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19 Jan 2017

Film Room: Jared Cook

by Cian Fahey

Very few teams are run like the Green Bay Packers. The Packers are unique in that they are the only team in the league that doesn't have a singular owner, but more significant is the singular philosophy of the team's general manager. Ted Thompson has been in charge of personnel in Green Bay since 2005. You'll likely know Thompson's name because he is regularly lauded for his ability to unearth prospects in the draft. While Thompson has hit on a few later-round picks who have developed into good players, the praise he receives generally has little to do with who he picks, but rather how many of those picks are on his roster.

A Cleveland.com study published a day before the draft last year revealed that 37 of the Packers' 53 rostered players in 2015 had been drafted by the franchise. Only six teams had at least 30 such players on their rosters, and only the Cincinnati Bengals had more than Green Bay with 38. Furthermore, 18 of the Packers' starters had been drafted by the club, more than any other team. That part is important, because it reflects how Thompson refuses to make investments in free agency. He will re-sign his own players to big contracts, but he won't aggressively pursue better players from other teams.

Only two players on the current roster can be considered free-agent additions of any kind of significance. Julius Peppers was a great addition in 2014. At the time he was a 34-year-old coming off a disappointing spell with the Chicago Bears. As such he wasn't a high priority on the open market and signed a team-friendly deal. Peppers' only guaranteed money was his $7.5 million signing bonus.

The other free agent of significance is Jared Cook. Cook was signed this past offseason. The 29-year-old has been a constant disappointment throughout his career, so he only cost the Packers $3.6 million on a one-year deal.

Shutting off an avenue through which you can improve your team is not a smart strategy. If you look at recent Super Bowl-winning teams, you will see rosters that have maximized their level of talent by taking advantage of all available avenues. The 2013 Seattle Seahawks built their foundation through the draft, but signed Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril in free agency while also acquiring Marshawn Lynch and Percy Harvin in trades. The 2014 New England Patriots signed the biggest free agent on the market that year when they paid Darrelle Revis huge money. Revis and fellow free-agent addition Brandon Browner became key components of the defense. Last year's Denver Broncos team featured free-agent additions Peyton Manning, Emmanuel Sanders, Owen Daniels, Louis Vasquez, Evan Mathis, DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, and Darian Stewart. By almost completely avoiding free agency, you're giving your team a smaller margin for error.

Yet, despite the obvious evidence, Thompson will continue to be lavished with praise for his philosophy. There are two reasons for this. One: if you say a cliché often enough it becomes accepted as truth; therefore good teams build through the draft has become free agency is evil. Two: Thompson has Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers has been the great equalizer in Green Bay this year. Despite the Packers' glaring flaws on the field and on the sidelines, Rodgers' play has elevated everyone around him and allowed the team to transcend logic. Take Jordy Nelson, for example. Nelson's numbers are great this year. He led the league in touchdowns. Yet Nelson has barely been able to move since returning from his ACL tear. He doesn't create separation in his routes anymore. He relies on Rodgers to throw him open, or to extend plays so that the defensive backs have to cover for a prolonged period past expectation. On the other side of the field, Davante Adams finished the regular season with the second-most touchdowns in the league -- but he dropped at least six more. Rodgers has reached such a level that he can make any move that Thompson makes look smarter than it actually is. He is consistently playing to a level that most quarterbacks never reach for even a moment during their lifetimes

When Cook caught that pass on Sunday, Thompson immediately came to mind.

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Cook caught a 36-yard pass from Rodgers with five seconds left in the fourth quarter. It set up the game-winning field goal for Mason Crosby. In Hail Mary situations, the Packers like to roll Rodgers out of the pocket to the left. It's not something you expect a right-handed quarterback to do, but with Rodgers' arm talent and mechanics moving to his left, he is able to make any throw from this platform. Cook runs a deep crossing route as the receivers around him clear out by running directly to the end zone. Cook gets enough time to cross the face of linebacker Sean Lee. Lee passes him off to safety Byron Jones, but the tight end is behind Jones so the safety isn't able to react. Rodgers recognizes this and makes an outstanding throw.

Despite the precise throw, Cook still has to make a tough reception.

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Because the ball arrives on the sideline instead of out over the white, Cook can body-catch it into his chest. This makes the play easier for the tight end, but he still has to slow his movement to keep his feet in bounds. Securing the ball and touching both feet down at the same time before falling out of bounds looks a lot easier in slow motion than it actually is.

It should also be noted that Cook is a tight end and not a wide receiver. That means his feet are bigger and his body is heavier, so his ability to tap his toes quickly isn't what Antonio Brown's or Odell Beckham's would be. It was Cook's sixth reception of the game, pushing him to 103 yards and a touchdown. Unsurprisingly, he quickly became the star of the moment.

