If you look in the dictionary for the definition of the word “renaissance” you’ll find this:
“A renewal of life, vigor, interest, etc.; rebirth; revival”
If you look for an accompanying image of the words, you’ll find tight end Jared Cook.
Back in his third season in the NFL, the young 24-year-old Cook was having a stellar start to his career. In that 2011 season for the Tennessee Titans, Cook caught 49 passes for 759 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns. Those total receiving numbers put Cook in the top 15 in the league amongst tight ends, but his 15.5 yards-per-catch was the best around for players of his position with at least 40 receptions.
It was a sign of an ascension; a sign that Cook could soon be a top-five tight end.
But the following season wasn’t as fruitful. In 2013 and 2014, Cook’s first two seasons with the St. Louis Rams, he regained form with a career-high in receptions, but didn’t eclipse his 2011 yards-per-target usage. Following those two strong years, Cook bounced around the league with marginal success (relative to his potential). His age was getting higher and his production wasn’t. As Cook approached 30, it looked like the story of his career had been written.
That was until 2017. In 2017, then with the Oakland Raiders, head coach Jon Gruden unlocked the dormant potential in Cook, nearly matching career highs in every category. The next year was even better with 68 catches, 896 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns; all career bests at age 31.
Capitalizing on this renaissance of a career, Cook signed a 2-year, $15 million deal with the New Orleans Saints. One year into that deal and Cook has not disappointed. He recorded 43 catches for 705 receiving yards with 16.5 yards-per-reception and nine receiving touchdowns. He was also the third-most targeted player on the team.
Why such strong usage for a 32-year-old tight end? Saints tight end coach Dan Campbell will tell you it’s because they believe Cook is one of their top x-factors.
“If you want to try to take away Mike Thomas and you’re gonna leave somebody one-on-one with Jared Cook, then you’ve got a problem," Campbell said. "We’re gonna hurt you if that’s what you want to do. If you want to single Jared Cook, there’s nobody in this league that can cover him.”
The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Cook is extremely athletic for his size. At the NFL Scouting Combine a decade ago, his 4.49 40-yard dash, 41-inch vert, and 123-inch broad jump were all in the 90th percentile for the position.
That stuff still shows up on tape into Cook’s 30s. It’s why Cook has been a total mismatch for most slot defenders around the league, as shown in the clip above.
Depending on both the defense they are playing against and the particular play call, Cook could see either a safety, a linebacker, or a slot cornerback in coverage against him. Due to his athleticism, most of the time it’s safeties who are playing in the slot that line up against him—they typically bring the best chance of size and speed to contain him.
But, as is evident by the clip above, even a team’s best chance hardly works out in their favor. Cook is just too explosive out of his stance, whether in-line attached to the trenches next to the offensive tackle or as a big slot receiver. He gains more separation with his speed than most tight ends can, and even when the coverage is still close, as was the case in the clip above, Cook’s catch radius is so big that if you throw it up to him, he’ll likely come down with it.
The play above is just overkill on how good Cook is “above the rim” against safeties who are trying to cover him. Cook’s size and speed make him a red-zone monster.
Cook’s second half of the season was an absolute clinic. No matter who teams tried to put on him—or even how many eyes they tried to keep on him—if he had single coverage at any point, the ball was going his way and there was a good chance he was delivering the goods.
“I think that the back half of the season was certainly closer to what our vision was -- and then to see [Cook and Brees] gather a rapport and see the confidence level with both of them," Campbell said. "All the little nuances of the game between those two are important, and I think you saw it was a little shaky at first. But just them being together, man, you look at the back half of the season and that’s what we’re capable of doing."
Cook is also very versatile, which should lend to him continuing to get a ton of use in the Saints’ offense.
Most of his action comes from an in-line position or in the slot, but there are times where the Saints use Cook on the outside near the boundary—and when they do it typically stresses a defense out because of how they have to re-shift who is covering him in a non-traditional spot.
In the play above, it was Atlanta Falcons safety Ricardo Allen who drew the short end of the stick having to cover Cook on the edge. As you can see, it didn’t go well. Not only is Cook a great athlete when it comes to acceleration and route running, but also after the catch.
The final play above is honestly just a victory lap for how good this guy is after showing specific clips explaining why. Cook understands route-running, holes in zone coverage, and leverage against man coverage so well, and he combines that high football IQ with some seldom matched athleticism and size. He’s truly everything you could want in a tight end.
As for how much action Cook could see as a now a 33-year-old in the Saints’ offense, the tape and the confidence from his coaches certainly tell us there’s no reason for the Saints should stop prioritizing him. However, we know receiver Micheal Thomas will get north of 150 targets, if healthy, and that running back Alvin Kamara will see about 100 himself. With Emmanuel Sanders also on board, you figure he’ll get more looks than Ted Ginn did last year as the team’s WR2.
The way the Saints are structured makes it tough to think that, if all fully healthy, Cook will eclipse the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career in 2020. But if for whatever reason there is a shift in priorities, this team won’t be shy about giving Cook any missing Thomas, Kamara, or Sanders targets.
They clearly have faith in Cook to be a go-to guy, and they should.
- Jun 28, 2022
- Jun 24, 2022