Ram Bytes: What happened to Jared Cook?

2014-01-10T03:15:00Z 2014-01-10T09:42:05Z Ram Bytes: What happened to Jared Cook?Bernie Miklasz bjmiklasz@post-dispatch.com stltoday.com

Big results were expected when the Rams signed free-agent tight end Jared Cook to a five-year deal worth $35.1 million last offseason. That contract included $19 million in guaranteed cash.

Cook got off to an exciting start in 2013, catching seven passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns as he romped through the Arizona defense in the season opener. The Cardinals didn't know how to contain Cook, and he played a leading role in bringing the triumphant Rams back from a late 11-point deficit.

This is exactly what the Rams, and their fans, envisioned.

And then ...

What the heck happened?

Cook's first season in St. Louis can be interpreted in a number of ways. It really defies a simple and tidy explanation. And it's fruitless to reach a conclusion. His initial season here was generally viewed as a disappointment — which is understandable considering the advance hype, the expectations, and that exhilarating opening game.

But I draw a line at saying he had a bad season, or that the Rams made a mistake in their assessment of Cook's value. I simply don't see it that way.

I think we'd agree that Cook can do better, and he can roll up more catches and yards and big plays. I think we'd agree that it's reasonable to expect more from him in 2014.

However, if 2013 was a “down” year for Cook, then it bodes well for the future. Because he did some good things. More than he's probably received credit for.

In a down year, Cook set a franchise record for the most receiving yards (571) in a season by a tight end. And his seven pass plays that covered 25 or more yards were the most in a season by a Rams' TE. Cook's five touchdown catches were one short of matching the single-season mark by a tight end.

Granted, historically the Rams have not used the tight end as a vast resource for passing-game offense. So the standards were on the low side, and that is duly noted. It's not as if Cook broke records that had been set by an Antonio Gates, or Tony Gonzalez.

First, let's talk about the negatives ...

Cook dropped way too many passes. In the accounting done by Pro Football Focus, Cook dropped eight of 59 catchable passes. His drop rate of 13.56 percent was the worst among NFL tight ends that played at least 50 percent of the snaps on offense. There's no excuse for that. Cook has to improve, and develop more reliable hands.

Cook wasn't signed for his run blocking; the Rams paid him all of that dough because of his receiving skills and downfield capability. So I didn't expect much in the run game. And Cook was a terrible run blocker early in the season … but that changed, and we'll get to that in a bit.

There were some definite positives...

According to Pro Football Focus, Cook ranked 5th overall among NFL tight ends in Yards Per Pass Route. He ran 401 routes that netted 671 yards, a rate of 1.67 yards per route. Only four NFL tight ends had a superior YPPR: Jimmy Graham (2.26), Vernon Davis (2.12), Julius Thomas (1.81) and Greg Olsen (1.67.)

And according to Pro Football Focus, Cook ranked fourth among NFL tight ends in Yards Per Pass Route when deployed as a slot receiver. Among tight ends that lined up in the slot at least 25 percent of the time, only Thomas (2.3), Rob Gronkowski (2.1) and Jason Witten (2.08) had a better rate than Cook's 1.93 YPPR in the slot.

Here's what I believe:

The Rams' offensive coaches didn't make full use of Cook. Maybe they were still trying to figure out his game, his strengths and weaknesses. The loss of starting QB Sam Bradford was a factor. The switch to a run-heavy offense was a factor. After that huge opening game, Cook drew extra attention from defenses, and Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer struggled (in my opinion) to find ways to get Cook free and into space.

Examples...

Why wasn't Cook used more often in the slot? He did drop six passes as a slot receiver; that's bad. But I don't think that's a reason to stop working him there.

And why didn't the Rams go downfield to Cook more frequently? He was one of the NFL's better downfield tight ends when the Rams targeted him on passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air. The problem: according to Pro Football Focus they attempted only eight passes of 20+ yards to Cook in 2013. He caught four of them for 134 yards. That's exceptional. So why didn't Schottenheimer go to the Cook bank more often? In fairness to Schotty, the necessary switch to QB Kellen Clemens probably changed some of the plans.

That's why I'm hesitant to knock Cook's performance — other than the dropped passes. He's obviously a talented receiver, with the size and speed combo that can give defenses problems. But the Rams didn't make maximum use of Cook; a big part of that can be attributed to the dramatic shift to a run-first approach. And Cook didn't have the benefit of playing 16 games with Bradford.

In short, it was a transition year. New player, new city, new team, new offense, a change in offense, a change in quarterbacks.

The situation should be more stable in 2014. Everyone should have a better understanding of how to make the best of Jared Cook. And Cook's productivity should reflect that.

Final thought: about Cook's run blocking...

According to Pro Football Focus, Cook had a negative run-blocking grade in three of the first four games. But he improved as the season went on. Over the final 12 games he had one negative grade, one positive grade and 10 that were in the average range.

And it's important to note that (based on PFF's evaluation) only five NFL tight ends (minimum 50 percent of the snaps) had a plus run-blocking grade for the entire season.

The tight ends that are paid to catch passes aren't effective blockers. Not many of them, anyway. But by the end of the season, Cook had developed into an average blocker in the run game, and received a slightly above-average grade when asked to step up in pass protection.

Here's my takeaway from that: Cook worked his tail off to become a more respectable run blocker. He wanted to get better at it. He wasn't content just to collect the money. He made a commitment to strengthen a weak part of his game, and he obviously was receptive to coaching.

My overall opinion of Cook wasn't changed by some of the disappointing aspects of his first season in St. Louis. He'll be an increasingly important factor going forward.

Thanks for reading …

— Bernie

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Bernie Miklasz

You've read Bernie Miklasz in the Post-Dispatch since 1989. Now check out a new video "Breakfast with Bernie" every weekday morning. You'll also see more "Bernie Bytes" around the clock as he posts quick-hit commentaries on a variety of topics.

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