Cook signing alters Packers' draft needs
Ted Thompson did himself a favor when he signed free-agent tight end Jared Cook.
No, the eighth-year veteran who recently was let go by the Rams has not blossomed into a superstar. He never has earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. Cook is not Rob Gronkowski … or Antonio Gates … or Jimmy Graham.
He is big (246 pounds) and tall (6-foot-4¾) and fast, running a sub-4.5-second 40-yard at the NFL combine before the 2009 draft. The Green Bay Packers already had “big” and “tall” traits with third-year tight end Richard Rodgers. They did not have “fast.” Cook’s combine dash was more than a quarter-second quicker than Rodgers’ 4.87 seconds at the 2014 combine.
Cook will fill the Packers' greatest need as soon as he arrives in town. That’s tremendous value for a low-risk, $2.75 million deal. Perhaps most important, Thompson took considerable pressure off himself approaching next month’s NFL draft.
Exactly one month before the first round, the Packers general manager ensured he would not have to use his first pick on a tight end, something no team wants to do if it can be avoided. That doesn’t mean tight end has stopped being a significant area of need. Cook’s one-year contract offers no guarantee he’ll play for the Packers beyond 2016.
With a career year — something that’s not out of the question with Aaron Rodgers throwing him passes — the Packers could extend Cook a long-term contract. Or, with tight ends fetching more money than ever on the open market, Cook could get a better deal elsewhere.
Either way, the Packers would be wise to continue restocking their tight end position. Considering the difficulty in finding immediate production from rookie tight ends, Cook’s availability on the 2016 roster allows the Packers to be patient as a young tight end develops. That’s a luxury they did not have with Richard Rodgers.
While it’s premature to officially say the Packers’ free-agency season is over, it’s probably too greedy to expect Thompson to make another significant signing. Here’s an updated list of the Packers' top five draft needs as the calendar approaches April.
1. Inside linebacker
With a starting tight end secured, Thompson can turn his full attention to the last emergency need on his roster. The Packers won’t be able to move Clay Matthews to outside linebacker in the capacity Mike McCarthy wants — which is as an edge rusher in clear passing situations — if they don’t find a cover linebacker who can play nickel and dime. Right now, Matthews is the only linebacker on the Packers' roster who can confidently cover running backs and tight ends in the middle of the field. They’ll try to change that in the draft.
2. Defensive line
Behind Cook’s signing, no offseason transaction has affected the Packers’ draft needs more than B.J. Raji’s unexpected retirement. The Packers were positioned to extend the free-agent defensive lineman a long-term deal before he walked away from football. Before Raji’s retirement, the Packers’ greatest need on the defensive line was for a five-technique end who could rush the passer while lining up across from offensive tackles. Now, with Raji’s departure setting up a clear need for an interior run stuffer, expect the Packers to choose the best defensive lineman available, as early as the first round.
3. Outside linebacker
Re-signing Nick Perry to a one-year, $5 million contract was expensive, but necessary. Perry could play starter snaps if Matthews is stuck playing more inside linebacker than McCarthy desires, though it wouldn’t be ideal. With Julius Peppers’ age (36), and work to be done before Matthews can return to the edge, bolstering the Packers' pass rush at outside linebacker remains a significant need. Even if it isn’t the biggest hole on their roster, it would not be surprising for the Packers to use their 27th overall pick on an outside linebacker. With prospects like Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence, Georgia’s Leonard Floyd and Boise State’s Kamalei Correa, there’s a potential for good edge-rushing value to be found late in the first round.
4. Tight end
While it no longer appears to be a first-round possibility, the Packers’ need to restock their tight end depth chart could lead to them targeting the position as early as the second round. Cook’s speed and big-play potential, along with Richard Rodgers’ chops as a possession receiver and red-zone threat, fill all the requisite traits teams need from their tight ends. All except blocking, that is. Neither Cook nor Rodgers is renowned for the ability to block. If the Packers find good value from a potentially complete tight end when they’re on the clock in the draft’s second day — South Carolina’s Jerell Adams comes to mind — don’t be surprised if they go that route.
5. Offensive line depth
Lane Taylor’s new two-year deal should give the Packers depth — and options — along their interior offensive line entering next offseason, where big decisions loom on soon-to-be free agents Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang and David Bakhtiari. Still, that’s an awful lot of talent ready to hit the open market, and Taylor’s re-signing does nothing to address the fact the Packers have no backup offensive tackle on their roster. While greater needs exist for the early rounds, the Packers could benefit from drafting more than one backup offensive lineman. If the value is right, they should start with a backup offensive tackle late Day 2 or early Day 3.