If there is a bigger X factor on offense in the AFC South for 2010 than Titans tight end Jared Cook, I’m not sure who he’d be.
As a rookie, Cook dazzled us with his post-draft, training camp and preseason work. His height, speed and athleticism made him look to be an impossible matchup as a route runner. He looked like he would plug in and be the team’s second-most dynamic offensive weapon, behind only Chris Johnson.
Then he suffered an ankle sprain and disappeared. Tennessee got nine catches for 74 yards out of him in 14 games, and the word out of team headquarters was his confidence plummeted and he did nothing to force the Titans to get him on the field.
“He needs to become much more consistent week to week if he’s going to play for us,” offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger said this week. “He has to be more consistent in everything before he can play.”
And how much does he need to know what a consistent Jared Cook can bring?
“Oh, a tremendous amount,” Heimerdinger said. “Hell, I don’t even know who our team is besides C.J.”
It’s not surprising that a gruff coach like Heimerdinger would be unenthusiastic about his group in March as he prepares to prod them into improving and sets about refining the schemes in which people are deployed.
But Cook has the potential to make Heimerdinger a happier man. He also has the potential to make the Titans look bad. They traded their second-round pick this season, No. 48 overall, to New England in order to snare Cook with an extra third-rounder, No. 89, last year.
And Tennessee has a lot of needs, so a lot of people, Cook included, will be acutely conscious of how the trade will ultimately measure out. Some want to jump the gun and judge Cook a failure after one season, but it’s far too early for such conclusions.
“I’m aware,” Cook said. “I know I just have to do what I do best. Definitely it’s a chip on my shoulder, so as long as I put in hard work, everything is going to be all right.”
So here’s the big question: Why did a guy who looked to dominate evaporate when he was healthy again? Cook said he was fine by Week 5, so where was he?
There are three answers really.
He’s quick to point out that it wasn’t as if he was sitting behind nobodies. Alge Crumpler was a key part of the blocking that got Johnson beyond 2,000 yards, and Bo Scaife is a veteran who is regarded as a favorite target of Vince Young. Young took over after six games and the Titans went 8-2 from there. Had Cook been himself during the 0-6 start, maybe the team would have been quicker to look for him for help.
Johnson running so much and so well meant Crumpler was going to be on the field a lot. While the Titans had packages for Scaife and Cook, two guys who are more pass targets than blockers, to be on the field together, Heimerdinger was less inclined to call them when the team’s bread and butter was working so well.
While Cook’s physical prowess and size were enough for him to shine in camp and the preseason, they weren’t enough to earn him much playing time in the regular season, and like most rookies, he didn’t have the playbook down. He fit in with Jeff Fisher's general reluctance to use first-year guys when alternatives were available.
“You know Dinger, and I’ve been around Dinger for 18 years now,” Titans tight end coach John Zernhelt said. “There is no error involved. He’s got to feel 100 percent sure. And that’s where that consistency issue comes in, defensive recognition, blocking and all that stuff.”
So where does Cook go from here?
If Cook pans out, Young could be working with a great quality trio of Johnson, second-year receiver Kenny Britt and Cook. That could be a very nice young core of skill players, supplemented by Scaife. The offensive line is top flight, providing holes for the run game and time for Young. If Justin Gage and Nate Washington can be more consistent, things will really be looking up.
Zernhelt was quick to praise Cook’s focus, determination, character and work ethic. He said Cook worked out hard just to be ready for the offseason conditioning program, which started Monday.
Cook played last season at 240 pounds, and said he is now at about 252 and the Titans would like him to play at about 245. Zernhelt said strength and conditioning coach Steve Watterson will work with Cook on his hips, which will play a big part in helping a lanky guy stay low and make the needed blocking improvements. However, if Crumpler, an unrestricted free agent, isn’t back, it’s Craig Stevens who will inherit most of the tight end dirty work.
Tennessee wants Cook to be an efficient and dependable route runner who can line up in all the tight end spots or split out wide to create an uber-mismatch. He will outrun linebackers and be too physical for defensive backs, they expect.
“He’s got a tremendous amount of potential and that’s a heavy burden on anybody,” Zernhelt said. “It’s up to us to find opportunities for him and to take advantage of him. With him becoming more proficient at all the things we talk about -- his defensive recognition, his blocking techniques, route running precision and stuff like that -- that’s when it’ll start to pay dividends for him and I don’t have any question he’ll be fine at it.”
Crumpler’s been a valuable resource and sounding board for Cook, and while he would love to be able to continue to draw on the veteran, he understands that business may mean he’s not back.
In June 2009, after minimal exposure to Cook, Crumpler said: "[I told him], 'you're stronger than these guys, you're just as fast as these guys.' As he learns and gets better he should be a guy that can never be jammed out in space. You can only say that about a few tight ends."
If Cook can win against mismatches, defenses will have to adjust, and those adjustments should benefit Johnson and the receivers.
So come OTAs and camp, Cook needs to regain the confidence that helped produce those glowing early reviews, and feel like he did in the summer of 2009.
“I was on cloud nine, just having fun and playing,” he said of the time before he hurt the ankle. “I was just excited about being able to play that much. But I had heard a lot of things about how the preseason is just the preseason, it’s going to get a lot harder. So I was looking forward to it and I had high expectations. And then I just kind of blew my flat tire and it all let down.”