So why did Thompson come to mind? Cook was the team's big free-agent addition this year who came up big on an important play. Partly that. But moreso the two plays before that.

That game-winning play was the third downfield throw that Rodgers threw on that drive. (He had four pass attempts, but one was a screen to Ty Montgomery.) All three of those downfield throws were spectacular. All three went to Cook. Only one was caught.

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One of the main benefits of playing with Rodgers is that negative plays have less of an impact. If you play with a normal quarterback, you will only get a certain amount of perfect throws. If you ruin a perfect throw with a mistake at the catch point, it's harder to get that yardage back because you can't rely on your quarterback to throw another perfect pass. The consistency with which Rodgers throws his receivers open with perfect passes means that they can overcome more receiver errors than other teams. Cook becomes a celebrated figure because he caught the third pass on a drive where he ruined two previous plays.

In the above GIF you can see Cook clap his hands together as the ball whistles between them. His ball skills are so bad that his hands never even touch the ball to give him the opportunity to drop it. This angle gives you the best look at how bad Cook's play was, but you need other angles to recognize just how phenomenal a throw it was from his quarterback.

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Over the course of his career, Rodgers has proven to be the best quarterback in the league at throwing back-shoulder passes. He and Nelson developed a rapport where the duo understood how to read what each other would see so that those plays became automatic. Other teams can't simply replicate what Nelson and Rodgers did together because throwing back-shoulder passes is extremely difficult.

It's difficult because you have to anticipate the right spot, throw the ball with perfect timing, and throw it into a tiny window. The throw is indefensible when you get it right, but that's the trade-off for making an extremely difficult play. Those throws normally go outside the numbers too, which adds another layer of difficulty because you have to push the ball further downfield to find your intended target.

This back-shoulder throw to Jared Cook has to be perfect to hit a tiny window. Rodgers is throwing Cook open against Man-2 where the defender covering Cook is blanketed to his body. While Rodgers is not pushing the ball outside the numbers, he is working with a tighter angle so the difficulty of the throw isn't reduced. Rodgers throws Cook open perfectly on a play where the tight end doesn't need to do anything except catch the ball. He fails.

That set up a second-and-10 where a Ty Montgomery screen moved the offense downfield. Montgomery then blew his protection on the following first down to concede a 10-yard sack. On second-and-20, Rodgers was forced to go to Cook again.

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Again the Cowboys use two deep safeties with man across the board underneath. The Packers roll the pocket to the right with route combinations that rely on Geronimo Allison clearing the safety out by getting downfield as fast as possible. Allison can't get upfield fast enough, so the double-move inside of him doesn't have any space to break into. Meanwhile, Rodgers can't hold the ball because there is a linebacker closing on him. This forces him to throw the ball to Cook.

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It's true that Cook has played in bad situations throughout his career. He never had a great quarterback in Tennessee or in St. Louis -- he arguably never even had a competent one. It's also true that Cook was a bad player in those spots independent of who was throwing him the ball. He is considered a good athlete largely because of his size and straight-line speed, but his athleticism has little on-field value. The first thing you should note on this play is the awful route that Cook runs. He is a linear athlete, so he needs to be smart in setting up his out route by pushing into Byron Jones' coverage through his break. Accelerating upfield or making an aggressive movement to threaten an in-breaking route into Jones' body would give him an opportunity to turn outside with space behind him. Instead, Cook makes Jones' coverage easy by running his route as if it were painted on the ground.

Despite Cook's lack of separation, and releasing the ball while on the move with a linebacker in his face, Rodgers gives Cook a good chance to make a play on the ball. The tight end needs to either win at the catch point with strong hands or work back to the ball to make the reception. Instead, he displays the same lethargy he showed in his route, simply reaching out apathetically and hoping to secure the ball before Jones' hand can disrupt the play.

This play perfectly sums up the limitations of Cook and the reasons why he was in position to sign a one-year deal in the offseason. He doesn't create separation, and he doesn't win at the catch point. You have to do one of those two things to offer value as a receiver in the NFL.

With a cyborg quarterback, the Packers have a great chance at winning their next two games and becoming Super Bowl champions again. Don't conflate that with this being the best team in the league. It's not. It's far from the best team in the league. Unless the defense suddenly becomes dominant (or even competent) over the next two games; unless the running game starts carrying the offense; unless the receivers become YAC merchants who make great plays at the catch point; or unless the offensive scheme is significantly altered, Rodgers dragging this roster, this coaching staff, and this general manager to another Super Bowl would be an achievement that is unparalleled in modern times.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 19 Jan 2017

32 comments, Last at 23 Jan 2017, 8:57pm by t.d.

