We’ve been doing a lot of single-player profiles at numberFire lately, but a lot of those articles have keyed in on the way a player might exceed or fall short of expectations. I’d like to take a look at a player who just might be the surest bet in the league to meet our expectations...or, at least, what our expectations should be.
Jared Cook is now entering his sixth season in the NFL. (You read that correctly - his sixth season. Other blue-hairs drafted in 2009, in case you were wondering, include Matthew Stafford, Michael Crabtree, and Knowshon Moreno.) Fantasy footballers have pegged Cook as a “sleeper” at tight end approximately seven out of his five years in the league, but so far he hasn’t managed to truly break out.
Last year was almost certainly his best campaign yet; he led the Rams in receiving with a career-high 51 catches for 671 yards and 5 touchdowns despite losing his starting quarterback, Sam Bradford, for the better part of the season. He finished 15th among tight ends in Net Expected Points (NEP), which isn’t a terrible outcome by any means for a guy who entered a new system in the offseason and then lost his starting quarterback.
At a cursory glance, Cook’s performance last year might seem like his floor. But in reality, it’s probably closer to his ceiling. He opened the 2013 season with a bang, catching seven passes for a whopping 141 yards and two scores. But after that, Cook all but disappeared. In case you don’t want to do the math, those 141 yards represent over 21% of Cook’s receiving total on the year. The Rams’ Week 2 contest against the Falcons was a particularly low point, as Cook caught just one ball on five targets for 10 yards on the day.
After Cook’s scorching performance in the opener, the poor guy only had one other double-digit fantasy performance all year, a 4-for-80-with-a-touchdown outing in a 42-21 blowout win over the Bears. Ultimately, Cook only eclipsed the 50-yard mark twice in sixteen games, and that Week 1 display remained his only game with more than 5 receptions.
There are a number of reasons why a guy like Cook might have had a season like that, and all of them remain red flags in 2014. Let’s break them down one by one:
1. The Rams just don’t have elite offensive weapons. Even if you ignore the mediocre play of Sam Bradford during his time in the league, it’s difficult to look past the guys who surround Cook. Second-year burner Tavon Austin has potential, but he was mostly a non-factor in his rookie season. His compatriots at wide receiver are Chris Givens, Brian Quick, Austin Pettis, Kenny Britt and Stedman Bailey, none of whom are exactly Torry Holt. And while running back Zac Stacy was impressive as a rookie, he’s not yet the kind of stud rusher who can draw enough attention to open up the passing game.
2. He hasn’t made the most of his limited opportunities. Last year, Jared Cook was targeted 85 times. He caught 51 of those passes, good for a catch rate of exactly 60%. Among the 20 tight ends targeted most often last year, the only ones with worse catch rates than Cook were Coby Fleener, Garrett Graham, and a very gimpy Rob Gronkowski. He also ranked just 24th among tight ends in Reception NEP per target, at 0.65. It’s difficult to predict better results for Jared Cook in 2014 when the volume of squandered opportunities has been so high in the past.
3. Sam Bradford isn’t going to help. You might think that Bradford’s injury and subsequent replacement by journeyman Kellen Clemens put a damper on Cook’s season, but advanced metrics show that the two quarterbacks had remarkably similar production last year: Bradford threw 277 passes for a passing NEP of -1.02 and a Success Rate of 46.21%, while Clemens threw 263 passes for a passing NEP of -3.80 and a Success Rate of 45.25%. Even if the Rams get a full year out of Sam Bradford, don’t expect a dramatic rise in Cook’s fortunes.
4. Lance Kendricks is still around. Don’t forget about Lance Kendricks, the Rams’ other one-time sleeper tight end, who’ll line up opposite Cook more often than not. Kendricks has been a minor but nonzero part of the Rams offense over the last few years, and this season he’s projected by numberFire at 50th among tight ends, with about 22 receptions, 201 yards, and a pair of scores. That’s barely a blip on the fantasy radar, but it’s enough to steal potential production away from Jared Cook.
The bottom line is that Jared Cook is what he is: an athletically-gifted but fantasy-limited tight end. numberFire’s analytics have him ranked 16th among tight ends, and that gray area between TE1 and fantasy non-factor is right where he belongs. You may get into the late rounds of your draft, see the name “Jared Cook”, and hear a quiet voice whispering “sleeper” in the back of your mind, since it’s been conditioned into you like Pavlov’s dogs for the last five years. But this is a guy who probably doesn’t have any more upside than we’ve already seen, and if you’re trying to win your fantasy football league, it’s probably not enough.