Aaron Rodgers has had a lot of things go right during his Packers career, but having a reliable, explosive tight end has not been one of them. Will newly signed Jared Cook be a game-changer?
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Throughout a career that will land him as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, Aaron Rodgers has established himself as one of the most intelligent, durable, and efficient quarterbacks in NFL history. Not that passer rating is the be-all and end-all, but his 104.1 career rating is the best in NFL history, not to mention that he's the all-time leader in adjusted yards and adjusted net yards per pass attempt (explained here). At the rate he's going, Rodgers will be talked about as one of the league's best all-time quarterbacks when all is said and done.
From Donald Driver to Jordy Nelson, Rodgers has had a lot of great receivers helping him out since becoming the Packers' starter in 2008, but the one thing he's never really had is a reliable, bellweather tight end.
Jermichael Finley was Rodgers' best option for awhile, but inconsistency and injuries prematurely ended his career in 2015—Finley had suffered a frightening neck injury two seasons before. In 2011, his best season for the Packers, Finley caught 55 passes on 92 targets for 767 yards and eight touchdowns, and those totals top the leaderboard for all Packers tight ends in the Rodgers era—except for Finley's 61 catches in 2012.
Green Bay selected Richard Rodgers out of Cal in the third round of the 2014, and the "Oh look, the Packers got another Rodgers out of Cal" jokes aside, the Rodgers-Rodgers duo has been productive over the last two seasons. Rodgers caught 20 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns in his rookie season, and upped those totals to 58 catches on 85 targets for 510 yards and an eight-touchdown total that matched Finley's best. Efficient, but still unremarkable.
Now enter former Titans and Rams tight end Jared Cook, who Green Bay signed Monday to a one-year, $3.65 million contract.
Selected in the third round of the 2009 draft by the Titans, Cook has totaled 273 catches for 3,503 yards and 16 touchdowns throughout his career, with his best seasons coming in 2013 and 2014 for a Rams' passing game that was rudimentary at best. It's easy to see why Cook passed on several other offers to play with Rodgers.
What can he do in Green Bay's offense? Cook isn't a burner, and he's probably not going to threaten free safeties down the deep seam, but he's definitely a quarterback's friend on slants, comebacks, and curl/flat routes—the kinds of quick, first-read routes that were missing from the Packers' game plans last season. And when you watch Cook's 2015 tape, it's very much a product of quarterback inefficiency and inaccuracy—countless poorly thrown passes from Nick Foles and Case Keenum, usually under pressure, and Cook simply couldn't recover in time to passes thrown at the wrong shoulder against his leverage, or five feet over his head, or five yards past where he was. His 2015 stats—39 catches on 75 targets for 481 yards and no touchdowns—are far more reflective of St. Louis' 2015 quarterback disaster than Cook losing any of his game at age 28.
This signing may have the Packers better off at tight end than they've been in the last decade. Last season, per Pro Football Focus, Green Bay ran two tight ends on the field on just 94 snaps, which is near the bottom of league percentages. Packers head coach McCarthy talked at the owners meetings about his receivers' lack of ability to beat tight coverage last season, and as usual, he blamed it more on personnel than an offensive system that looked rudimentary and unhelpful more often than not.
“Our biggest failure on offense is defenses challenged us with seven, eight men in the box, and schematically I don’t know really how much more we could’ve done,” McCarthy said. “We threw a lot back at the defenses, particularly the second half of the season. After going through the scheme evaluation, it’s more fundamental and winning the one-on-ones. We didn’t do a very good job winning the one-on-ones on the perimeter and the fact of the matter is when you have one more than the offense has at the line of scrimmage all day long, obviously it’s more challenging for the running game and it’s obviously the focus on keeping Aaron in the box."
So, given that functional constraint, it certainly makes sense to give Rodgers more big targets.
Neither Cook or (Richard) Rodgers is necessarily the kind of player who will individually put up huge numbers but if they can combine for 80 catches and 1,200 yards, and Nelson is all the way back from the torn ACL that ended his 2015 season before it started, Green Bay's offense could once again resemble something worthy of Rodgers' talents.