Comments

1
by dandoepke :: Thu, 01/19/2017 - 4:30pm

I don't know... I think one could make a similar argument for not making free agent acquisitions. With a salary cap, every team (more or less) has the same amount of money to spend on putting the best possible team together. The pitfall of free agency seems to be that if you want the big name free agent, you have to offer a bigger payday than the player probably deserves. So there's a high probability of a free agent not living up to his paycheck, which can hurt a team salary-cap wise as well as in compensatory draft picks.

Obviously I can see why the Broncos loaded up on free agents, as their window for a SB win with Peyton was closing fast. But if a team has a relatively young, talented QB, you could argue that in a sport with a high rate of injury, high rate of random outcomes, and a single-elimination playoff system, the best way to maintain a high level of play on an annual basis would be to strictly pay players what they are worth, stockpile draft picks, and keep a young roster full of rookie contracts. I think Ted Thompson has done that successfully.

I'm not sure what the rest of the roster and Mike McCarthy's coaching staff did to deserve the knock in the last sentence, but perhaps that's an article for another time.

6
by Flounder :: Thu, 01/19/2017 - 6:51pm

Yeah, that last sentence seemed.....inflammatory just to be inflammatory.

2
by SkittlesAreYum :: Thu, 01/19/2017 - 5:11pm

I've had my complaints about McCarthy and Capers, and it's true that Cook isn't an elite TE, but this article comes off as very contemptuous of the team and management (sans Rodgers). I don't think that's entirely fair, and to be honest it sounds a little unprofessional.

3
by Nevic :: Thu, 01/19/2017 - 5:42pm

I think the point of contention with Thompson is that he ALMOST COMPLETELY avoids free agency (or the trade market), erring too far on that end of the spectrum. The hypothesis being that minimal free agency spending is optimal, but Thompson is still even below that threshold. This article makes that point and it is one I mostly agree with.

Think what the GB offense might look like if Thompson traded for Martellus Bennett earlier this year. It only took a 4th round pick from NE.

5
by Anon Ymous :: Thu, 01/19/2017 - 6:50pm

To make your point even stronger, NE got Bennett *and* Chicago's 6th round pick. This makes the actual compensation more like a late 5th, early 6th.

16
by justanothersteve :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 8:43am

I would doubt Chicago would have traded Bennett to a division rival. About the only trades where that happens are when the trader knows the player is damaged goods (e.g., McNabb).

17
by big10freak :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 9:41am

Agreed.

18
by dandoepke :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 11:54am

Yep - I remember when that trade happened it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that the Bears didn't want Bennett to go to a division rival.

Not to keep bashing on Cian's article (because he's an entertaining writer and I enjoy reading a strong opinion even if I disagree), but his thesis lends credence to the more absurd opinions about McCarthy and Thompson that are nearly inescapable in Packerland. So many fans assume that there are much better GMs and head coaches just waiting to be hired.

If the reasoned argument is that Thompson needs to be more proactive in signing mid to low level free agents, fine. But once the overpaid, big name free agents are signed and you separate out the garbage, how many players are on that middling level on an annual basis? And how do you woo them to come to your team as "depth", possibly to be replaced by a younger draft pick? And are those players worth that much more than a potential compensatory draft pick?

While many players on the current Packers roster are young and inexperienced, for the first time in a while I feel like there are no glaring, immediate needs at any given position. Compare that with two of the SB winning teams given as examples early in the article: Denver has to hope that Paxton Lynch is the answer at QB, Seattle has a terrible offensive line and in hindsight, the trades for Harvin and Graham don't look great. Plus the Chancellor holdout should be a reminder of what happens when players feel underpaid compared to splashy free agent signings. Green Bay hasn't had a holdout since the Mike Sherman years. Both Seattle and Denver's GMs have the same number of SB wins as Thompson.

As far as the dig on McCarthy, to me he proved his mettle in the 2013 season when Rodgers was hurt and he somehow won enough games to take the division with Matt Flynn signed and suddenly thrown into the lineup. Flynn couldn't beat out Matt McGloin and Terelle Pryor in Oakland. People tend to assume that Aaron Rodgers would have turned into the QB that he is no matter where he played, but after watching RG3 and Kaepernick implode so quickly, I'm inclined to give McCarthy a fair amount of credit.

29
by Nevic :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 2:53pm

This is a great reply, you make a great point on whether those free agents would sign as depth. An agreement requires buy in from both sides. I would think some might for a chance to win a SB, but I know most athletes play to maximize their pay.

