Cook looks to fulfill promise with Packers

Weston Hodkiewicz
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So Ted Thompson finally signed a free agent.

After two years of window shopping, the Green Bay Packers and their longtime general manager landed an established player at arguably their weakest position Monday in signing veteran tight end Jared Cook to a one-year, $2.75 million contract that includes up to an additional $900,000 in incentives.

The Packers have explored a lot of avenues at tight end since Jermichael Finley suffered a career-ending neck injury in 2013. Twice they brought in proven tight ends for visits (Owen Daniels and Jermaine Gresham) and twice the veterans left Green Bay without contracts.

So what makes Cook different? Why was the eighth-year tight end the right fit?

For starters, Cook embodies exactly what the offense lacks — a big, fast playmaker whom safeties need to account for in the middle of the field. He has 273 catches for 3,503 yards (12.9 yards per reception) and 16 touchdowns since entering the league as a third-round pick with the Tennessee Titans in 2009.

Packers land tight end Jared Cook

As a junior entry out of South Carolina, Cook wowed scouts at the 2009 NFL scouting combine with a 4.49-second time in the 40-yard dash and a 41-inch vertical. Those intangibles matched with his measurements — 6-foot-4¾ at the time with 35¼-inch arms — screamed offensive mismatch.

Still, he remains an enigma of sorts. Cook fell to the bottom of the third round (89th overall) due to questions about how his athleticism would translate to the next level. He had 73 catches for 1,107 yards and seven touchdowns in three years with the Gamecocks, but was considered a better athlete than football player coming out.

A week shy of his 29th birthday, all indications are Cook hasn’t lost much of that prodigious speed during his first seven NFL seasons, but many of the concerns surrounding Cook seven years ago are the same he faces today: marginal blocker and shaky route runner who exhibits hot-and-cold tendencies.

His hands also became a problem last season. His 10 drops on 49 catchable passes were the most among NFL tight ends, according to Pro Football Focus. No other tight end had more than seven. Still, there always has been a certain amount of what-if to Cook’s game.

Only once in his career has Cook played in an offense that finished among the top 21 teams in passing yards. It came during a career year for Cook with Tennessee in 2011 when he had 49 catches for 759 yards (15.5 yards per catch) and three touchdowns. The Titans finished 12th in passing offense that year.

Green Bay perennially had been among the league’s most effective offenses during Mike McCarthy’s decade-long reign as head coach before a rough 2015 campaign in which the offense plummeted to 23rd in total yards, 15th in scoring and 25th in passing offense.

The Packers’ offense worked best when defenses had to account for Finley in the middle of the field. While Finley worked through his own highs and lows, the 6-foot-5, 247-pound tight end helped take attention away from Green Bay’s receivers and provided Rodgers with a naturally gifted playmaker.

Cook deal contains incentives, opportunity

Whereas Finley’s production benefited from a strong supporting cast, Cook hasn’t had the same fortune. His 39 catches for 481 yards and no touchdowns coincided with the Rams finishing dead last in passing offense (175.3 yards per game). Their quarterbacks combined for a league-low 74.1 passer rating.

Cook has caught passes from 12 quarterbacks in his seven NFL seasons. Those 12 combined for only one Pro Bowl appearance (Vince Young in 2009) and completed only 2,113 of 3,559 passes (59.4 percent) for 24,001 yards, 132 touchdowns and 98 interceptions (80.5 passer rating).

He’ll be greeted by a much different landscape in Green Bay. Since Cook entered the league in 2009, Rodgers has completed 2,257 of 3,452 passes (65.4 percent) for 28,032 yards, 228 touchdowns and 51 interceptions (106.3 passer rating).

It’s up to Cook to capitalize on the opportunity. He isn’t a traditional tight end, but the Packers aren’t asking him to be. They made changes for Finley and likely will be willing to do the same now. Plus, Cook will get a full offseason to digest the playbook and get up to speed with the offense.

There might be something to be said for Cook getting a fresh start. He played six of his seven seasons under Jeff Fisher, who brought him to St. Louis in 2013 on a five-year, $35 million contract. For the most part, the Rams maximized Cook’s strengths in splitting him out and limiting his blocking responsibilities.

Only 30 of the 393 passing snaps Cook saw last season came in blocking situations, according to Pro Football Focus. However, that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker considering the Packers have survived the past three seasons without a blocking tight end.

If McCarthy feels the need for one, he acknowledged at last week’s NFL owners meetings that the offense could use reserve offensive lineman JC Tretter more as an extra blocker.

The nut Fisher never was able to crack was how to channel all of Cook’s promise into a true game-changing tight end who tilts the field. Still, Fisher remained effusive in his praise despite Cook’s shortcomings and a widely publicized sideline spat with former Rams quarterback Austin Davis in 2014.

“Jared made an immediate impact when he joined the team in 2013,” said Fisher in a statement shortly after the Rams parted ways with Cook, defensive end Chris Long and linebacker James Laurinaitis. “It’s been a pleasure watching him grow from the time I drafted him in Tennessee to seeing him set franchise records in St. Louis. Like Chris and James, he’s been a mainstay in the community and his contributions are commendable. We hope for the best for Jared and his family as he embarks on the next steps of his career.”

One individual who seemed to be highly in favor of the signing was Finley himself. The former Packers tight end voiced his approval on Twitter.

Two NFL sources confirmed the Packers and Cook had a deal in place last Thursday, which was contingent on him passing a physical. That agreement proceeded Cook already opening the lines of communication with his new quarterback, according to USA TODAY Sports.

So far, Cook has yet to weave his world-class athleticism into a Pro Bowl season. In signing the eighth-year veteran, the Packers are betting on Cook to harvest his unfulfilled potential in Green Bay.

“Let’s be honest, the middle of the field is open now,” McCarthy said. “League rules. Big people running down the middle of the field, I’ll make no secret about it. I think that’s a key to offensive success, whether that’s a big receiver or big tight end or a big man running down the middle of the field, making those safeties cover you. It’s an important part of playing in today’s NFL.” and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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