Some folks call him a tight end.
Others refer to him as a wide receiver.
A few smart guys tried to label him a hybrid.
But most folks just call him Cookie.
[Ennio Morricone soundtrack plays]
It's been a long time since the St. Louis Rams could boast a big play offense. For years, they subsisted on dink and dunk, clutching and grabbing four and five yards at a time, only to come up short somewhere inside the 25-yard line.
This spring, the front office went all in on big plays. Les Snead pulled off another furious day of horse trading to jump up to the eighth spot in the draft and pick Tavon Austin. But the team's first move for a playmaker came in March, when they landed Titans tight end Jared Cook with a five-year, $35 million contract.
"It just gives us so many more options," quarterback Sam Bradford said of having Cook on the field. "When you have a tight end that you're able to move out wide and he can run wide receiver routes, you can do so many more things, and a defense has to prepare for so many different sets and different route combinations."
Mobile chess pieces
Tavon Austin has been the big ticket at training camp so far. Understandably so. He isn't like most of the wide receivers picked in the top-10 spots of the draft. In fact, wide receiver is a pretty narrow way to describe Austin. He moves around the field, returns kicks, returns punts and can handle more than a few looks in a backfield as running back or at least as a threat to run.
Cook is listed as a tight end. But that distinction has always been open for interpretation.
This year the Titans mulled using the franchise tag to keep Cook in the lineup for the 2013 season. The tag is anathema for most players. Cook and his agent promised to fight for the wide receiver designation over the tight end label if the Titans did end up using the tag on Cook. The difference? About $6 million.
And they may have had a case for it too. Most tight ends see the majority of their snaps inline, but the changes in the NFL have touched tight ends as much as any position on the field. Now, teams actively seek players capable of filling both roles. Cook lined up in the slot for 276 of his 485 snaps, 56 percent, last season.
Have a look at where Cook lined up when caught his passes (via Sando):
*That chart does not account for two of his catches last season.
The formations Tennessee used when Cook was catching passes reflect that as well.
And here it is broken down by tight end formations.
|0 TE||1 TE||2 TE|
It's not clear why Tennessee avoided tagging Cook. Maybe they looked at the stats and realized his agent had a case.
"When Cook's in the game," Bradford explained, "it's not like he's going to line up in the traditional tight end spot every time. We can flex him out wide, he can play as the ‘X', he can play in the slot, as the number two in a three-by-one set, and it really forces the defense to think a lot."
Welcome to St. Louis
How the Rams intend to use Cook still isn't clear, not after a week of training camp. Once the preseason games start, the rest of the world will get a better feel for where Cook works, but even that figures to be somewhat limited because the coaches stick to mostly vanilla playbooks.
Cook's versatility gives the Rams one more guy for the coaches and the quarterback to play the matchups, getting him on a slower linebacker or a smallish defensive back.
"You just move him around and you get him lined up - based on formations and motions and shifts - you should get him lined up on certain individuals sometimes," head coach Jeff Fisher said.
"It just gives us so many more options," Bradford added. "When you have a tight end that you're able to move out wide and he can run wide receiver routes, you can do so many more things, and a defense has to prepare for so many different sets and different route combinations."
Cook will still find plenty of work in the slot, replacing many of the routes that Danny Amendola used to run. You don't want to put too much stock in the comparisons from Tennessee's offense, but it does reveal where Cook is his most effective: right up the middle of the field.
The chart below outlines Cook's targets, receptions and yardage by direction and distance (data via Pro Football Focus).
|4-2 10 (5)||30-20 165 (68)||6-4 22 (4)|
|3-2 41 (11)||11-6 108 (28)||2-1 12 (0)|
|1-1 25 (1)||7-3 104 (32)||1-1 35 (10)|
Targets-catches yards (YAC)
Seam routes, seam routes and more seam routes. Ok, so they weren't all seam routes, but you can see that Cook is at his most effective in the middle of the field, specifically as a underneath receiver.
Amendola did more work outside last season than he had in previous years with the Rams. Nevertheless, the bulk of his work came in the middle and within that first nine yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Cook's speed adds another dimension to those routes. He had more targets and catches further down the middle of the field than Amendola.
Cook's height adds another layer to his game that gives him an advantage over his predecessor.
"He's a big target, big frame," Fisher said. "He's got a giant catch radius which is always a good thing if you're a quarterback, so he'll really help us."
That height and radius have been on full display through the first week of training camp too. It's something that should come in handy when the Rams are pushing their way into the end zone.
How many targets Cook gets depends entirely on the rest of the offense. From the look of things at this point, the Rams are going to be spreading the ball around plenty, especially with that other offensive weapon mentioned above, Tavon Austin.
Given that context, another tight end* with 70 receptions feels like a stretch. However, Cook is a sure bet to improve on the 44 catches and 72 targets he had in just 13 games last season with Tennessee.
With apologies to the fantasy folks out there, the counting stats matter less to the Rams than Cook's role in the bigger picture.
"It's just going to allow us an opportunity to create more explosive plays," Bradford said at the start of training camp. "I think if you look at us over the past couple years, we've really struggled to create explosive plays. The best offenses in the league are great at doing that so hopefully the speed will help us."