Regarding McCarthy, he is a great developer, but a terrible in-game manager. If he could fix that piece, or hire an assistant to do that for him, he would be #2 to Belicheck. But his blunders are so costly at times, and when they lead to painful playoff exits, the fans pine for something else.

30
by DisplacedPackerFan :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 3:07pm

When he handed play calling off to Clement a couple years back (or was that just last year?) I was excited because I thought that was a great acknowledgement of the problems he has as a game manager. But that experiment failed so badly that before the season was out he was back to calling plays. I'm generally fine with his game manage for the first three quarters, he does drive me nuts in the 4th though.

20
by Eddo :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 12:02pm

Regarding Bennett, he's a player that has been disruptive in the clubhouse when things aren't going well. And given that the Packers seem to have a stretch every year where lots of people are asking, "What's wrong with the offense?", it's hard to blame Thompson for avoiding Bennett (even if the Bears had been willing to make such a trade).

4
by natnat :: Thu, 01/19/2017 - 6:39pm

Interesting how you said that Nelson does not create separation on his routes any more. From a simple eye test I would definitely agree with you, that this season he has definitely seemed to have lacked explosive ability. But according to NFL Next Gen stats Nelson was 5th among wide receivers at 2.68 yards per target with a whooping 2.97 yards when lined up in the slot.
I am slightly sceptical about the methodology of Next Gen Stats because some QB's will be better at 'throwing open' a WR- think of a crossing route where the placement of the ball will largely determine whether the defender is closer to the WR or not.

12
by wrbrooks :: Thu, 01/19/2017 - 11:35pm

If the QB only a receiver when that guy gets open, then the "per target" numbers will look like he's got a lot of separation. I think a better measure is the time Rodgers holds the ball, because that's how long it takes to find an open receiver. This year, Rodgers has been holding the ball forever and taking a lot of sacks because his receivers aren't coming open.

21
by Eddo :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 12:04pm

This seems exactly right. I know I say that Nelson's not a bad WR elsewhere in this thread, but if he were playing with a QB that doesn't have amazing scrambling ability, I think the general consensus on him would be that he's done. He's just not getting separation on his base routes - it's Rodgers's ability to keep plays alive and Nelson's familiarity with his QB that allows him to make plays while improvising.

22
by Flounder :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 12:15pm

Ehh, I wouldn't say that. The first half of the season - yes, he looked done. But while he does not and will never have the same amount of explosion as he did in 2014, his explosiveness and ability to get separation saw a significant uptick during the second half of the year. He may have a year or two reasonably effective play left.

23
by big10freak :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 12:48pm

I agree. The last 5-6 games he seemed to be closer to his former self. And I described him as a glorified tight end halfway through the season

Favre made Bill Schroeder a 1000 yard receiver. Schroeder was soft, short armed passes in traffic and ran poor routes 25 percent of the time. Nelson and Adams are well above that standard

31
by dank067 :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 3:48pm

The tell on Nelson is that most of his big plays now come when he starts lined up in the slot, or on routes where he crosses the field, usually vs zone. He used to be so devastating split wide but now he can't get open much anymore on his old vertical, deep post and comebacks.

Nelson still has plenty to offer because he does a great job using space and still displays good ball skills but the Packers do miss his old skill set pretty badly. None of their other current receivers can really do what he did and while they have done some more creative schematic stuff recently, they still tend to fall back on their base formations and routes and just count on Rodgers to make plays.

7
by lrargerich :: Thu, 01/19/2017 - 7:01pm

"Montgomery then blew his protection on the following first down to concede a 10-yard sack"

Montgomery was on the other side of the play. Rodgers lost track of Jeff Heath or he would have shifted Montgomery to the left where Bakthiari and Taylor were clearly outnumbered.

For a guy that is so aware of the game losing track of Jeff Heath is a big mistake. Rodgers was not himself after the interception, he has an incredible talent and technique but he is also prone to mental lapses when the game is on the line.

8
by Flounder :: Thu, 01/19/2017 - 7:08pm

Montgomery blew it. RBs get asked to make that block all the time. But he's been a rb for 1/2 a season - he's going to have some screw-ups.

9
by Flounder :: Thu, 01/19/2017 - 7:09pm

I also don't quite get the implicit criticism of signing Cook in an article criticizing a lack of free agents moves (which I don't disagree with). This is a free agent signing that has worked out great!

