Jared Cook might be the happiest man in Green Bay.
And who could blame him?
The eighth-year pro smiled his way through more than 15 minutes of questions on Wednesday. Smiles are rare for veterans stuck in the dog days of training camp. But Cook has ample reasons to be overjoyed, even in the middle of August.
— After missing most of the offseason practices and the first two weeks of training camp, Cook returned to practice on Tuesday night and put on a show with three touchdowns and two other long gains. He added another touchdown on Wednesday.
“You’ve got football withdrawals, man,” Cook said after Wednesday’s practice. “It’s not easy when you’re so accustomed to being out there. It’s all about having fun. Just to get back into it and go wide open with it felt great.”
— After such a dazzling display, Cook can’t help but think of the possibilities. “All the time,” Cook said. After being cut by the Rams, finding a quarterback was on top of Cook’s priority list. In his first seven seasons, he played with 11 starters. There were first-round busts Vince Young, Jake Locker and Sam Bradford, and mediocre (or worse) guys such as Austin Davis, Kellen Clemens, Case Keenum and Rusty Smith. If Cook has never put up stats worthy of his otherworldly combination of size and speed, quarterback play would be Reason No. 1. His best year came in 2011, when he had 49 receptions for a career-high 759 yards with the best quarterback he’s played with: Matt Hasselbeck. By contrast, Aaron Rodgers, the two-time MVP, is a living legend.
“You know, Aaron is in a league of his own,” Cook said. “I’m just going to put it like that. I’m not going to compare him to nobody, I’m not going to compare anybody to him. He’s special, man. You all have seen it. I’ve seen it on TV for years. It’s just different. That’s all I can really say about him, is just different.”
— After four seasons in Tennessee and three seasons with St. Louis – with none of those seven seasons ending with a playoff berth – Cook loves his new home. Football, with all the personal and team goals finally within his grasp, is fun.
Even in August.
“I tell my family this all the time. They all ask, ‘How is it up here?’ I tell them it’s like being in college again,” Cook said. “It feels like you’re having fun and going out and grinding for your brothers and playing with your friends. The fans make that real special. Even walking out on Family Night and I wasn’t even playing, just to see all the people in the stands that were there to support us for practice was just incredible.”
Cook wasted no time making his presence felt on Tuesday. Early in the first team period, he streaked down the middle of the field and caught a bullet from Rodgers for a gain of about 20. For all the comparisons to Jermichael Finley — and some of those comparisons are valid — Finley never was a great down-the-field threat. Of his 25 catches in 2013, only one pass was thrown more than 10 yards downfield. Cook’s ability to stretch the field will add a dynamic the Packers haven’t had since perhaps Keith Jackson during the Super Bowl XXXI season. Even with terrible quarterback play, Cook caught 10 passes more than 10 yards downfield last year.
“It was a free play, basically,” Cook said. “I knew I had the safety beat. He had me man (coverage), and the defense jumped. When they jumped, the ball was snapped, and it was just a foot race. Aaron just, oh my gosh, he put it right where it needed to go, right above the defender’s shoulder, above his head. It felt good. It was a good play.”
Where Cook should really fit is his ability to make yards after the catch, long a staple of the Green Bay passing attack. That’s where Finley was dominant in 2013, his final season, when he averaged a gaudy 9.4 yards after the catch per catch. Cook’s never been to that level but, as Finley averaged at least 5.0 YAC in four of his final five seasons, Cook’s averaged at least 5.2 YAC in five of his previous six seasons, including 5.4 in 2013, 5.2 in 2014 and 5.5 in 2015 with the Rams.
Cook said he hasn’t run a 40-yard dash since the 2009 Scouting Combine, when he ran a sizzling 4.50 that would beat most wide receivers in any draft class. At age 29, he doesn’t appear to have lost a step and very well could be the most athletic tight end in the NFL. On Tuesday night, he caught a short pass and sprinted through the defense. It was a sight that hasn’t been seen on a Packers practice field in a long time.
“I don’t know what to say to that,” Cook said. “That’s what they teach you, you know? Just catch it and split the defenders.”
Cook undoubtedly should benefit from Rodgers. But that’s a two-way street. The last time the Packers had at least close to a full season with Jordy Nelson and Finley was 2011, when they went 15-1 and scored what was the second-most points in NFL history. Who knows if the Packers can get back to that lofty status with Nelson and Cook, but this much is for sure: Cook’s presence will prevent opponents from ignoring the deep ball and constricting the line of scrimmage to take away both receiver Randall Cobb and running back Eddie Lacy.
“I remember the guys on our defense talking about him, how much of a threat a guy that can run can be and stress them,” said running backs coach Ben Sirmans, who spent the past four seasons with the Rams. “The one exception is we didn’t have – and it’s no disrespect to the quarterbacks we had – he didn’t have a guy of this caliber.”
For Cook, that’s reason to smile.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.