Players

With Their 1st Round Pick, the Memphis Express chose to protect…Troy Cook

The Alliance of American Football held their unique pick or protect quarterback draft, and in an unexpected turn of events, the Memphis Express choose to protect a mostly unknown quarterback prospect from a small school in Tennessee.  Like many, I expected the Express to take former NFL starter Zach Metten “bacon cheese” berger.  Mettenberger has experience as a starter in both the SEC collegiate level and the NFL, that, plus the arm talent to make any throw.  Nevertheless, the Express felt Troy Cook possessed something that was vital to be on their roster.  Who is Troy Cook?  Why is he a standout?  Is he worth being the quarterback allocated to Memphis to be protected?  To answer these questions, we must look into the quarterbacks allocated to Memphis they did not add to their roster.  Then learn who are the quarterbacks Memphis drafted, including the illustrious Troy Cook.  Finally, I will give my predictions for who will survive the final roster cuts and start the first game on February 9th.

Allocated, but not picked

Alejandro Bennifield

  • Height: 6’2”
  • Weight: 216lbs
  • Age: 24
  • School: Chattanooga
  • Team: undrafted

Bennifield is a two-year starter out of Chattanooga.  He was 2nd team All-SoCon his Jr year in 2016 and the preseason 2nd team All-SoCon to kick off the 2017 year.  Unfortunately, his 2017 season was underwhelming after his four-game suspension due to academics.  During his time at Chattanooga, he showed a strong arm, boasted a 64.4% completion percentage, and some mobility which could be a dynamic tool in the RedZone.  Draftanalytics ranked him as the second worst quarterback of all that were draft eligible in the 2018 NFL draft.   They questioned his leadership, processing and his ability to put touch on a pass, which may have led to no team drafting him in the AAF quarterbacks draft.

Tyler Ferguson

  • Height: 6’3”
  • Weight: 217lbs
  • Age: 25
  • School: Penn State
  • Team: undrafted

Ferguson started his college career as a JuCo (junior college) superstar recruit.  His first stint with a D-1 school was at Penn State.  Just months removed from the Sandusky scandal, Tyler transferred into Penn State and competed against 5-star freshman recruit Christian Hackenberg.  In limited action that season he went 10/15, threw for 115 yards and a touchdown.  He then transferred to Louisville where he did not play a snap due to their freshman standout Lamar Jackson.  Desperate for a chance to start, Ferguson transfers to Western Kentucky University where he competed for the starting job against the future fifth-round draft pick of the 2018 NFL draft Mark White.  Unfortunately, he still failed to get a starting gig.

Even though he never had the opportunity to start at a D-1 school at the college level, his arm talent and size was enough to land him in an NFL training camp as an undrafted free agent with the Tennessee Titans.  After spending a full year on their practice squad, Tyler was given the opportunity to showcase his talents during OTA’s due to injuries to both the starter, Mariota, and their backup, Matt Cassel.  However, he stilled failed to make the team and was cut at the end of OTA’s.  His decision making and leadership were questioned by the coaching staff according to CBS Sports, which that and a combination of other very talented quarterbacks available must have factored into his inability to make an AAF team in the draft.

Jesse Hookset

  • Height: 6’4”
  • Weight: 228lbs
  • Age: 22
  • School: Southeast Missouri
  • Team: undrafted

I could not find a lot about Hosket.  He has the prototypical size one looks for in a franchise quarterback, along with a strong arm according to GoSoutheast.com.  During his time at Southeast Missouri, he barely managed a completion percentage over 50% with a 5.5 yards per attempt.  He was missing on the short throws.  Even though he started every game his senior year, he only threw 15 touchdowns.  He did get invited to the Oakland Raiders minicamps this past preseason.  Unfortunately, he did not get drafted by any AAF team during their QB draft.

Austin Allen

  • Height: 6’0”
  • Weight: 210lbs
  • Age: 24
  • School: Arkansas
  • Team: Salt Lake City Stallions (3rd round)

Austin showed off a lot of talent during his time at Arkansas, especially his Junior season.  In 2016, he was a Davey O’Brien Award finalist (goes to the nation’s best collegiate quarterback) and was on the preseason Maxwell Award watchlist (goes to the nation’s best all-around college football player).  His senior year was notably worse due to poor O-Line play.  The young quarterback was taking too many hits, and it caused lapses in his decision making.  During his time at Arkansas, Allen had a completion percentage right under 60%.

