News broke late yesterday afternoon that tight end Jared Cook would not be franchised (via Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean) by the Tennessee Titans. This ultimately means he is set to hit the open market in just seven days, and to the St. Louis Rams that is music to their ears.
According to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, general manager Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher will be pursuing him strongly when free agency begins.
Jason La Canfora @JasonLaCanfora
with Jared Cook hitting free agency, look for the Rams (with former Titans coach Jeff Fisher) to pursue strongly3/4/2013, 8:40:46 PM
Many fans and media members alike have been making this connection for months now based on the fact that Fisher drafted Cook while he was the head coach of the Titans. And it's relatively safe to assume the interest would be mutual considering the fourth-year pro out of South Carolina has been underutilized for the majority of his career.
Cook has never caught 50 passes in a season or scored more than four touchdowns, so it's easy to see why he would want to go somewhere where he would have a bigger role in the offensive game plan. In 2012, Cook played 56.9 percent of Tennessee's snaps when he was active—a slight decline from his 2011 season, when he played 59.1 percent of the snaps—two extremely low numbers for a tight end who possesses high-end receiving skills.
Yet the minute amount of playing time didn't stop him from having one of the highest yards-per-reception averages (15.5) by the end of the 2011 season. His 15.5-yard average on 49 receptions helped him finish with the 14th most yards by any tight end in the league, an incredible finish based on the fact that other players with similar numbers caught 10 to 20 more balls.
However, every aspect of his game is not as impressive as his pass-catching ability. Pro Football Focus graded him out as an average run-blocker and a below-average pass-blocker over the past two seasons.
Although he doesn't seem to be a liability as a blocker because of his poor pass blocking, he isn't asked to do it all that often. During his four-year career in Tennessee, he has been a part of 335 blocking plays, which averages out to be about 84 plays per year.
All of his prior statistics from his tenure with the Titans leads me to one question: How would Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer use him in comparison to the way he was used in the past?
Based on what we know, Schottenheimer favors a big-bodied target with a large catching radius. When he was the offensive coordinator of the New York Jets, he had a tight end (Dustin Keller) who was similar in size to Cook. Not to mention the fact that he also had two tall, lengthy wide receivers in Braylon Edwards and Plaxico Burress.
Edwards and Schottenheimer worked together for two years, and during that two-year span the Jets made the AFC Championship game in consecutive years. Moreover, the former first-round pick revived his career in 2010 by catching 53 passes for 904 yards and seven touchdowns. The 904 yards receiving were the second-highest yardage output of his career along with the seven touchdown receptions.
As for Burress, he and Schottenheimer only teamed up for one season, but it was another reclamation project. The 34-year-old receiver revived his career after two longs years of being out of work. Burress caught 45 passes for 612 yards and was easily Mark Sanchez's favorite red-zone target as he caught eight touchdown passes, the third-highest total of his 11-year career.
Edwards and Burress' history with Schottenheimer leads me to believe St. Louis will use him more like a wide receiver than a tight end. Don't get me wrong, Cook will still be asked to line up on the line of scrimmage and block from time to time, but ideally he's most valuable in space, allowing him to pose major matchup problems for opposing cornerbacks when he is lined up in the slot or at wideout.
By playing to his strengths, one can only assume that his potential as a player will finally shine through. It's also worth noting that having Sam Bradford throwing him the ball compared to Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker has to be viewed as a definite upgrade.
Don't let yourself fall into the trap of believing the Rams won't go after him because they already have Lance Kendricks. Kendricks and Cook are two totally different players. One is better suited as an in-line tight end with above-average blocking skills, while the other would be solely viewed as a pass-catching tight end, much like Aaron Hernandez is in New England.
Two valuable playmaking tight ends have become quite the craze over the past few years, so it wouldn't be illogical to think the Rams would dish out the money required to make this deal happen, especially if Danny Amendola signs elsewhere. St. Louis needs to acquire as many young weapons as possible for Bradford, and Cook would fall in line with this strategy.
The only question that remains is how much is too much for Cook? His agent wants NFL teams to view him as a wide receiver during free agency, and if that's the case, the market could go in two totally different directions. One team could view him as its one missing piece to their offense and hand him $6 million annually. Yet another team could say, "Hey, you're a tight end, plain and simple. You haven't been as productive as we would have liked, but we are willing to give you $4.5 million annually because we see the potential."
Every year there is one or two free-agent contracts that surprise you, good or bad. And this year Cook may be one of those guys who gets a "surprise deal." Just remember, a player's value lies in the eye of the beholder.