Jared Cook: Seam Stretcher

Evan Silva
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Former Titans and current Rams tight end Jared Cook has long been a fascinating football specimen. At 6-foot-5 and 248 pounds, Cook was clocked below 4.40 in the forty-yard dash at South Carolina. At the 2009 NFL Combine, Cook led all tight ends in the vertical leap (41"), broad jump (10'3"), and forty time (4.50). Despite freakish athletic tools, Cook has never been an overwhelmingly productive receiver.

At South Carolina, Cook's career high in receptions was 37. He's never reached 50 catches in an NFL season. Cook has always been a big-play weapon, however. He averaged 15.2 yards per catch in his college career. Cook is averaging 13.1 yards per reception as a pro, which easily bests upper-echelon receiving tight ends Jimmy Graham (12.3), Tony Gonzalez (11.5), Aaron Hernandez (11.2), and Jason Witten (11.1). In 2012, Cook tied Rob Gronkowski for the most catches of 25-plus yards among NFL tight ends (8) despite ranking 24th in targets and forty first in snaps played. Gronkowski ranked 18th in targets and 24th in playing time.

I am intrigued by his fit in what has the look of a wide-open St. Louis offense with Cook and Tavon Austin as the primary slot receivers, and Brian Quick and Chris Givens out wide. A few weeks ago, I took time to watch each of Cook's 2012 targets. This past week, I re-watched all 76 (my count, including penalty-negated snaps) and charted each target, assigning notes on Cook's play, his defensive matchup(s), and the quarterbacks delivering -- or attempting to deliver -- him the ball.

These were my six major takeaways, with a seventh tacked onto the end concerning my expectations for Jared Cook in St. Louis.

1. The Titans' quarterback play was nothing short of abysmal in 2012.

Not breaking news, I know. I was highly optimistic about Jake Locker entering the 2012 season. He performed well in five spot appearances as a rookie, coming off the bench to consistently move Tennessee's offense and account for five touchdowns with zero turnovers. Albeit on a small sample size -- confirmed by hindsight to be much too small -- Locker averaged 8.2 yards per pass attempt and showed no fear challenging defenses deep. He flashed playmaking ability as both a passer and runner.

After watching the bulk of his 2012 season and reviewing Jared Cook's pass target game film, I'm washing my hands of Jake Locker. Of Cook's 76 charted targets, I marked "errant pass" next to 28 (36.8 percent). 23 (30.3 percent) I charted as thoroughly "uncatchable." Locker missed Cook relentlessly high and/or wide, repeatedly forcing his tight end to make circus catches, and even on a few occasions leaving Cook out to dry for monster hits from a closing linebacker or defensive back. Locker was incredibly, woefully inaccurate. And Matt Hasselbeck wasn't a whole lot better.

2. Cook has outstanding hands and body control.

Because the ball placement of Titans quarterbacks was so maddeningly scattershot, there is a fairly large sample of game tape where Cook makes difficult receptions, ranging from "tough" to "highlight-reel" worthy, to secure poorly thrown balls. Of Cook's 44 receptions in 2012, I noted 11 (25 percent) as "great." Although Cook is not necessarily an outstanding short-area mover in terms of footwork or agility, his bodily movement skills are highly impressive. He is a leaper, and can contort his person in the air, on the fly to haul in errant passes. Cook did so often last year.

He also has great hands. I charted Cook with only five dropped passes among the 76 targets, for a "drop rate" of 6.6 percent. Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez are generally considered the top-three receiving tight ends in football today. Per Pro Football Focus' 2012 game charts, Cook's drop rate was easily better than Graham's (11.5 percent), Hernandez's (9.8), and Gronkowski's (9.0).

PFF has never charted Cook with more than five drops in a season. His previous career high was three. Here are Cook's seasonal drop rates: 2011: 4.1, 2010: 6.8, 2009: 0.0.