At the NFL combine, Allen showed off his athleticism with a vertical jump of 25” and a 3-cone drill right over 7 seconds.  He comes from a family with NFL pedigree; his brother Brandon was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars and later made the Raiders roster as a backup.  After going undrafted, his pocket presence, quick release, command, and accurate deep ball landed him a spot on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers preseason, however, he did not make the final roster cut due less than ideal arm strength, poor decision making, and hanging to the ball too long.  Blitzalytics.com predicted he would be second on the Stallions depth chart.

Alex Ross

  • Height: 6’1”
  • Weight: 200lbs
  • Age: 25
  • School: Coastal Carolina
  • Team: San Diego Fleet (4th round)

Alex Ross showed just as much talent on the football field as a four-year starter at Coastal Carolina as he did in the classroom.  He is the first player to be Big South Offensive Player of the year as well as Big South Conference Scholar of the year in 2015.  Ross was a three-time 1st team All-Big South and in 2015 he was a finalist for the Walter Peyton Award (awarded to the best D-2 football player in the country).  He maintained a 4.0 GPA during his time as a graduate student earning his MBA.  He threw for over 3000 yards and 20 touchdowns his senior year while only throwing seven interceptions.  Although he only ran for 170 yards and 2 touchdowns his senior year, he had over 1500 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns during his time at Coastal Carolina in a non-option style offense.  Blitzalytics predicted him fourth on the Fleet’s depth chart, but I think he could be a dark horse to make this roster.  With his mobility, he will be a sub-package specialist since there are no PAT’s in AAF games.  As a dual-threat QB, he could help convert those 2-point conversions and goal-line plays.

Matt Simms

  • Height: 6’3”
  • Weight: 210lbs
  • Age: 30
  • School: University of Tennessee
  • Team: Atlanta Legends (2nd round)

Matt Simms is the son of former first-team NFL All-Pro quarterback Phil Simms and brother of former Buccaneer starter Chris Simms.  He was a 3-year starter in high school racking up over 6000 yards and 60 touchdowns.  He started his collegiate career at Louisville where he saw limited action, therefore he transferred to JuCo El Camino college.  After leading El Camino to a 10-1 season he transferred to the University of Tennessee.  In 2010, he started 10 games but eventually lost the starting job to young up and comer Tyler Bray.  In 2011 he saw limited action going 27/62 and throwing for 319 yards and 3 interceptions.

The New York Jets signed Simms as an undrafted free agent but waived him before the preseason.  In 2013, the Jets brought Simms back in the preseason where he showed a lot promise going 44/59 and throwing for 480 yards and 3 touchdowns.  He saw a little regular season action that year, nevertheless, in week 13 he finally got into a game.  He disappointed with an interception and a fumble.  Simms spent most of the 2014 season on the practice squad, although he did get called up to the main roster on November 1st where he played alongside current Atlanta Legends Offensive Coordinator Michael Vick.  After the 2014 season, he got waived by the Jets.  He spent some time on the Bill preseason in 2015 before landing on the Atlanta Falcons practice squad from 2015-2017.  His brother Chris told CBS sports “I truly believe if his last name was not Simms, teams would be wanting him to be their backup.”  His preseason numbers were outstanding during his time in the NFL boasting a 66.7% completion percentage and a 93.1 passer rating, however, he got sacked 10% of his dropbacks.  Blitzalytics called his 2nd round selection a head-scratcher, stating that there were several quarterbacks left with more arm talent, but I believe his experience in the NFL will be an asset to the other Legend quarterbacks.

Drafted by Memphis

They next quarterbacks listed are the ones drafted by the Express including two that were not allocated to Memphis.

