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Connor Cook, Christian Hackenberg, Cardale Jones lead 2016 QB draft class

The gangly kid with big dreams couldn't contain his curiosity in March. Whenever he found himself strolling next to Jameis Winston, he'd rack his brain for questions to hurl at the former Florida State star in rapid-fire style. He sidled up to Winston one afternoon to ask how defenses attacked the All-American quarterback one year after winning the Heisman. He sat down with Winston at lunch to learn how NFL decision-makers grill top prospects at the combine. More than anything, he wanted to know about surprises, specifically those that came with being under the microscope as a potential first-round draft pick.

It wasn't that Michigan State's Connor Cook was suffering from an acute case of being starstruck during those training sessions in San Diego with quarterback guru George Whitfield. After all, Cook was the offensive most valuable player in the 2014 Rose Bowl and a second-team All-Big Ten choice as a junior last season. It's just that he knew how fortunate he was to be able to learn from the soon-to-be No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft.

"Connor wasn't afraid to ask questions," Whitfield said. "It was like he was trying to compute all this information in his mind so he could be ready when his time comes."

Cook's time will be here in roughly 11 months, when the 2016 draft nears. He might also be sharing the spotlight with two other quarterbacks who are creating buzz as potential first-round picks in next year's class: Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Ohio State's Cardale Jones. It's easier to focus on Cook at the moment because, unlike the other two signal-callers, he's heading into his senior year. But if Hackenberg and Jones do enough in their junior seasons -- and decide to enter the draft -- they could have NFL scouts salivating next spring.

Cook's maturation, coupled with the rise of both Hackenberg and Jones, won't just mean the Big Ten could have a quarterback selected in the first round of the draft for the first time since Penn State's Kerry Collins was picked No. 5 overall by the Carolina Panthers in 1995. It also could be a revealing moment for the pro game itself, a time when we learn just how much NFL teams still cherish signal-callers with pro-style skills. In recent years, the spread offense has dominated college football and made the already-dicey task of evaluating quarterbacks even more difficult. The professional struggles of successful college spread players such as Cleveland's Johnny Manziel, the New York Jets' Geno Smith, Washington's Robert Griffin III and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick have made some NFL decision-makers pine for quarterbacks with more traditional talents.

Even in a league in which more offenses than ever are featuring multiple receivers and shotgun formations (both staples of the spread), there continues to be a belief that pro-style is where it's at when it comes to drafting quarterbacks.

As one AFC quarterbacks coach said, "If you ask most people in this league, all things being equal, they'd take a pro-style guy over a spread quarterback. When you look at our league, not many run-around quarterbacks have won. You can say [Seattle's] Russell Wilson did it, but how much do they really ask him to do? The top quarterbacks in this league make plays from the pocket."

When asked about assessing spread quarterbacks, Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians lamented over their shortcomings.

"So many times, you're evaluating a quarterback who has never called a play in the huddle [or] used a snap count," he said. "They hold up a card on the sideline, [the quarterback] kicks his foot and throws the ball. That ain't playing quarterback. There's no leadership involved there. There might be leadership on the bench, but when you get them, and they have to use verbiage, and they have to spit the verbiage out and change the snap count, they are light years behind."

Cook's biggest appeal is that he has been immersed in pro-style concepts from the day he entered college. Whitfield has been working with Cook since he was a redshirt freshman mired in the third spot on Michigan's State's depth chart. Back then, Whitfield remembers Cook as a long, 6-foot-4 teen trying to learn how best to control his body. Today, Whitfield sees a 220-pound leader who "has great physical maturity, a throwing motion that is less shotgun and more automatic weapon and whose confidence has skyrocketed." Over the past two seasons, Cook has thrown 46 touchdowns passes and 14 interceptions for a team that has gone 23-3 when he starts.

The 6-foot-4, 236-pound Hackenberg threw for 2,995 yards and 20 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013. Hackenberg threw only 12 touchdown passes with 15 interceptions last year -- a decline that had plenty do with a bad offensive line and a new playbook -- but the expectations are sky high for him again. UMass head coach Mark Whipple, a former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks coach, compared Hackenberg to Ben Roethlisberger last year and told reporters that Hackenberg would've been the first player picked in the 2014 draft had he been eligible after his freshman year. Said one AFC scout: "I've seen all three of these guys, and Hack is the best talent."

If Hackenberg is the most talented, then Jones is easily the most intriguing. Few people outside of Ohio knew his name until the Buckeyes lost starting quarterback Braxton Miller and second-stringer J.T. Barrett to injuries last season. All Jones did was lead Ohio State to wins in the Big Ten title game, the national semifinal and the national championship game. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, Jones displayed so much poise, pocket presence and jaw-dropping arm strength in his only three starts that Whitfield said, "I had an NFL offensive coordinator tell me that he would've been a second-round pick in this year's draft based off those performances."

Said one AFC general manager: "He's raw and not as refined as an intermediate passer, but he can drop the ball in between corners and safeties. Teams in this league will take note of that and take a chance on him if he continues to grow. People say he doesn't have enough experience. I say he played well in the conference championship, the national semis and national title game. That's more big-game experience than most guys get in a career."

Not long ago, the idea that three Big Ten passers could potentially be so attractive to NFL teams would've been an unlikely one, given that the conference was supposedly falling behind the rest of college football when it came to offense. The more the spread grew in the Big 12 and Pac-12, the more stodgy the Big Ten looked with its statuesque, game-managing quarterbacks. Despite the fact that three of the game's top quarterbacks hail from the conference -- Seattle's Wilson (Wisconsin), New England's Tom Brady (Michigan) and New Orleans' Drew Brees (Purdue) -- the prevailing sentiment was that most of the best quarterbacks were growing up in the spread. What has become more apparent in recent years is that the Big Ten may be retro enough to be back in style.

