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Cardinals’ QB Coker trying to prove worthy of roster spot

QB Jake Coker drops back to pass during training camp Aug. 21. (Photo by Adam Green/Arizona Sports)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Jake Coker understood the odds when he signed up for the job.

An undrafted rookie out of Alabama, he signed with the Arizona Cardinals in hopes of proving worthy of a roster spot, albeit with the knowledge that he was the fourth QB on the roster and thus faced an uphill battle from the get-go.

“Hey, it is what it is, and that’s just part of it,” he said Thursday. “I didn’t get drafted, so just going to practice and see what happens.”

Early in camp, Coker was seen sporting a towel under his left shoulder with the idea that ensuring it stays there would help with his mechanics. A 6-foot-5, 232-pound passer who won a national championship at Alabama last season after throwing for 3,110 yards and 21 touchdowns, there were still aspects of his game that needed a significant amount of work.

“It’s a whole bunch of stuff,” Coker said. “It’s non-stop, but that’s part of it.”

The question is how much longer will Coker be a part of the Cardinals.

The first round of cuts will come on Aug. 30, and at that point the team must get its roster down to 75. The final cuts will come on Sept. 3.

Coker has been with the Cardinals since taking part in their rookie mini-camp, and over that time has had the typical ups and downs of a rookie quarterback. There have been some days and throws where he has looked good. There have also been days and throws where he has not.

And Friday, it was learned he would not be traveling with the team to Houston for the third preseason game due to a sore knee, for which he will undergo an MRI.

That can’t help his cause.

In Coker’s lone bit of preseason action in the first game against Oakland, he completed 2-of-5 passes for 16 yards while being sacked once.

“He’s progressed nicely since mini-camp,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “Whether it’s good enough, we’ll see.”

At this point, Coker is battling with Matt Barkley to be the team’s third quarterback behind starter Carson Palmer and backup Drew Stanton, though Arians has made no secret of his willingness to keep just two passers on the active roster if he feels like that will make for a better team.

Of course, the downside to that idea was evident in 2014, when both Palmer and Stanton got hurt and the Cardinals were struggling to find someone — anyone — who could run the offense.

But that’s the type of disaster no one wants to think about, and there is some school of thought that says if the team gets to a point where it needs its third quarterback, odds are the season is lost, anyway.

Both Barkley and Coker would be eligible for the Cardinals’ practice squad, however, so even if neither makes the 53-man roster their tenures in Arizona may not actually be over.

Asked what Coker needs to do in order to stick, Arians said he must get quicker fundamentally, make better decisions and get a better grasp of the offense.

Basically, improve in areas where all rookie quarterbacks need work.

“At first, it’s just terminology and figuring out all these crazy coverages you’re seeing that you’ve never seen before,” Palmer said of what the biggest challenge a first-year passer faces. “Terminology and your own protections, formations; the adjustments that happen pre-snap.

“Not so much the speed of the game, just depending on what college you’re coming from, but more just the complexity of your own offense and the defense you’re seeing.”

Palmer has been in the league since 2003, when he was chosen first overall by the Cincinnati Bengals. Coker has been in the NFL for roughly four months.

There is much to learn.

“Everybody kind of runs the same concepts, and once you learn how to work that concept against certain coverages, that’s huge,” Coker said. “But all the adjustments we make out there, it’s a lot.”

As an undrafted rookie Coker has had all the shoulder-pad and helmet carrying responsibilities that come with his place in the pecking order, but also has performed without the safety net that comes with a high-value contract or a GM and coach being attached to his future.

It is not unheard of for a quarterback with his path to make his mark in the NFL — see Tony Romo or Kurt Warner for examples of QBs who were not drafted but became stars — but they are more the exception than the rule.

Palmer, however, said he has seen Coker get “a lot better” over his time with the team.

“He hasn’t had a ton of reps, but I said something the other day, every time he gets in he comes in and throws a touchdown pass, it seems like,” he said. “He gets a sprinkle a little bit in blitz, a little bit in 7-on-7. There’s days where — we were in San Diego, he didn’t get one practice rep — so he’s in a tough spot, you’ve got to be ready.

“But when he’s come in, he’s come in and thrown big balls and done a great job.”

Pretty much, that’s all Coker can do. The 23-year-old is in a tough spot, but at the same time, he is also in an NFL camp working under a head coach who is known for developing quarterbacks and in a room with some players who have experienced success at his position.

He said being on the team with Palmer, Standon and Barkley has been “awesome,” adding they are great guys who have been supportive and helped him out. Their presence, however, has led to fewer reps, and given that his job depends on impressing the coaches, it’s safe to say there might be a bit of extra pressure with every snap he takes, every throw he makes.

It’s not easy, fighting for a roster spot while at the same time knowing nothing is guaranteed, but that’s his life.

“It’s the situation you’re in,” Coker said. “All you can do is go out there and play, and if they like what they see that’s great. If it doesn’t work out, that’s just — you do what you can do.”

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