Zach Mettenberger

  • Height: 6’5”
  • Weight: 224lbs
  • Age: 27
  • School: Louisiana State University
  • Team:  Memphis Express (4th round)

Zach Metten “bacon cheese” berger came out of High School ranked the 11th best pro-style quarterback according to rival.com which led him to a scholarship to the University of Georgia.  After a redshirt season at Georgia, he was removed from the roster for a team rule violation after pleading guilty to two sexual battery misdemeanor charges.  He then transferred to Butler Community College where he led them to an 11-1 season and an appearance in the JuCo National championship game.  In 2011 he transferred to LSU  and in limited action went 8/11, throwing for 92 yards and a touchdown.  He finally got his opportunity to showcase himself in 2012 where he had a solid season taking LSU 10-3, but it was not until his 2013 season when he turned heads.  His senior year Mettenberger shined with a 64.9% pass completion, throwing for over 3000 yards and 22 touchdowns with only 8 interceptions.  He threw for over 10 yards per attempt showing no fear in pushing the ball downfield and maintaining his impressive completion percentage.  (He also had incredible weapons this season including NFL Pro-Bowl WR’s Odell Beckham Jr and Jarvis Landry).  The young man displayed incredible toughness and resiliency by returning from an ACL tear in only 13 weeks to participate in the LSU pro-day throwing 125 passes and completing 90% of them.

After being given a 3-4th  round draft grade by NFL.com draft scout, he slid all the way to the 6th round due to a diluted drug test sample.  In his first appearance with the Tennessee Titans, Mettenberger went 27/41 against the Texans and threw 2 touchdowns and one interception.  He had another good performance the following week against the Steelers throwing 2 more touchdowns and one more interception.  He finished that season as the starter throwing 1,412 yards 8 touchdowns and 7 picks losing all six of his games.  The following season he started 4 games and threw 4 touchdowns and 7 picks and was released at the end of the season.  He spent the next season on the Steelers roster, albeit inactive 12 of their 16 games.  According to NFL.com draft, his strengths are his size and arm talent.  He can spin the ball with velocity and squeeze it into tight windows.  Charley Casserly from NFL.com said “Mettenberger can make all the throws.  He has a world of talent and has been in a pro system under Cam Cameron at LSU.”  His weaknesses were listed as: he is heavy footed and long motion leads to many unnecessary sacks.  He can get rattled early, and his character requires “closer scrutiny.”  My pro comp at his peak would be Derek Carr or Jared Goff.

Brandon Silvers

  • Height 6’2”
  • Weight 218lbs
  • Age: 24
  • School: Troy
  • Team: Memphis Express (3rd round)

Silvers was a four-year starter during his time at Troy boasting an impressive 64% completion percentage.  As a freshman, be broke the freshman completion percentage record with it over 70% which propelled him to the All-Sun Belt Newcomer team.  He was an All-Sun Belt honorable mention team twice his sophomore and senior season as well as a 1st team All-Sun Belt his junior season.  Cook leaves Troy with a legacy of two separate seasons throwing for over 3000 yards and throwing 71 touchdowns with only 29 interceptions.  He also displayed some mobility averaging over 140 yards rushing each season and at least 4 touchdowns on the ground.  All this made him an invitee for the Senior Bowl.  Draftanalyst described Silvers as a patient pocket passer, who can naturally look off safeties and can effectively spread the ball around.  Although he throws a very accurate screen pass, he is said to lack downfield accuracy or a “next-level” arm.  My pro-comp for him would be Matt Cassel or Kellen Moore.

Christian Hackenberg

  • Height: 6’4”
  • Weight: 228lbs
  • Age: 23
  • School: Penn State
  • Team: Memphis Express (2nd round)

If I only had one word to describe Christian Hackenberg, it would be polarizing.  He has ideal size and a cannon for an arm, yet he is one of two quarterbacks ever drafted in the first two rounds of the NFL draft to never start a game.  Coming out of high school, Hackenberg was ranked the best pro-style QB according to ESPN.com and the no.2 pro-style QB according to rival.com.  This 5-star recruit immediately impressed head coach Bill O’Brien and won the starting job at Penn State beating out fellow AAF QB draft candidate and Tyler Ferguson. 

