Meeting with the media at the NFL owner’s meetings on Mar. 24, Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy made it clear that his offense needs to be able to attack the middle of the field in 2016. Perhaps he was tipping his hand a bit, having already met with and been impressed by Jared Cook 10 days prior.
“Let’s be honest, the middle of the field is open now, 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 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.”
At the time he said it, tight end was a glaring weakness on the team’s roster. Now, less than a week later, he can begin planning on factoring the 6-foot-5 Cook into his plans of exploiting that advantage.
The former Los Angeles Rams tight end signed a one-year, $3.6 million deal with the Packers on Monday, becoming the first Packers free agent signing of the 2016 league year from a different team. To nobody’s surprise, general manager Ted Thompson was the last to dip his toe into the free agent waters.
Cook is an impressive athlete and has been thought to have a “high ceiling” since he was selected in the third round of the 2009 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans. After running a 4.50 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, he drew comparisons to some of the NFL’s most dynamic athletes, including now former Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Though, that comparison was made by Steve Spurrier, his college coach, who may very well have just been trying to boost the stock of one of his own.
Regardless, Cook brings an athletic skill set that no tight end on the Packers has possessed since Jermichael Finley suffered a neck injury against the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 20 in 2013 that would end his career.
Now, an offense that thrives on creating matchup problems, and per McCarthy wants to exploit those in the middle of the field, is far more equipped to do so. He wanted a big man that can run in the middle of the field and he got one. It seems to make all too much sense.
With Richard Rodgers, Justin Perrillo and Kennard Backman the only tight ends under contract before Monday and McCarthy’s desires expressed at the owner’s meetings, it certainly isn’t a surprise that Cook ended up in Green Bay, either. ESPN’s Rob Demovsky reported that there was an offer on the table from the Packers dating back to March 14th, immediately after Cook visited with the team. Cook then took time to gauge interest from other teams, including the Bears, Panthers and Falcons before settling on playing with a two-time NFL MVP and Super Bowl champion quarterback.
The more surprising bit of information from that same report, however, was that Thompson and McCarthy had their eye on Cook dating as far back to last season, and even entertained the idea of trading for him at the 2015 deadline.
If anything, you can take solace in the fact that well before Thompson was thought to be at some pro day in a no-name town, ignoring all of the big name free agents flying off of the board, he had at least acknowledged that tight end was a weakness. He saw that as the Packers offense began to flutter and it become more evident that the Andrew Quarless experiment was coming to a close. Basically, for the haters, the trade talks prove that he isn’t complacent or content with merely average production from Rodgers much like the angry Twitter mob isn’t. To think, the conservative, emotionless Super Bowl champion general manager actually pays attention.
What Thompson isn’t willing to do is overextend himself for any player that isn’t guaranteed to be worth it. For that, Packers fans should be thankful. And with Cook, there is exciting potential, a word that follows him everywhere, but nothing is guaranteed.
Rather than giving up a draft pick and taking on a contract someone else structured for half a season or more of Cook in 2015, Thompson waited until the offseason to see what opportunities would present themselves. Cook had two years left on a five-year, $35.1 million deal at the time.
And in an all-too Thompson-esque move, rather than costing a draft pick through trade, Cook ends up in Green Bay after being cut by the Rams which means the Packers don’t surrender anything for him in the way of a compensatory pick, regardless of his production this coming season. Furthermore, his $2.75 million cap hit – the largest for a tight end on the Packers roster since Finley signed a $14 million extension in 2012 – seems miniscule and still leaves the team with $11 million in salary cap space.
This isn’t to say that Cook is a steal at that price. He may not yield the production many are already willing to guarantee now that he is playing with an elite quarterback as opposed to a glorified backup, which he had been saddled with for the entirety of his career.
Will Aaron Rodgers improve his chances of reaching that ceiling that he has failed to reach since 2009? You would have to think so. But Cook is still coming off of a three-year stint that yielded 142 catches on 259 targets for 1,786 yards and eight touchdowns. That’s 12.57 yards per catch, 6.89 yards per target, and 54.8% of his targets caught. Cook played all 16 games each of those seasons.
For reference, Richard Rodgers has 78 catches on 115 targets for 735 yards and ten touchdowns including eight last season alone. His averages are not appreciably better. In 32 games, he posted 9.42 yards per catch, 6.39 yards per target and 67.8% of his targets resulted in receptions.
The pairing of the two may help each of them. But Cook doesn’t guarantee that the Packers lingering tight end problems are permanently fixed. That’s rarely the case when the solution is a career underachiever (based on his potential) entering his eighth year in the league and exiting his prime years.
But the fact of the matter is he doesn’t need to be. He simply needs to be that fast, big body running down the middle of the field that the Packers haven’t had in some time. That way he can either take advantage of opportunities that he will see with one-on-one matchups or create one-on-one matchups for the likes of Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson, who have proven that they can win those.
That is the beauty of the Packers current situation. That’s what is most exciting about the Cook signing and their situation at tight end. Having Cook be productive is more a luxury than a necessity. And, falling right in line with Thompson’s philosophy in terms of roster building, they don’t have to make any real sacrifice or take any real risk in addressing a position of need through free agency.
Cook was a relatively expensive trade chip for the Rams and a guy the Packers had highly coveted in the middle of last year. Now, he’s a gifted body that adds depth and is playing on a one-year “prove it” contract.
When you’re the team that people want to play for and have the quarterback people want to play with, you can afford to wait and see where the chips fall in free agency and make low risk, high reward acquisitions. That is exactly what the Packers did.
The Cook signing isn’t an out of character move that’s cause for celebration. It’s the Packers being the Packers, Thompson being Thompson. It’s an all-too obvious move that was thought about for some time but the cost-benefit analysis didn’t make sense at the time. But then it did. Then the deal was done.