FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- With eight words, New York Jets coach Robert Saleh unwittingly sparked intense fan and media speculation with regard to potential interest in free agent running back Dalvin Cook.
"We'll turn the stones over on that one," Saleh said recently.
From all indications, the Jets have maintained a level of interest in Cook. How much is unclear. Looking for clues, perceptive fans noticed that team owner Woody Johnson recently on Twitter started following Cook -- the only non-Jets player (past or present) on his follow list. Hmm.
With 39-year-old quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the Jets believe they have a one- or two-year championship window. They have a gifted running back in Breece Hall, but he is only nine months removed from ACL surgery on his left knee. While the team expects Hall to be ready for Week 1, it might make sense to purchase an expensive insurance policy.
"A lot of people got me pegged going back home [to Miami, and playing with the Dolphins], and a lot of people got me going to the Jets," Cook said last week on Sirius XM NFL Radio. "It's all over the place right now. But what's going to be important for me is just going to that right situation and helping somebody turn the page.
"I want to go and be the piece that can just help somebody win and get over the hump, and whatever that situation comes with -- if it comes with me taking less reps but me being in the perfect situation to hold up that trophy -- I don't mind."
Let's take a closer look at Cook's potential fit with the Jets:
How would Cook fit in with Rodgers and Nathaniel Hackett's offense?
As far as we know, Cook's name doesn't appear on a Rodgers "wish list," but that doesn't mean Cook wouldn't be welcomed by the new QB1. Rodgers knows what talent looks like, and he has seen plenty of Cook in the NFC North.
In nine games against the Green Bay Packers, the former Minnesota Vikings star rushed for 650 yards, 4.6 per carry and seven touchdowns. Two of his top five career rushing games (163 and 154 yards) came against the Pack. Rodgers came to the Jets with one goal -- win a Super Bowl -- and you can bet he wants the team to do everything it can to maximize the opportunity.
Schematically, Cook would be a nice fit. In Hackett's West Coast-style offense, the Jets will use an outside zone rushing scheme -- that is, "stretch" plays that require the running back to accelerate upfield as soon as he spots a crease.
Cook said the outside zone is "a perfect fit" for him. It should be noted, however, that he made that comment in relation to the Dolphins, thought to be a suitor.
The Jets have big plans for their rushing attack. As a defensive-minded coach, Saleh believes in running the football. Hackett's most successful seasons as a coordinator came with high-powered ground attacks. They're not going to bail on the running game just because they have a future Hall of Famer at quarterback.
Even though the league has gone pass wild, Keith Carter, the new offensive line coach and run game coordinator, said, "I do believe there's an element where you can still run the ball in this league."
Is Cook still an elite running back?
This is where it gets tricky.
Cook and Nick Chubb are the only two running backs with at least 1,000 rushing yards in each of the past four seasons, but take a closer look at Cook's metrics. He is on a two-year decline.
Since 2020, his yards per rush have gone from 5.0 to 4.7 to 4.4. His rushing yards over expected has slipped from 171 to 40 to -21, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. His success rate, which takes into account down and distance on each rush, has dropped from 48% to 42% to 36%.
Cook will turn 28 on Aug. 10, typically an age when high-volume running backs start to wear down. Consider: In 2022, only three backs in the 28-and-over category rushed for 500 yards -- Derrick Henry, Latavius Murray and Raheem Mostert.
No doubt, Jets general manager Joe Douglas is aware of the analytics. While Cook still would be an upgrade over secondary backs Michael Carter, Zonovan Knight and rookie Israel Abanikanda, Douglas must decide if the gap is large enough to warrant a significant contract for a player who appears to be on the downside.
What about Cook's health?
Cook started every game last season for the first time in his career, but he played with a chronic shoulder injury that required surgery in February. A torn labrum was repaired; his recovery reportedly is going well.
"It’s going to be a big difference, man, not just it being in my head anymore, just me going and playing football and being me," Cook said recently on the Adam Schefter podcast. "For people that’s going through, like, a similar situation, you should get your shoulder done or not, it’s always in the back of your head when you take any carry. When you get the ball, it’s always in your head, like, ‘My shoulder could possibly come out.'”
Cook, plagued by shoulder issues since his college days at Florida State, suffered a dislocation last season in Week 3 but played through it and opted to get it fixed. Will he be 100 percent healthy by the start of the season? That's a key question for the Jets.
Can the Jets afford him?
From a salary cap standpoint, yes, they can. They have $23 million in cap space, according to NFL Players Association data, which gives them plenty of flexibility relative to the rest of the league. Perhaps a better question would be, do they want to splurge for a running back?
The position has been devalued in recent years. It's one of the reasons the Vikings decided to move on from Cook. Despite an impressive résumé -- Henry and Chubb are the only two players with more rushing yards than Cook over the past four years -- Cook got a pink slip because the Vikings didn't want to pay his $11 million salary.
Douglas falls in line with the rest of the league when it comes to paying running backs. In four years, he never has handed out a contract worth more than $2.3 million per year (Hall's rookie deal). Yes, the Jets did have Le'Veon Bell for 2019 and part of 2020 at $13.1 million per year, but Douglas inherited that onerous contract from the previous administration.
Cook reportedly is seeking close to $10 million per year, but the guaranteed money is what counts the most. Miles Sanders (Carolina Panthers) and David Montgomery (Detroit Lions) received $13 million and $8.75 million, respectively, in guarantees on contracts signed this offseason. Cook has a better body of work than they do, but he is two years older than Sanders and Montgomery, and teams have less money to spend in June and July.
It probably makes sense to wait until July 17, the deadline for signing franchise-tagged players. Cook could gain negotiating leverage if one or more of the tagged running backs -- Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs or Tony Pollard -- lands a long-term deal before the deadline.
How would Cook's signing affect Quinnen Williams?
The Jets can afford both in regard to the cap, but a Cook deal would send a mixed message.
While it could be hailed as another example of the organization being all-in for 2023, it also could be perceived as a slight toward Williams -- one of the Jets' few homegrown stars.
The Jets are deep into negotiations with the All-Pro defensive tackle on a long-term extension, with Saleh saying he expects a deal to get done by training camp. If Cooks gets paid before camp and Williams doesn't, it would prompt the question: What about taking care of your own?
What does this mean for Hall?
The Jets are optimistic about Hall's chances for Week 1, according to Saleh, but ACL injuries are hard to predict. While he could be cleared to play, it's hard to say when he will recapture the form that allowed him to average 5.8 yards per carry as a rookie. It makes sense to ease him in, which means they need a strong RB2 to help them navigate a tough early schedule.
Can they count on Carter and Knight, both of whom averaged only 3.5 yards per rush? Is Abanikanda ready for a key role? These are questions Douglas & Co. will mull over the next few weeks.