Allen Park — This wasn't the career envisioned for Connor Cook when he left Michigan State in 2016 as the school's all-time leader in passing yards, passing touchdowns and wins as a starting quarterback.
Many thought he'd be a first-round pick — mock drafts the days leading up to the event suggested as much — and those attributes that made him a winner at MSU would lead to a similarly prosperous professional career.
Instead, he slid all the way to Oakland in the fourth round of the 2016 draft, struggled to climb the Raiders' depth chart prior to being released last September, and is now running short on opportunities to make good on his once-promising potential.
The rocky road he's traversed in recent years has led him back to the place where his star burned the brightest, as Cook looks to get back on track as a member of the Detroit Lions.
"Any chance I could get to come back to Michigan, I was all for it," Cook said after Thursday's OTA practice.
To this day, it remains unclear why Cook fell so far in the draft. Different reports raised concerns about his accuracy, which never topped 60% in college, his leadership and personality, or negative "parental influences."
Cook even penned a column for Sports Illustrated, refuting the importance of one of the most commonly mentioned knocks against him, that he hadn't been selected captain by his teammates his senior season.
Whatever the reasons for the slide, the only one that seemed to carry over into his time with Oakland was his accuracy. His completion percentages during his three preseasons, 55.4, 50.7 and 51%, were well below an acceptable level for an NFL quarterback.
After being released by the Raiders, Cook spent time on a pair of practice squads in 2018, first in Carolina and later in Cincinnati. At season's end, he claims he had multiple offers, but jumped at an opportunity to join the Lions.
The Lions got a long look at Cook last offseason after practicing with the Raiders twice during training camp before matching up in the teams' preseason opener. It was a good week for the young quarterback, as he made a number of excellent throws in the joint practices and followed it up with a solid effort in the game, leading a pair of scoring drives while playing most of the first half.
Cook's performance caught the eye of Lions general manager Bob Quinn, who kept tabs on the QB all season and quickly signed him to a futures deal in early January.
"I mean, you can’t ever take a day off, whether it’s a meeting, a lift, a practice," said Cook, whose only NFL start came in a 2017 playoff game — a 27-14 loss to Houston in which he threw one touchdown and three interceptions. "Everything counts, everything is being evaluated, and you never know. You can come into a day and be like, ‘You know, I’m just going to go half-speed. I’m not going to work that hard.’ You’ve just got to come in every single day, bring your lunch pail and work your tail off. Who knows where it can lead."
At the time of the signing, Cook was one of two quarterbacks on Detroit's roster. The Lions since have added Tom Savage to the mix, but by not addressing the quarterback position in this year's draft, Cook remains fully in the mix to compete and win the backup job heading into the 2019 campaign.
Entering his fourth season, Cook compared it to coming into his senior season at Michigan State. There are the obvious differences — he's not coming into the year an unquestioned starter, and he's in the process of learning a new scheme — but there's that natural comfort level that comes with repetition. He's been in the NFL long enough the game is starting to slow down.
But, why Detroit?
Well, in addition to the confidence Quinn expressed when selling him on the opportunity, Cook noted he was drawn to playing for coach Matt Patricia, who he saw up close months before during those joint practices.
Cook appreciated how hard Patricia pushed his players, seeing similarities to Mark Dantonio's style at Michigan State.
"The times Coach D would run us after practice, in the middle of practice, and Coach Patricia does the exact same thing," Cook said. "He’s hard on his guys, but in the right way. He gets the most out of his guys and that’s exactly what Coach Dantonio did. He knew push certain players, what to say, how to motivate them, and I see that a lot in Coach Patricia."
Since returning to Michigan, Cook has been able to reconnect with a handful of friends and former teammates still in the area, but not much is different. Although he acknowledged that perception might change by training camp, when more people are coming out to practices. Still, at the team's "Taste of the Lions" event a few weeks back, he was reminded how much support he has in the area.
“There were a ton of Michigan State people there,” he said. “They made me feel right at home.”
After what he accomplished for that program — two Big Ten titles and three top-10 finishes in the polls — he'll unquestionably have plenty of backers in his quest to earn a roster spot with the Lions.