Tight end Jared Cook adds needed presence to Saints' offense

New Saints tight end Jared Cook will try to take some of the coverage away from wide receiver Michael Thomas. Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire

METAIRIE, La. -- Jared Cook stands out.

Of course he does. The New Orleans Saints' new tight end is a long and lean 6-foot-5, 254 pounds. He's a size-and-speed mismatch who especially catches the eye in these spring practices in which nobody is wearing pads.

“A phenomenal athlete,” said Saints tight ends coach Dan Campbell, who couldn’t resist raving about the 32-year-old Cook, a free-agent signee. “You know, he’s over 30, and he still runs like the wind. I mean, he can absolutely smoke. He’s got 35-inch arms. He is long -- man, he is long. And he is fast.”

Cook also stands out because of the void he is filling in the middle of New Orleans’ offense.

Last year, Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara were the only two Saints with more than 35 catches. The lack of reliable pass-catchers hurt the team as the offense started to fizzle down the stretch.

It’s too early to predict whether Cook can replicate the career-best season he had with the Oakland Raiders in 2018 (68 catches, 896 yards, six touchdowns and his first Pro Bowl selection in 10 seasons). But you could see the possibilities in the first two OTA practices open to the media this spring.

In the Saints' first set of full-team drills last week, Cook caught a pass over the middle. He was an emergency outlet when Drew Brees barely got rid of the ball under pressure, and Cook made an impressive effort to reach down low and behind him to snag the pass.

“He’s certainly a guy who can run. He’s got great length, so he’s got a big catch radius -- so you feel confident with those 50-50 balls,” Brees said. “You feel like there’s a lot of places where you can throw it where he can get it and the other guy can’t. So anytime you have a target like that, you feel like that’s a good matchup.

“Obviously, a lot of attention goes to Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. So I think having a weapon like that, in addition to the other pieces that we have as well, I think that they complement each other really, really well.”

Added Saints coach Sean Payton: “He's smart, and he’s got range. You see his route savviness and his ability to get in and out of cuts. The best thing he does is run after the catch. It's hard to measure that out here when we're not tackling, but he's real good that way.”

Expectations for Cook in New Orleans have to be tempered. The Saints struggled to get production from their most recent high-profile free-agent tight end, Coby Fleener. Cook himself was never quite able to match the lofty expectations earlier in his career with the Titans and Rams.

But it’s hard to not get excited about the possibilities of this marriage.

Obviously, nobody is expecting Cook to put up the kind of astronomical numbers that Jimmy Graham posted in New Orleans from 2011 to '14. But this has proven to be an offense in which pass-catching tight ends can thrive. When Graham left in 2015, veteran Benjamin Watson had a career year, with 74 catches, 825 yards and six TDs. Campbell even referenced that the Saints can “brush off some of this stuff we’ve done before” with Cook now in the fold.

Campbell also stressed that he has gotten to know Cook over the years and knows a lot of people who have worked with him and, “everybody vouches for the guy’s character.” Brees also said he has heard a lot of good things, and Cook has “come across as a real savvy veteran, a real pro.”

Perhaps most importantly, Cook really started to thrive when paired with coach Jon Gruden in Oakland the past two seasons. Payton shares a lot of his offensive philosophy with Gruden, a former boss and mentor.

When Cook signed a two-year, $15 million deal with the Saints, he acknowledged that “finding the right fit in this league is tough,” especially with so much turnover among coaches and personnel.

“[The Raiders] actually used me on what I’m good at,” Cook said. “Coach Gruden found ways to expose matchups all over the field, and he found ways to move me around in different positions that actually helped me and made me more versatile in my role on the field. So up until last year, that was a huge turning point.”

When asked the other day if he’s expecting that same type of usage in New Orleans, Cook said it’s still, and he’s still working on his chemistry with Brees and learning the intricacies of the offense. But he said, “I’m hoping so.”

It’s a big part of the reason he’s here.

“Last year was a big year for me. So I’m just trying to continue on that same path and do great things,” Cook said. “It’s always been a very tight-end-friendly offense. And I just thought this was a great place to come and extend my career and come to shine for a little bit.

“Having Mike and Alvin as pretty much the 1-2 combo last year, I felt that I can come in and kind of help Mike -- and at the same time him help me. And we can kind of relieve some pressure off of each other and make this a high-powered offense once again this year.”