Packers reporter Weston Hodkiewicz and editor Stu Courtney discuss the Packers' potential interest in free-agent tight end Jared Cook and other news from the NFL owners meetings. (March 22, 2016) Weston Hodkiewicz and Stu Courtney | USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
BOCA RATON, Fla. – Maybe that surprise is coming, after all.
Although Jared Cook remains unsigned, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings that he came away impressed with the eighth-year tight end following a recent visit to Lambeau Field.
Cook, 28, has 273 receptions for 3,503 yards and 16 touchdowns in seven NFL seasons split between Tennessee and St. Louis. The 6-foot-5, 254-pound tight end was among a slew of veterans the Rams released in a cap-cutting move Feb. 19 and has been on the open market ever since.
The book on Cook is he’s a fast and athletic receiving tight end who has underachieved to this point in his career, though he never has had a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers. Critics take issue with his blocking and hands, along with a sideline skirmishes with quarterback Austin Davis a year ago.
The Packers desperately could use a tight end with Cook’s pedigree, though. Green Bay lacked a secondary option to second-year tight end Richard Rodgers this past season and it plagued the offense. Richard Rodgers also probably was overexerted after playing nearly 1,000 snaps with backup Andrew Quarless missing 11 games with a torn MCL.
“I spent a lot of time with Jared Cook and he’s a fine, fine young man,” McCarthy said. “I was impressed with him. So we’ll see what happens. It’s in the business phase of it and that’s where it stands.”
New running backs coach Ben Sirmans coached on the Rams’ staff during Cook’s three seasons in St. Louis and would be able to provide McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson with an inside scouting report on Cook, a third-round pick in 2009 by the Titans.
Cook also would check off a big box in Thompson’s free-agent philosophy because he’s a “street” free agent who was released from his previous contract. If the Packers were to sign him, Cook wouldn’t count toward the equation for determining compensatory picks in the 2017 NFL draft.
The only substantial offseason moves Thompson recently has made came in March 2014 when he signed outside linebacker Julius Peppers (Chicago) and defensive lineman Letroy Guion (Minnesota) after they were released by the Packers’ NFC North rivals.
Thompson wouldn’t comment on Cook’s visit when he met with the assembled Green Bay media on Monday, but McCarthy seemed intrigued by Cook. The Packers have been trying to find a replacement for Jermichael Finley since he suffered a career-ending neck injury in October 2013.
They drafted Rodgers in the third round in 2014 because of his hands, but speed limitations restrict his big-play potential. Green Bay has three other tight ends — Justin Perillo, Kennard Backman and Mitchell Henry — under control for next season, though only Backman was drafted.
Backman, a sixth-round pick last May, has the necessary athleticism, but is raw and unproven. For all the issues the Packers had at tight end last season, he played only 11 offensive snaps.
Cook could be a fit based on if the Packers choose to steer clear of what's considered to be a weak draft class for tight ends and a litany of other positional needs the Packers have to address with their nine draft choices.
During Tuesday’s AFC coaches’ breakfast, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin emphasized how important it is to have a difference-making tight end in today's NFL offenses. So when the Steelers lost Heath Miller to retirement, it came as no surprise they quickly went out and signed former San Diego tight end Ladarius Green to a four-year, $20 million contract in the opening days of free agency.
Signing Green wasn’t just about what he can do, but the domino effect his presence has on the entire offense.
"He's a young guy who's a good player already who we believe has room for growth," Tomlin said. "We haven't had a guy with his skill set at that position within our offense, so we're waiting to see the ramifications of that and how his presence affects us and helps us. Forget what he does — how does it change Antonio Brown's day? How does it change Ben (Roethlisberger's) day? What does it do to the coverages that we see? I think we're excited about seeing all of those things develop.”
If the Packers decide against Cook or determine his price is too high, the pickings are sparse on the tight-end scrap heap — Vernon Davis (32 years old), Clay Harbor (28), Scott Chandler (30), Owen Daniels (33) and Quarless (27), who was placed on season-ending injured reserve after only five games due to his knee.
McCarthy said at last month’s NFL scouting combine the Packers “might shock you this year” in free agency, but so far are the only team that has yet to sign an unrestricted free agent from another team. That’s not entirely surprising since Thompson hasn’t signed a player off an expiring contract in four years.
McCarthy, Thompson and president Mark Murphy have all said there’s still time, though. The primary objective was to re-sign their top free agents, including defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Guion, kicker Mason Crosby, outside linebacker Nick Perry and running backs James Starks.
Green Bay is approximately $13.2 million under the 2016 cap. It’ll need about $5 million to sign this year’s draft class, but it’s still possible the team could bring back outside linebacker Mike Neal and fullback John Kuhn, who likely would return for close to the veteran minimum.
Whatever the case, McCarthy understands the Packers’ inactivity so far in free agency comes down to dollars and sense.
“I think every year you just go, ‘Whoa,’ the sum of money that is spent in the first week of free agency,” McCarthy said. “Talking to a couple coaches down here, their particular situations, it’s good not to be in that position where you feel you have to spend that so that’s a positive for us. Player acquisition, you’re always looking to get better and our guys are working through that.”