Packers columnist Pete Dougherty and reporter Weston Hodkiewicz discuss the team's signing of free-agent tight end Jared Cook to a 1-year deal. (March 28, 2016)
For better or worse, the Jared Cook signing Monday was quintessential Ted Thompson.
It came almost three weeks into the free-agent signing period, long after the most coveted players had come off the market.
It was for a player who won’t count against the Green Bay Packers’ compensatory pick formula for the 2017 draft, because Cook wasn’t a true free agent whose contract had run out — he’d been cut by the Rams in February.
And it’s a low-risk deal financially, one year at $2.75 million plus incentives, for a tight end with noteworthy physical talent but modest production in his seven-year NFL career.
In most NFL cities this signing would be viewed as more of an afterthought. It qualifies as huge news in Green Bay with the Packers’ free-agent averse general manager.
“I saw that (signing) this morning and said, ‘Wow, all right, go Ted,’” said an NFL assistant coach who’d been with Cook earlier in his career. “I like it. For (Thompson), if Jared Cook doesn’t work out, he loses nothing. They’re not extending themselves.”
This was a move Thompson needed to make. If he’d have gone without signing either a tight end or inside linebacker of note, he’d have been asking too much from the draft. It’s hard enough to find good, immediate help from a rookie class at one position, let alone two. Coach Mike McCarthy has made due long enough. Thompson had to find at least a little outside help this year. He probably should have done a little more.
The question is whether he’s getting much of an upgrade at his team’s weakest position on offense. Cook turns 29 next week and had remained unsigned since the Rams cut him Feb. 19 while other tight ends came off the free-agent board.
The 2009 third-round draft pick of the Tennessee Titans has the 40-yard dash (4.49 seconds coming out of college) and second contract (average of $7 million a year with the Rams) of a playmaker but never has produced like one.
He hasn’t caught more than 52 passes in a season and has only 16 touchdown receptions in 107 games. His 12.8-yard average per catch in his career is good for a tight end but doesn’t stand out.
In Cook’s defense, he hasn’t had much help from his quarterbacks. His starting quarterbacks with Tennessee and then St. Louis were an old Kerry Collins (37 and 38), Vince Young, Rusty Smith, an old Matt Hasselbeck (36), Jake Locker, Kellen Clemens, Sam Bradford, Austin Davis, Shaun Hill, Nick Foles and Case Keenum.
Now he’ll be playing with Aaron Rodgers. No more excuses there.
The assistant coach, who saw Cook in person last season, summarized him thusly: an adequate-at-best blocker with good length (6-feet-4¾) and still able to run the 40 in the upper 4.5s. He isn’t the red-zone threat his size would suggest, but he is a big target with the speed to threaten defenses down the middle of the field. He’s also prone to drops.
The coach envisioned Cook catching about 50 passes next season, including six or seven touchdowns.
On the surface, that’s no different than what starter Richard Rodgers gave the Packers last season (58 receptions, eight touchdowns). But Rodgers’ meager 8.8-yard average per catch said more about his impact than any other numbers. He showed no quick-twitch ability or run after the catch. He wasn’t a mismatch for linebackers or safeties. In fact, I’d have to think the Packers will have Rodgers drop from his 257-pound playing weight last season to see if he can get at least a little bit quicker.
Regardless, if Cook puts up the reception and touchdown numbers the coach projected, he almost surely will have done more for the Packers’ receiving corps than Richard Rodgers did last season.
“Last year you had one guy (i.e., Randall Cobb) for Aaron to throw it to,” the coach said. “It was, OK, cover that guy, and after that (Aaron Rodgers) had to make everything up. Now if you get Jordy (Nelson) back, you have Cobb. Put Jared with those two guys, you’re talking about some matchup issues.”
Cook was available because the Rams’ salary purge in February deemed him unworthy of the $7 million he was scheduled to make this year. Aside from never putting up the kind of numbers that would warrant that pay, he also tends to run hot and cold during the work week.
“He’s not a grinder,” the coach said. “He’s not going to come in every day and just outwork everybody. At practice some days he’s focused, he’s there, he’s good to go and everything’s great. And then there will be days where it’s like, ‘Jared, OK, c’mon now, we’re at practice. Ready? Let’s go.’ He can be a little inconsistent in that way. I really like the guy. I understand why they let him go. He’s not a $7 million a year guy anymore. Can he be productive in the right system? Absolutely.”
So Thompson did what he always does when he actually goes so far as to sign another team’s player. He waited and waited and waited. He paid no mind to the most attractive tight ends in free agency. That includes passing on 25-year-old Ladarius Green, who signed an expensive but hardly extravagant deal with Pittsburgh (four years, $5 million average), along with Coby Fleener (New Orleans, five years, $7.2 million average).
Thompson watched as Chicago traded Martellus Bennett to New England. And he signed Cook on Monday with one other tight end of note still on the board in Vernon Davis. Davis is old (32) but is such an extraordinary athlete he still might be good for another season or two. We’ll see on that one, too.
Thompson lives to minimize risk. He did it again this week with Cook. He kept down the cost and commitment, and he’s still going to get whatever compensatory pick Casey Hayward’s departure commands. Now it’s a matter of whether the Packers get much reward.