METAIRIE, La. (AP) — First-year Saints tight end Jared Cook won't take his apparent good fit with record-setting quarterback Drew Brees and New Orleans' prolific offense for granted.
After a decade in the NFL that often fell short of expectations — particularly in Green Bay with star QB Aaron Rodgers in 2016 — Cook has decided that the degree to which he succeeds begins with his own determination to master the scheme in which he plays and his effort to cultivate a strong rapport with his quarterback.
"It's all about the preparation. The more you go into a game plan knowing what to do, knowing what your quarterback is going to check to or tell you before he even says it, I think the preparation in that aspect gives you a step above the competition," said Cook, who arrived in New Orleans this offseason after signing a two-year, $15 million contract.
"It's your preparation that's going to get you a little extra open," Cook said. "That's going to make the difference between a 1-yard contested catch or 5-yard separation, wide open. So it's just how I approach the game, how I go about it, how I'm learning. I think that's more important on your growth and it's on you. It starts with you first."
With a 6-foot-5, 254-pound frame, relatively good speed and reliable hands, Cook has been viewed as a tight end with a lot of upside since the Tennessee Titans took him in the third round of the 2009 draft out of South Carolina.
But it wasn't until last season — his 10th in the NFL — that he made his first Pro Bowl with Oakland after posting career highs of 68 catches for 896 yards and six touchdowns. Last season also happened to mark Jon Gruden's return to coaching with the Raiders. Not surprisingly, Saints coach Sean Payton noticed.
Payton began his NFL coaching career in 1997 as an offensive assistant in Philadelphia, where Gruden was the offensive coordinator at the time. While Payton has evolved in the two decades since, he still sees common threads his and Gruden's offensive philosophies.
"I cut my teeth a little bit offensively in his system," