After the first three days of organized team activities, NFL teams are all about managing expectations.
The hot-shot rookie wideout may not look that good once pads and looming safeties itching to tackle are added to the mix, while new offensive lineman struggling early are still getting used to the cadence, chemistry and playbook of a new team.
But pads or not, three days in with his new team or three hundred, it’s hard to stand at Jared Cook’s locker and gaze upon all 6-foot-5, 254 pounds of his Pro Bowl physique, which could challenge several defensive linemen in his new locker room, and not think of the endless possibilities he and Brees could conjure up this season.
“I’d read a lot of good things about him before he got here, but he’s certainly impressed us these first couple of days,” Brees said Thursday after the culmination of the team’s first three-day OTA. “He’s got a great feel for the game, and I think he’s going to fit very well in our offense.
“He’s got great length, so he’s got a big catch radius. You feel confident with those 50-50 balls. You feel like there’s a lot of places where you can throw it where he can get it and the other guy can’t. Anytime you have a target like that, you feel like that’s a good matchup.”
The music blared during the stretching portion of the Saints' organized team activities Thursday, just like it always does during practice.
An acquisition like Cook was vital to the Saints offseason after not only losing last year’s leading tight end Ben Watson to a couple-month retirement before the veteran resurfaced with the Patriots, but also the uncertainty behind young receivers like Tre’Quan Smith and injury-prone wideouts like Cam Meredith, who missed all of 2017 with the Bears and played just six games a year ago.
The team’s star receiver Michael Thomas, who last year set the league record for catches in the first three years of a career with 321 — 33 better than Odell Beckham Jr.’s 288 — caught nearly one-third of the team’s 381 regular- season receptions.
Not only has Thomas’ production as-a-whole continued to grow each of his three NFL seasons, but so has his percentage of the load, as the team once known for it’s eye-popping tight end production has struggled to find consistency at the position over the same stretch.
You have to go back to 2015 to find numbers from the team’s leading tight end at the end of the season (in this case, Watson’s 74 catches for 825 yards and six scores) that begin to approach Cook’s 2018, when he finished with 68 catches for 896 yards and six touchdowns.
Watson’s 2018 (35 catches, 400 yards, two scores) and Coby Fleener’s 2017 (22 catches, 295 yards, two scores) don’t meet that, combined.
Cyril Grayson sees the media mob coming and makes a fast dash to his locker. He quickly punches in the code to the lock box, grabs a washcloth…
On a Raiders team that went 4-12 a year ago with an injury-riddled receiving corps, Cook managed to have a breakout season in his 10th year in the league at 31-years-old. His career is riddled with ups — catching five touchdowns in his first season with the Rams, starting more games in 2013 alone than in his entire first four years in the league. Among the downs, missing six games due to an ankle injury in 2016, his one year paired with Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers. He managed just 30 catches and one score that season.
But in New Orleans, Cook said he saw a pairing that couldn’t be more perfect — an aging quarterback in 40-year-old Drew Brees looking for a dominant threat opposite Thomas, and Cook in his prime, ready to put himself firmly in the top-tier of the league’s tight ends.
“This has always been a tight end-friendly offense, and I thought it would be a great place for me to come and extend my career and come and shine,” he said. “They were with Mike and Alvin (Kamara) a pretty potent 1-2 combo last year, and I thought I could come in and help Mike. And at the same time him help me and relieve some pressure off each other and make this a high-powered offense once again this year.”
The Saints held their second day of OTAs on Thursday.
The first three days of OTAs did nothing to alter the perception Cook had of Brees before joining the organization — “Nothing changed, he’s still the G.O.A.T.,” he said — but coach Sean Payton noted even without pads, and still months from meaningful football, the offensive mind who helped put Jimmy Graham on the map can already see a resurgence at tight end.
“What he did in Oakland is similar to a lot of the things we do formationally, and he’s smart and he’s got range,” Payton said. “You see his route savviness and his ability to get in and out of cuts, and the best thing he does is run after the catch. That’s tough to see when we’re not in pads and tackling, but he’s real good that way.”