Quarterbacks who have exposure to pro-style passing concepts (such as Cook and Hackenberg) or have shown the potential to thrive in such a system (Jones) still have a leg up in the looks department. Whitfield said this is so obvious that he sees "a panic" in spread offense quarterbacks who come under his tutelage before the draft.

"The first thing they all say to me when I get them is, 'Let's work on [dropbacks],'" Whitfield said of players who lack experience with the most basic component of being an NFL quarterback -- taking snaps under center. "It's definitely on all their minds."

You don't have to look further than the first two picks of the 2015 draft to see how evaluators are thinking. "You can see that the bias towards pro-style quarterbacks never really left the NFL," said former NFL quarterbacks coach Terry Shea, who trained Griffin and Detroit's Matthew Stafford prior to their drafts. "Jameis Winston could've easily been a Big Ten quarterback because he's not a spread-option guy. And if you had this discussion last year about the best quarterback in the draft, Marcus Mariota was the front-runner. But despite all of Winston's problems off the field, he eventually left Mariota in the dust in the evaluation process. That's what pro-style exposure can do for a quarterback."

Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider says a big problem with the spread is that it's difficult to tell how well the quarterback can process plays mentally. "Can he get the information? Can he express it to his teammates? Can he read a defense? That's pretty intense stuff," Schneider said. "It's like learning a whole language. ... It's hard to evaluate those players at the college level when you are at a game and they are looking at cards with colors and turtles and stuff. You have no idea what they are doing, as opposed to watching guys line up under center, read a defense and check out of a play."

Pro-style quarterbacks also are more attractive to NFL teams because they have the potential to do what every team loves: get rid of the ball quickly and accurately. The best signal-callers in the league don't just possess lightning-fast releases. They also understand how to anticipate where a passing window might appear instead of waiting for one to develop. Players from spread offenses that haven't been exposed to such concepts often find this to be the hardest transition in their maturation at the next level.

Explains Shea: "The big thing we're talking about here is speed of the game. It's about the quarterback being able to see and pull the trigger [on throws] with anticipation. In the NFL, you don't have time, so you have to fit the ball into tight spaces. But in the college game, quarterbacks get used to waiting for a receiver to break open because the field is so spread out. Getting used to waiting that one-half second to throw is where the issues start in the NFL."

Of the three top prospects mentioned here, Jones is the only one who has spent his entire college career in a spread offense. Even though he ran far less than Miller or Barrett, he certainly benefited from outstanding game-planning and an offense tailored to fit his skill set. Hackenberg, on the other hand, spent his first year at Penn State playing for Bill O'Brien, who served as Tom Brady's quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for three years in New England and now works as head coach of the Houston Texans. Even though he now plays in a spread system under Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin, Hackenberg has gained plenty of exposure to pro-style concepts.

Cook is coming from a Michigan State program that has quietly done a nice job of preparing its starters for the next level. Three former Spartans quarterbacks -- Arizona's Drew Stanton, Washington's Kirk Cousins and Houston's Brian Hoyer -- are currently in the NFL and have starts under their belts. Cook is easily the most talented of that group, but he has gained the same perspective on the position as the others. In other words, he knows that playing quarterback in the league isn't just about how skilled you are. It's about how well you play within yourself.

"[Michigan State] may not push the ball down the field at the same rate as other programs, but the understanding of the position is there." Whitfield said. "Connor isn't just lining up and playing football. He's got to figure out if they're in the right protection. He has to ask himself what happens if the defense blitzes in a certain situation. He has to know what play to check to if the coverage changes. The quarterbacks that come out of that program have the functioning mechanics teams want. They're doing what quarterbacks do at the NFL level."

The next big hurdle the top quarterback prospects will face involves the scrutiny that will descend upon them over the next eight months. Jones already had to make a decision about whether he would stay at Ohio State for another year, and he's also still battling for that team's starting job. Given how he finished last season, the odds seem to be in his favor -- "If I had to guess, I would [pick] Cardale just because his momentum is going uphill right now," said former Ohio State wide receiver Devin Smith, who was drafted by the Jets in the second round last week. Jones would have more tough choices to make if he drifts back down the depth chart. That job, by the way, won't be decided until late summer.

Hackenberg must produce better numbers than he did in his sophomore campaign, while Cook needs to maintain the consistency that has become his calling card. These three players aren't expected to create controversy off the field in the ways Winston and Johnny Manziel did in their final college seasons, but living under the microscope will test their psyches.

"When you evaluate quarterbacks, you can't just look at it like one guy is better than another," said the AFC quarterbacks coach. "You have to factor personalities into it. You have to ask yourself if a kid has a great football IQ. Does he swing first in a fight? Is he really mentally tough? Once you get past the arm strength and the size and all the measurable stuff, that's when the conversation really starts about these guys."

The 2016 draft may be a long way off, but this trio already is reigniting the conversation about pro-style prospects versus those who thrive in the spread. They definitely will have more competition from other parts of the country once next year's draft rolls around -- USC's Cody Kessler, Cal's Jared Goff and North Dakota State's Carson Wentz are also high on the radars of NFL's scouts -- but there's little question they are the early darlings of this latest class. So as Cook prepares for his fourth summer of working with Whitfield in San Diego, he'd better brace for something that comes with his rising status. When this year's session kicks off, he'll be taking far more questions than he'll be asking.