3. Cook might be the most dynamic pure seam-stretching tight end in the NFL.

This is Jared Cook's bread and butter: stretching the seam. I charted Cook with 19 targets in the intermediate or deep-seam passing game last season. Titans quarterbacks completed 13 of those 19 passes (68.4 percent) for 305 yards (16.05 YPA!), four touchdowns, and two interceptions. Neither INT was Cook's fault. Cook was highly efficient on seam patterns, whipping safeties and linebackers with his vertical speed. Here is a list of NFL defenders noticeably beaten by Cook in coverage: Danieal Manning, Reshad Jones, Antoine Bethea, Chris Conte, Pat Angerer, Tom Zbikowski, Pat Chung, Atari Bigby, James Harrison, Nick Barnett, Jasper Brinkley, Brooks Reed.

Jared Cook ran 4.50 at the Combine and plays that fast on the field. He has an explosive get-off from the line of scrimmage. On intermediate and seam routes and when running with the football in the open field, Cook looks like a genuinely speedy wide receiver.

4. Cook primarily lined up in the slot when he was targeted in Tennessee.

I didn't pay much attention to Cook's blocking in my tape study. I don't think it's relevant anymore. Rams coach Jeff Fisher knows Cook's strengths from their time in Nashville and will use him as a receiver. Lance Kendricks is St. Louis' in-line, blocking tight end. If you are truly curious about Cook's blocking, PFF graded him positively in 2012 run blocking with a slightly negative pass-blocking grade. They charged Cook with zero sacks or quarterback hits allowed.

Cook lined up in the slot for 76.7 percent of his 2012 targets. He was a detached H-back or in-line tight end on 15.1 percent, and an X or Z outside receiver on 5.5 percent. For two targets (2.6 percent), I couldn't tell exactly where Cook had lined up because the game film was too blurry. The bottom line is that Cook is a slot receiver. He will help the Rams replace Danny Amendola.

5. The Titans barely used Cook in the red zone last season.

This was stunning. Granted, the 2012 Titans were so bad that simply getting into opposing red zones was a rare occurrence. But when they did, their mismatch-creating tight end was regularly either ignored by the playcaller or quarterback, or rotting on the sideline. Again, Cook was targeted 76 times last season, including penalty-negated plays. Only nine of Cook's 2012 targets (11.8 percent) came in the red zone. The results of those nine targets? Five completions for 44 yards and two touchdowns. Not great red-zone efficiency, but not terrible by any means.

I suppose there are some elements to Cook's game that might lead a coaching staff to believe he isn't a dominant red-zone receiver -- and we'll get there next -- but to waste a 6-foot-5, 248-pound athletic phenom in scoring position seems to me like fantastically poor coaching. You may notice a theme here: I don't believe the Titans are coached or quarterbacked very well. But that's a topic for another forum.

6. I don't think Jared Cook will ever be a high-volume tight end.

We'll come full circle here. Jared Cook has never been a voluminous catcher of footballs because that's not who he is. He is a big-play, vertical-seam tight end, ill suited to be utilized like Jason Witten in Dallas, or even Brandon Pettigrew in Detroit. That's not his skill set.

Some short to intermediate tight ends like Pettigrew, Witten, and Houston's Owen Daniels eat up defenses with short, high-percentage checkdown-type completions and gain yards after catch with awareness and/or physicality. They can create on their own. Jared Cook isn't like them. He's not a quick-twitch, sudden mover. He'd be worthless on a tight end screen. There is little stop-start to Cook's game, and he is not elusive after the catch. He's not even an especially physical tackle breaker despite his size. He gets tackled by smaller defenders in the open field one-on-one. I charted Cook with just 136 yards after reception in 2012, and the vast majority of them came on open-field opportunities when Cook was in space running to green grass.

7. My expectations for Jared Cook in St. Louis.

As alluded to previously, I expect Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to run a lot of four-wide packages with Cook and Tavon Austin in the slots, and Brian Quick and Chris Givens as the outside receivers. I anticipate this'll be Schottenheimer's base offensive look on most passing downs, whether it be third-and-long, third-and-medium, or when St. Louis is attempting to erase a deficit.

Look for Austin to lead the Rams in 2012 receptions. While I don't think Cook will ever be a high-volume receiver who catches 65-80 balls a year, I wouldn't be surprised if he paced St. Louis in receiving yards and touchdowns.