METAIRIE, La. — Sean Payton has a great analogy he likes to use sometimes with free-agent signings.
When the New Orleans Saints coach was growing up, his parents loved going to garage sales on the weekend.
“That was their hobby together,” Payton said. “So we probably had about 10 different sofas — and each one was met with the same enthusiasm when it arrived. Then every once in a while, you’d lean back and there’d be a leg off.
“And you’d be like, ‘Oh, this is why it was for sale.’”
Payton used that story recently while discussing new Saints tight end Jared Cook on Sirius/XM NFL Radio — admitting that he was naturally a little skeptical about Cook’s inconsistent track record over the first 10 years of his career, which was spent bouncing around with the Titans, Rams, Packers and Raiders.
But so far, the Saints haven’t found any wobbly legs or rips in the fabric.
In fact, it has been the opposite. You can sense through on- and off-the-record conversations that the 32-year-old Cook has been even better than the Saints expected — both on and off the field.
The 6-foot-5, 254-pounder has quickly emerged as a go-to pass-catcher in training camp practices, flashing his size, athleticism and versatility while lining up in a variety of places.
“Anytime you’re in free agency, you gather as much information as you can. And then when the player arrives, there’s certain things you weren’t aware of that are good and maybe sometimes weren’t so good. In his case, it’s all positive,” said Payton, who has raved about Cook’s size and catch radius, while also praising his hands, his feet, his yards-after-the-catch ability and his work ethic.
“He’s a tremendous worker, dedicated, I think someone who’s a true pro in every sense of the word. And I think he’s been a really good addition for us.”
Saints fans (and fantasy owners) might want to temper their enthusiasm for Cook, knowing that he hasn’t always lived up to high expectations (and knowing that Coby Fleener recently proved free-agent tight ends don’t just automatically thrive in New Orleans’ offense).
But it’s hard to ignore how well Cook fits as the type of versatile mismatch that Payton and Drew Brees like to exploit in their intermediate passing game.
And it’s impossible to ignore the way Cook is routinely making big plays and contested catches in practice.
“It’s pretty easy to see that one, isn’t it?” Saints tight ends coach Dan Campbell said. “I think what you’re seeing is exactly what’s showing. I mean, the proof’s in the pudding.
“The guy’s smart, he works his ass off. Listen, he’s a playmaker too. He finds a way to create separation. And he runs as good as he ever did. Now he could tell you, ‘Ah, I was a little faster when I was young.’ But boy, you don’t see it. And Drew and him, I think, have a pretty good rapport right now and it just keeps getting better and better.”
Surprisingly, Cook has just 27 career touchdown catches in the regular season and playoffs, despite looking like what you would come up with if you tried to create a red-zone target in a lab. But he has been trending upward for the past three years.
You might remember his 2016 season in Green Bay as a disappointment, when he was finally paired with an elite quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. But Cook actually thrived after recovering from an ankle injury that year, including a terrific performance in the playoffs.
Then Cook just had his best season yet in 2018 when he got paired with new Oakland coach Jon Gruden — whose offense is similar to Payton’s in many ways.
Cook made his first Pro Bowl after catching 68 passes for 896 yards and six touchdowns. And when he signed with the Saints, he said it was huge for him that the Raiders “actually used me on what I’m good at.”
“Coach Gruden found ways to expose matchups all over the field, and he found ways to move me around in different positions that actually helped me and made me more versatile in my role on the field,” Cook said. “So up until last year, that was a huge turning point.”
It didn’t help that Cook caught passes from 11 different quarterbacks in his first seven seasons with the Titans and Rams. And of course, the tight end himself was to blame for some inconsistent production.
But Campbell said he also doesn’t think Cook was used to his strengths in those early years.
“As he came in, they used him as a traditional tight end, run and pass, hand in the ground, pulling here — as opposed to a showcase tight end. So I think he got put in a box maybe he didn’t necessarily belong in for a long time,” said Campbell, who expects the exact opposite in New Orleans, where the Saints have already been experimenting with the different ways they can use Cook.
“Let’s see what he looks like … if he gets a safety, gets a ‘backer, let him run through the middle of the field, split him out, he’s in the slot,” Campbell said. “So we feel like there’s a ton of versatility in this guy. We feel like this is a guy we can kind of line up wherever we want and get the matchup we want.
The quarterbacks agree. Brees said, “Just think how that challenges a defense” to have so many mismatches. And backup Teddy Bridgewater said Cook is a “great outlet for a quarterback” because of the way he can win one-on-one matchups and find soft spots in a zone.
Cook said he is “excited” about his potential in this offense, too. He chose New Orleans for a reason when he signed a two-year, $15 million contract. But he also knows it requires both the right fit and the right preparation and performance on his part.
“That’s always my goal is to develop and get better. Never satisfied, never stagnant,” Cook said. “As far as predictions, I don’t know. I’m working toward building a great career here and a great start to a career here.”