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Jared Cook — Best tight end in the NFC South

Jared Cook is better than you think he is.

NFL Pro Bowl Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

However good you think Jared Cook is — square it, double it, add 28.3 to it. Because he’s one of the best tight ends in the league when healthy.

The speed he possesses at his size, combined with the route running chops and ability to go up and make spectacular catches, makes him a nightmare for any linebacker or safety to match up with. He’s easily the best tight end in the division — and was even before Austin Hooper left for Cleveland — And when the circumstances allowed him to, he displayed star ability as a receiver in 2019.

After a shaky start to the 2019 campaign, partially due to injuries, Cook came back to the field with an absolute vengeance in the second half of the season.

The first half was a bit tough to watch, though. Some of it might have been due to miscommunication, adjustment to the offense or the fact that he was playing with a backup quarterback for most of the time. Nonetheless, he struggled off the bat.

In Weeks 1-6, Cook caught only 57.7 percent of his passes for a mere 168 yards, while also dropping four balls.

Plays like this were concerning:

After missing Weeks 7-8 due to injury, Saints fans were pretty low on the 254-pounder out of South Carolina. But once he got back on the field, it was like he was over-compensating for every mistake he made before.

In Weeks 10-17, he absolutely set the league on fire, leading all tight ends in yards per catch by almost four yards, at a staggering rate of 19.2 yards per grab. He was tied for the league-led among tight ends AND wide receivers with seven touchdowns, ranked fourth among tight ends with 537 yards and dropped only one pass.

In this span, he ranked third among tight ends with a Pro Football Focus receiving grade of 90.4 — behind only George Kittle and Mark Andrews.

The big plays through the air, which had dipped a bit for the Saints in 2018, are what Cook provided. He achieved this through a wide array of routes from the slot — Deep crossers, seams, corners, out N ups from the slot:

As well as simply taking short routes for big gains with his agility, power and athleticism after the catch:

With plays like this, Cook produced the fourth-most pass plays of 15 or more yards among tight ends in 2019, with 25. What’s truly incredible about this is he did so on 67 targets, as opposed to the three players above him in that category — Kelce (35), Waller (32) and Kittle (26) — who complied these gains on 145, 122 and 113 targets, respectively.

And he’s the only tight end who literally averaged over 15 yards per catch. Pretty absurd numbers.

Cook did most of his work from the slot, where the majority of his total snaps came from last year. What Sean Payton really liked to do was line Cook up as the inner-most slot receiver (#3 receiver) on the trips side of the formation, when the Saints lined up in 3x1 sets.

From this alignment, he was often sent on deep crossing routes where he was matched up with linebackers in Zone coverage or safeties in Man. A huge portion of his big plays came from this sample.

He was too fast for the linebackers to react to and carry in Zone coverage:

And he was too large for the safeties who attempted to man him up:

And when he got matched up with slot corners in the outer slot position, he abused them too:

Cook produced explosive plays at a high level, despite Drew Brees missing him on some occasions, a few of which I highlighted on the Bird app.

The good news is Cook is also productive in the underneath level of the field as well, which is obviously where Brees makes his money. His timing and communication with the Hall of Fame QB got better over time, on plays where he had to read underneath coverage zones.

Take this one for example — He’s running a drag route and reacts to the linebacker’s placement, halting in the vacated space and rumbling forward for a good gain:

His YAC ability is also showcased on this play, which is another underrated aspect of Cook’s game. His 6.0 yards after the catch per reception in 2019 ranked in the top 10 among tight ends.

If Brees is going to dump it off short as often as we all know he will, he might as well get it to guys who can do something with it. Jared Cook is one of those guys.

He’s also displayed the ability to win on the Saints favorite route in their West Coast scheme — the option route:

This is a route that takes good timing, quickness and awareness to execute effectively. Only Mike Thomas and Alvin Kamara have really been trusted to do so over the past couple of years.

As the year went on, you could see the trust Brees had in Cook grow. The 41-year-old Republican doesn’t throw contested balls to guys he doesn’t trust, and he let Cook go up and snatch the rock out of the air on numerous plays where he didn’t have a ton of separation.

This puts him in rarefied air, already. He’s getting targets that Brees would usually only trust with guys like Mike Thomas, Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham.

The way I look at it, Cook plays a similar role to what Colston played in his prime. A lot of his snaps were coming from the slot, and Brees had so much confidence in him on slot seams, crossers and back shoulder fades. He had ample trust Colston would go up and snatch it when he targeted him in those tight windows between safeties and linebackers in Zone coverage.

Cook might not quite have Colston-level trust yet, but he’s headed on that trajectory. And to be frank, he’s faster and more dynamic with the ball in his hands.

The only concern with Cook is the drops, of which he’s had 54 in his 11-year career. But then again, Colston had 77 in 10 years. It’s a legit concern, but that’s really the only flaw he showed last year.

If he and Brees can manage to stay on the field for 16 games, don’t be surprised if Cook surpasses 1,000 yards in 2020. He’s that kind of talent.

So for your own sake, don’t sleep on Jared Cook.

How good do you think Jared Cook is? Let us know in the comments. Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC, “Like” us on Facebook at Canal Street Chronicles, and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel. As always, you can follow me on Twitter @andy_b_123.