Fantasy Football: Will Jared Cook Break Out With the Packers?

Tight end Jared Cook signed with the Green Bay Packers. Should fantasy owners take note?

I’m a well-documented “cat dad.”

My feline friend -- The Dark Lord CAThulhu -- is a cuddly critter but can get hyperactive when he’s been trapped alone in the apartment all day. Cats tend to be nocturnal creatures, so when I get home after a long day of work or classes, he is bouncing off the walls when I’m trying to go to sleep.

The only thing that calms him down: his catnip-filled cloth banana toy.

Interestingly, the only thing that calms down rabid Green Bay Packers fans in the offseason is signing a veteran free agent. We all know that general manager Ted Thompson is highly spending-averse, but he’s gone years without bringing in any major-impact talent to the Green Bay clubhouse. All of that changed when he signed former St. Louis Rams tight end Jared Cook yesterday.

We know that tight end has been a talent issue for the Packers since Jermichael Finley's tragic career-ending injury. Can Cook become the receiving threat the Packers sorely need at the spot, or will he sucker fantasy owners in once again with his unrealized upside?

Scratching That Itch

The big question I always have when a free agent signs with a new team is what the team situation itself looks like. If a quarterback signs with a team or head coach who specifically prefers a proficient rushing attack, that quarterback will likely have fewer opportunities to throw the ball, regardless of his past production or talent.

The same goes for a pass-catcher like Cook: if the Packers don’t throw the ball a lot or don’t allocate many targets to the tight end position, there’s less of a chance that he’s going to make the fantasy impact that many hope for in his new home.

That means we have to dig into the Packers’ historical passing numbers and see what we can expect is even available. The table below shows the Packers’ annual average drop backs, total targets to tight ends, tight end Target Share (percent of drop backs that are targets to the tight end), targets to the primary tight end, and primary tight end Target Share.

Year Drop Backs Total TE Tgt Total TS TE1 Tgt TE1 TS
2011 592 109 18.4% 92 15.5%
2012 610 114 18.7% 86 14.1%
2013 615 110 17.9% 53 8.6%
2014 566 80 14.1% 46 8.1%
2015 620 103 16.6% 85 13.7%

Over the last five years, the Packers’ use of the tight end position in full has decreased This may be a result of the talent the team has had at the position, however: we see a marked decline in the Target Share of the team’s primary tight end in 2014, which coincides exactly with the total tight end Target Share drop-off.

To compare, Cook himself has had Target Shares of 15.7 percent, 17.4 percent, and 15.3 percent from 2013 to 2015 while a member of the Rams. Yes, the Rams have been much more devoid of wide receiver talent than the Packers, but the primary tight end volume between Cook’s last three seasons and the last three seasons where the Packers did not have a tight end committee (2011, 2012, and 2015) is shockingly similar. Cook averaged 86 targets, Finley and Richard Rodgers averaged 88.

Speaking of Finley, the 2013 season was the one that saw him severely injured on a hit. He missed the rest of the year, which does skew the primary tight end Target Share data of that year slightly because he and Andrew Quarless split the role over the course of the year. That said, 2015 saw resurgence in the role’s utility, both in total and in the primary tight end role. Richard Rodgers became a fairly reliable underneath target for quarterback Aaron Rodgers -- also catching a few highlight-reel passes -- but still isn’t the sort of seam-stretching athletic talent the Pack had with Finley in the late 2000’s.

Is Jared Cook?

The Best Ingredient is Love

We’ve looked at quantity. Now, let’s examine quality.

The comparison everyone wants to make here is between Cook and Finley, in terms of athletic tight ends who can stretch the seams of a defense. Is it fair to say that the Packers’ tight end Target Shares with Cook could look like they did in Finley’s prime?

Let’s start with the basics. The table below compares the basic NFL Combine measurables for each tight end. Are they truly good comparisons?

Player Height/Weight Hand Span 40-Yard Vert Jump Broad Jump Shuttle 3-Cone
Jermichael Finley 6’4”/243 lb. 9.5” 4.82 27.5” 9’9” 4.38 7.15
Jared Cook 6’5”/246 lb. 10.25” 4.50 41” 10’3” 4.56* 7.25*

The starred numbers are drills not done in Cook’s Combine workout but that were done on his pro day.

By almost all measures, it appears Cook is significantly more athletic than Finley ever was. He has better explosiveness and verticality as well as faster top-end speed -- not to mention that he’s bigger and has larger hands.

Finley had much better production in the agility drills, however, which does help for an underneath receiver. If Cook runs deeper routes, though, these may not be as much of a concern for him with Green Bay.

Laugh It Up, Fuzzball

Based on physique, it seems very fair to put Cook and Finley in the same conversation. But can Cook integrate his tools as well as Finley did? To find this out, we can to turn to our old friend, the Net Expected Points (NEP) metric here at numberFire.

NEP is metric that takes the numbers we get from the box score and shows how that player did versus expectation. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. If Cook catches a pass for five yards on 3rd-and-2, it means more to the game than it does on 3rd-and-10, and those plays should be valued accordingly. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

We have a few good measures of quality in receiving work that I want to examine when considering whether or not Cook will fit in Green Bay: average Target NEP (the expected points gained or lost on all targets), Reception NEP per target, and Catch Rate. The table below compares Cook’s production in these categories since 2013 to Finley’s 2011 and 2012 seasons -- as well as to the NFL tight end average over the past three seasons.

Player Avg. Target NEP Rec NEP/Tgt Catch Rate
Jermichael Finley 33.26 0.71 65.17%
Jared Cook 3.71 0.54 55.04%
2013-15 Average 8.27 0.60 64.89%

Here’s where Cook starts to look a bit concerning. We know he’s an athletic marvel, but he’s never been able to convert his true talent into production. He’s had a 6.15 percent Drop Rate over the past three years (3.97 percent league average for tight ends). What’s interesting, however, is that -- despite Finley’s better Catch Rate -- he also had a worse Drop Rate at 10.05 percent from 2011 to 2012.

It’s also worth noting that a receiver’s Target NEP and Reception NEP per target are closely tied to the production of the quarterback themselves (0.52 and 0.37 R-correlation, respectively). There is some hope that being freed from the likes of Sam Bradford, Shaun Hill, Case Keenum, and Nick Foles will boost Cook’s receiving value.

The pull of getting to play with one of the greatest quarterbacks of the modern era in Aaron Rodgers had to have been catnip for Jared Cook’s choice. Fantasy owners will be tantalized as well, and for good reason. Just be careful you don’t get bitten.