Hackenberg rewarded O’Brien with a stellar freshman season throwing for almost 3,000 yards and racking 20 touchdowns through the air and 4 on the ground.  He won Big-10 Football Freshman of the year, broke ten different school freshman records and garnered Heisman consideration.  O’Brien called him calm, a leader, and said he quickly grasped complex offensive schemes.  Coach O’Brien left Penn State to coach the Houston Texans, and Hackenberg had a steep decline into his sophomore season throwing only 12 touchdowns and 15 picks.  Fortunately, his play leveled off his junior season where he threw for 16 touchdowns and 6 picks, but only managed a completion percentage of just over 53%.

Even going into the draft process Hackenberg polarized the NFL community.  Some said with his arm talent, he was a top 5 draft pick, and Sam Monson of Pro Football Performance said, “there isn’t a more inaccurate QB prospect in the draft,” compiling video after video of his silliest misses and mental errors.  The New York Jets traded up into the second round of the NFL draft and took him.  He never saw regular season action, a decision backed up by an atrocious preseason record.  In six preseason games, Hackenberg went 59/121 and only threw for 531 yards, 3 touchdowns and 4 picks (3 of which were taken back for defensive touchdowns).  He put the ball on the turf six times during that stretch as well.  My pro-comp for him is Blake Bortles and Ben Roethlisberger

Troy Cook

  • Height: 6’1”
  • Weight: 205lbs
  • Age:  23
  • School: University of Tennessee-Martin
  • Team: Memphis Express (round 1)

Who is Troy Cook?  Why did Memphis protect him with their first pick of the AAF QB draft?  Troy Cook started his collegiate career by being part of the 2014 National Championship team as a redshirt freshman at Florida State University.  He then transferred to the University of Tennessee at Martin to get an opportunity to start.  In my initial look into Cook, I was underwhelmed.  His senior year he was 94/125 (57% completion percentage) throwing for 1004 yards, 9 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions.  He was averaging about 20 pass attempts a game and had a QBR of 118.4.  He did not play the entire season.  Even though his senior year was not turning heads, he did display his abilities in during his junior season.  He only threw for 2,000 yards but showed great efficiency throwing 22 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. 

He even showed mobility rushing the ball 39 times for 92 yards.  During his pro day, he displayed exceptional athleticism with a 40-yard dash of 4.66, a base jump of 34”, and a 3-cone drill just over 7 seconds.  The host of the podcast, Express and Goal (leading the way in Memphis Express news and content), Daniel Abendroth said he spoke to the team president Kosha, and he said Cook showed a lot of talent in camp and already knows the system, so it will not take him near as long to learn it.  My pro-comp for him would be Dak Prescott.

Coach and Offensive Coordinator David Lee

To pick the quarterbacks that will be on the Express final roster, it’s important to understand what kind of offense they will be running.  Originally Memphis brought in the godfather of the “air-raid” offense to be our offensive coordinator, Hal Mumme.  Even when he parted ways with the Express, conventional wisdom suggested they would run an “air-raid” offense bringing in Hal’s protégé Blizzard to be our WR coach. However after Mumme left the team, the Express was forced to pivot to their quarterbacks’ coach David Lee to also be their offensive coordinator duties.  Lee has 43 years of experience coaching both the collegiate and the NFL level. 

He has time spent as a QB coach, WR coach, FB coach, offensive coordinator, offensive quality control coach, and as a head coach.  Since his roles with the Express will be as QB coach and offensive coordinator my focus was on those parts of his career.

QB Coach David Lee

David Lee started his coaching career as a QB coach for Troy Cook’s alma mater the University of Tennessee at Martin in 1975.  From there he spent the next 13 years as a QB coach for Ole Miss, New Mexico, Arkansas, and his own alma mater Vanderbilt (where he played quarterback).  Then after some time as an offensive coordinator and head coach he returned to Arkansas as a quarterback’s coach in 2001.  During his time as a collegiate QB Coach, the only notable NFL player I found who played under him was former Jackson Jaguar WR Matt Jones, however a lot of the QBs he did coach, went on to become QB coaches elsewhere.

In 2003, he was hired to be the offensive quality control coach for the Dallas Cowboys and in 2005 he was promoted to be their quarterbacks’ coach. He coached seasoned veteran Drew Bledsoe and young up and comer Tony Romo (who was all-pro his first year as a starter under Lee). In 2007, Bill Parcells and his regime left the Cowboys, and the new regime did not keep David Lee, so he returned to Arkansas as their offensive coordinator.  He got back to the NFL ranks for five more stints including the Miami Dolphins (2008-2010), Buffalo Bill, (2012), New York Jets (2013-2014), then followed Rex Ryan from Jets back to the Bills (2015-2016) and finally a year with the Cleveland Brown (2017).