Jared Cook is not getting paid like a upper-echelon tight end: he's getting paid like a tight end distinctly better than Richard Rodgers, which is exactly what he is. I don't understand the implicit criticism of a signing that is exactly the type of signing GB fans and beat writers (Bob McGinn) have been arguing Thompsons should make, mid to low-level deals that improve roster depth. That's exactly what was done with Cook - and it has worked out.

10
by timtones :: Thu, 01/19/2017 - 8:39pm

The point is:
-this team is crap
-Rodgers is awesome
-and make them look good
It is true.
Congrats, Cian

15
by big10freak :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 1:06am

The offensive line is garbage? That is news to everyone around the NFL. A line completely drafted by Thompson

And by FO's own stats Adams is a top 20 receiver in 2016. Yet the guy continues to take shots in FO articles because he is not perfect

The defense stinks because the secondary has been gutted by injury. Meanwhile the front 7, almost all Thompson draft picks, grades out as solid

As Flounder pointed out, Cook was signed to be better than the current guy. He is. The offense took off when Cook got healthy and became part of the starting receiving corps.

And special teams are now above average. How did Rodgers make that happen?

19
by Eddo :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 12:00pm

Agreed on the offensive line, though I think it's fair to question how much of Adams's production is on him and how much is due to playing with a QB as amazing as Rodgers.

But Adams definitely isn't a bad WR. Neither are Cobb or the older, post-ACL-tear Nelson. So while Rodgers has certainly taken an offense that should be merely average-to-good and made them very-good-to-great, the whole "he's working with nothing" meme seems very, very overblown.

28
by Arkaein :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 2:20pm

While Adams definitely has consistency issues, and is more likely to screw up an offensive play than Rodgers is, it's worth noting that Rodgers only INT against Dallas this last game was on a play where Adams had badly beaten the CB for a likely TD, but Rodgers put the ball inside where the safety could get to it.

Now that Adams has two good ankles, unlike last year, he probably does the best job getting open quickly of all GB's WRs. He's been more effective on slants than anyone I can remember since either Driver or Jennings.

11
by ansum :: Thu, 01/19/2017 - 10:23pm

"Those throws normally go outside the numbers too, which adds another layer of difficulty because you have to push the ball further downfield to find your intended target."

With his mobility and creativity it seems like Rodgers' ballpath is often near parallel to the sideline on a lot of "those throws," so I don't know if the ball is traveling all that much further. I don't watch every Packers game so I could be mistaken. Regardless, many of those passes are thrown on the run which is impressive in its own right.

Great article. Thanks.

13
by YoungWayneLarrivee :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 1:04am

Ted's drafted this entire offensive line.
Ted's drafted most of the receivers that have been great, Cobb and Nelson most notably.
By staying out of the free-agent market, and signing UDFAs, Ted got himself some compensatory picks in the draft. He's used those to draft guys, notably Mike Daniels and Josh Sitton
Ted Thompson> Dan Snyder

14
by YoungWayneLarrivee :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 1:04am

Ted's drafted this entire offensive line.
Ted's drafted most of the receivers that have been great, Cobb and Nelson most notably.
By staying out of the free-agent market, and signing UDFAs, Ted got himself some compensatory picks in the draft. He's used those to draft guys, notably Mike Daniels and Josh Sitton
Ted Thompson> Dan Snyder

24
by ryanwanger :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 12:49pm

While I agree with much of this article, ESPN recently posted that when Cook is on the field, Rodgers QBR goes up 13 points and he's average two more yards per attempt. Was hoping the article would be delving into that. Cook is not a rock star in terms of skills, but I would love to understand why he has such a big impact on the success of the offense. Something more concrete than the notorious "matchup problem".

25
by big10freak :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 12:54pm

Something also overlooked about Cook is that he is ok at chipping on his way out on a pattern. Richard Rodgers is terrIble at chipping as he often loses his balance while making an awful chip. Cook will shove the defender and launch into his route

This basic competency is huge for number 12

26
by EnderCN :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 1:41pm

It was obvious how badly Rodgers needed a real TE last year and Thompson addressed it. What is really amazing more than anything to me is how many playoff games the Packers have won considering how fragile the team has been. I've never seen a run where a team was this injured this often for this long of a stretch of seasons. Even the year they won it all they broke records for most time missed by starters.

I don't know if it is a conditioning thing or they are not taking body type into account enough during the draft or just bad luck but it is crazy how many of their players have been hurt over the past 6 years.

27
by Flounder :: Fri, 01/20/2017 - 2:16pm

They had great health in 2014 - just screwed the pooch.

32
by t.d. :: Mon, 01/23/2017 - 8:57pm

Didn't the Pats get Revis on the cheap in 2014? Thought the 'big money' was set to kick in in 2015 (which is why they let him go)