw their weight back behind Carr.

[RELATED: Boom or bust? Some options for Raiders in first round of NFL draft]

With four picks in the top 35, the Raiders have enough ammunition to move around in a number of ways. Until recently, it's been believed they would focus on rebuilding their defense early in the draft, but perhaps Gruden has his eyes on a bigger prize than Quinnen Williams or Nick Bosa. Perhaps he has his eyes on the star who was supposed to be patrolling center field at the same Coliseum the Raiders will call home for one more season.

Murray has all the tools a quarterback needs in the modern NFL, and there's no doubt Gruden has thought about the 5-foot-10 signal-caller tossing long touchdowns to Brown for the foreseeable future.

If the infatuation is real, only one question remains: Can the Raiders do what is needed to go get Kyler Murray?

Boom or bust: Some best, scariest options for Raiders' first-round picks


Boom or bust: Some best, scariest options for Raiders' first-round picks

Raiders general manager Mike Mayock wants four foundational players from this NFL draft. Finding them is far easier near the top, where the Raiders have three first-round picks.

He and head coach Jon Gruden have to hit at an above average rate even with all that draft capital, which could increase with a trade down at either No. 4, 24, 27 or 35.

The defense needs serious help almost everywhere, and the offense has specific holes to plug as the 2019 season encroaches. Every upgrade-worthy position won’t get addressed in one draft, but they have to make the most of selections they do make.

Will the Raiders land some boom picks or busts in the first round? We’ll choose a few options at each first-round pick that could end up like Khalil Mack or, JaMar—well, the quarterback who shall not be named.

No. 4 overall

NOTE: We’re going to set some rules at No. 4 to think outside the box a bit: The Raiders love Ohio State edge rusher Nick Bosa as a producer and scheme fit, but we’ll assume he’s gone in the top three. We’ll take Quinnen Williams away as well to make things interesting, even though we think the interior defensive lineman is a sure thing and would be the pick if he’s sitting there at four.

Boom?: LB Devin White, LSU The do-it-all linebacker doesn’t fill a glaring need here, but the Raiders need to take the best player available wherever possible to strengthen this roster long term. If Bosa and Williams are gone – they have been eliminated as options for this story – and the Raiders don’t like options to trade down, White could be a dynamic, safe selection at No. 4.

He has great playing speed, hits hard, isn’t afraid to blitz and can cover tight ends. The Raiders haven’t had a player like that in the middle for years, and he could lead this Raiders defense for years. Sure, the Raiders have Vontaze Burfict and Brandon Marshall, but those veterans aren’t long-term answers and shouldn’t stop the Raiders from taking someone who seems to be a surefire NFL standout at No. 4. While the team’s primary focus at No. 4 hones on a few prospects or trade down, White could offer great value and Jon Gruden-like tenacity at an important position.

Bust?: OLB/DE Josh Allen, Kentucky Before we all freak out at this selection and tag him with this link on social media, let’s make this clear: Josh Allen should be an excellent pro. He has the size, speed, and pass-rush ability and work ethic to succeed in this league. But…would that happen with the Raiders? Is he a perfect scheme fit? Probably not. Analysts say he’s better suited for a 3-4 defense as a standup outside linebacker, where he could rush, stop the run and cover. While coordinator Paul Guenther is an innovative mind who can make any talented player work, this might not be a perfect pairing. Again, and I can’t say this enough, we’re talking bust POTENTIAL, with players consider worthy of the No. 4 pick. Those guys are almost always elite talents.

No. 24 overall

Boom?: RB Josh Jacobs, Alabama Taking runners in the first round can be a polarizing proposition, but Jacobs is a do-it-all player who would fit well as Jon Gruden’s feature back. He has power and acceleration to rush inside and out. He’s a solid receiver with some elusiveness in space. Analysts see potential in him as a pass protector. He also doesn’t have many carries to his credit, so he’s fresh and ready to assume a large workload. He’ll still get rest with Gruden’s preference of using several runners, but Jacobs could be an excellent lead back with plenty of touches in this scheme.

Bust?: DE Clelin Ferrell, Clemson The Raiders need edge rush help at some point early in the draft and would look to get one in the 20s if their top pick goes in a different direction. As with Allen, there’s a real possibility Ferrell develops into a solid, productive pro. After all, he was steadily productive at Clemson. But…if we’re playing devil’s advocate, he was playing on an awesome defensive line with intimidators everywhere. Also, Ferrell won’t wow you with athletic traits, creating some concern with how he’ll fare against the NFL’s best offensive tackles. He’s a 4-3 defensive end and would fit the scheme, but will great college production continue in the pros at a level worthy of a first-round pick?

[RELATED: Raiders send scouts home for lack of trust]

No. 27 overall

Boom?: CB Rock Ya Sin, Temple This aggressive cover man is tough, competitive as heck and has great ball skills. Does that sound like a Raiders cornerback, or what? The former wrestler can obviously mix it up at the line of scrimmage, and analysts say he’s good finding the ball in the air and making plays on it. He’ll play tough against the run and battle throughout a game. He could give the secondary some grit as the Raiders search for quality, depth and long-term solutions at an important position.

Bust?: Greedy Williams, LSU Williams has a lot of plus traits and an excellent first name for a cornerback. Analysts say he lacks play strength and has a thin frame. He’s could be a quality cover man, but there he’s not terribly physical. The Raiders like corners who tackle well and never give up.