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Jared Cook Finally in an Offense He Can Flourish In

Jared Cook Finally in an Offense He Can Flourish In

Raiders fans have always liked Jared Cook. What’s not to like about a big tight end who can block, catch and run? Until now, Cook hasn’t played in an offense built to his skills. Now, under Jon Gruden, Cook finally has the opportunity to shine.

Lost in the quagmire that was the Oakland Raiders offense during the 2017 season, was a solid performance by tight end Jared Cook. It was Cook’s first year with the squad after signing a two-year $10.6 million deal after the Green Bay Packers opted to sign free agent tight end Martellus Bennett last off-season.

jared cook oakland raiders

Gruden clearly thinks Cook was not utilized correctly under the former coaching staff.

Cook rewarded the staff by actually leading the team with 688 receiving yards. He also finished the season with 54 receptions which were only surpassed by former wide receiver Michael Crabtree‘s 58 catches. It was most likely his lack of touchdowns that prevented more people from noticing his contributions. He hauled in only 2 scores on the season though he did catch a third one that was called back on a questionable offensive pass interference penalty.

There may not be a better indicator of how poorly the former staff utilized the weapons at their disposal than recent comments from new head coach Jon Gruden. Despite spending the first month of his employment studying the team on film, he was still surprised by Cook in training camp.

“Jared Cook has had a great camp. I did not know Jared Cook moved like that,” Gruden said following Minicamp this week. “I knew he had really good pass receiving skills, but we can line him up at a lot of different places now. He’s been really sharp. We’ve asked him to do a lot.”

Athletic tight ends present the biggest challenge to a defensive coordinator when it comes to designing coverages. Do they utilize a linebacker who matches up physically but may not have the speed? Or do they go with a defensive back who has the quickness but may not match up with them from a physical standpoint? Gruden will force opposing coordinators to answer that question every week and then attack their defense based on their decisions.

Cook had his most productive game of last season when former offensive coordinator Todd Downing got him lined up outside, in man to man coverages. In their week 9 match-up with the Miami Dolphins, Cook put up 126 yards with eight completions on nine targets (88.9%).

This clip really highlights how much of a mismatch he is for a linebacker in space. The double move on this play might as well have been simple window dressing. Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso was beaten off the snap and never had a chance. This is the type of match-up you can expect Gruden to game plan into the offense every week. At 6-foot-5, and 255-pounds with a 4.49 40-time, Cook is the perfect blend of size and speed to be a focal point of the offensive game plan.

Gruden’s usage of running backs will benefit Cook as well provided projected starter Marshawn Lynch can fill the role. While Lynch has been known for his “Beastmode” runs, he has been inconsistent in the passing game as the first clip shows. He had 151 yards receiving with 20 receptions on 31 targets for a 64% completion rate.

For comparison, in Gruden’s last season coaching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a 33-year-old Warrick Dunn amassed 330 yards on 47 receptions and 68 targets for an almost 70% completion rate. As a group, Tampa Bay’s backfield accounted for 637 receiving yards that season.

The second play in this clip is a really good example of what Lynch is capable of when he catches the ball and is in space. There are not many defensive backs in the NFL that can tackle Lynch one on one in the open field. If he can become more consistent catching the ball, it will take the Raiders offense to new heights in 2018.

What does Lynch catching passes out of the backfield have to do with Cook, you may ask. Play number three in this clip illustrates the answer. New wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant, if available, are going to pull coverages deep this season. That is going to leave opposing linebackers in a lot of open space.

“I knew he had really good pass receiving skills, but we can line him up at a lot of different places now. He’s been really sharp. We’ve asked him to do a lot.” – John Gruden

The “rules” of coverage tell a linebacker to play “deep to shallow”, however, if a running back has established himself as a receiving threat, it is only natural for the linebackers to pay more attention to him. Just like in the third play, that will leave open zones behind them for Cook to work into.

There are certainly areas of his game that Cook needs to improve which will give him more opportunities as well. The most important being his run blocking. Cook seemed to struggle in that regard last season and I reached out to Austin Gayle of Pro Football Focus to get his take on Cook’s run blocking.

“Jared Cook ranked 50th among the 69 NFL tight ends with at least 130 run-block snaps with a 43.2 run-block grade in 2017, the lowest of his career by a significant margin,” Gayle said. “In his best run-blocking season (2015), Cook earned a 76.7 run-block grade that ranked 12th among qualifiers. His best years as a run-blocker are likely behind him, but he is more than capable of turning a much better effort in Jon Gruden’s system in 2018.”

Fans can certainly understand the importance of being able to support the run but may be overlooking the opportunities Cook will lose out on if he cannot stay on the field in running situations. Gruden’s offense is going to incorporate a great deal of play action as well as “run-pass option” (RPO) plays. To best disguise these play calls, he has to have the personnel on the field the defense will expect in running situations.

It doesn’t take much to imagine Cook catching the pass in this clip. With his speed, a seam pass like this could go for a long way. The defense has to respect him in run blocking situations though or their film study will have them prepared for possible trick plays. As Gayle points out, he has had great run blocking seasons before and should be more than motivated to do so again.

Lastly, the way the Raiders will deploy wide receiver Amari Cooper is going to open the field up for Cook as well. Gruden is well known for using multiple personnel packages and a weapon like Amari will give him the flexibility to attack defensive personnel packages. Expect him to get used similar to the way the Raiders utilized former wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.

If the defense comes out with a light box to defend against the Raiders passing game, quarterback Derek Carr is going to have run plays he will check to. That will include no-back personnel groups. Amari has 1 yard on 5 carries for his career but he has the athleticism to be a threat running the ball. Lining him up in the backfield alone will have an impact on the linebackers.

While slogans like “We take what we want” sound great and can get people hyped up, it’s not that easy. As King Durius learned at at the Battle of Gaugamela, you can’t just show up and expect to win. The modern NFL is about identifying, creating, and exploiting favorable match-ups. Jared Cook may be the best player on the Raider’s roster to do just that.

 

 

 

Chris Reed is the former Senior NFL analyst for Silver and Black Today.

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