He showed incredible versatility coaching safe throwers like Chad Pennington and Chad Henne; gunslingers like Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tony Romo, and Deshone Kizer; and mobile two-way QBs like Michael Vick and Tyrod Taylor.  He has also shown the ability to work with both young QB and wily veterans.

David Lee the Offensive Coordinator and/or Head Coach

Lee has fourteen years as a head coach or offensive coordinator at the collegiate level including offensive coordinator position at New Mexico (1983) two stints as an OC at Arkansas (1988 and 2007), and as an OC at Ole Miss (2011).  He was Head Coach at UTEP (1989-93) and Rice (1994-2000).  Through all his time as offensive coordinator or head coach, there is a distinct pattern to his play calling…run heavy.  Through his 14-years as a play caller, Lee’s offenses averaged 199.3 rushing yards per game and only 127.3 passing yards per game, although he only had two years of experience as a play caller in the modern pass-friendly era of football, 2007 and 2011. 

In 2007, at Arkansas David Lee had Maxwell award winner Darren McFadden, 1st round NFL draft pick Felix Jones, and future NFL All-Pro Peyton Hillis all on the same roster, therefore, it should come to no surprise that they had a run-heavy offense.  In 2011, at Ole Miss, Lee offense was much more balanced than it had been in previous years.  It would still be consider run heavy for today’s football standards, but it was 50% run and 50% pass.  David Lee has been in many different systems as a QB coach and I think that experience will help him develop a balanced offensive attack, but his history suggests it will be a run-heavy scheme, with high-efficiency pass plays, and reliance on play action.  It should look similar tona former colleague of his, Anthony Lynn, head coach of the Los Angles Chargers.

Depth Chart Prediction

And the question on everyone’s mind, who will start for the Memphis Express inaugural season.  A quick disclaimer about my predictions:

  1. I do not have access to any of these players current medical reports, therefore I will be assuming everyone is 100% healthy
  2. I do not know what the players do in their downtime, therefore I will be assuming they are all in playing shape.
  3. I do not know any of these players personally, therefore I will trust Singletary and the Express staff that everyone on the roster is “stand-up” guys. I will not evaluate character without concrete evidence, which I do not have.

Starting Quarterback

Zach Mett “bacon cheese” berger

To some, this may seem like a “bold” prediction to claim our 4th round drafted QB will take the helm, but to many, this will seem like the safe pick.  He has experience at the NFL level, the arm talent to make any throw, and every video I have seen thus far of practice, he looks like a leader and has a ton of charisma.  This is the kind of quarterback team’s want leading their huddles.

Backup Quarterback

Troy Cook

I believe the Memphis Express left Vegas with the two best QB’s allocated to them on their roster.  There was something special team management saw in Cook to secure him.  He showed incredible efficiency at University of Tennessee at Martin making the most of only 15-20 pass attempts in most games and coming out of most with multiple touchdowns in 2016.  With his size, Cook will require elite interior offensive line play, because of an interior rush with diminishing his view downfield.

3rd String         

Brandon Silvers

He is accurate and can naturally look off safeties.  He has the ability to command a pocket and years of experience.  Silvers is simply the kind of teammate the Express want to have in their building to help their young QBs develop.

Cut

Christian Hackenberg

Clearly, at one point, Hackenberg had “it,” and I believe that maybe it could click again.  If it does, he could be a top QB, but the last time I saw Hackenberg play was preseason football for the Bengals, and he was just making mental error after mental errors like holding on to the ball too long, missing wide open screen passes, and missing reads.  I hope he can tap into his limitless potential, but until then, I cannot see him being rostered.  During a game which Jet head coach, Todd Bowles, was down his two starting QB’s and the third string QB, Bryce Petty, was horrendous, and Bowles said “never once did I consider subbing Christian [Hackenber] in”

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Ep. 29: Express Offense Must Improve – AAF Week 2 React and Recap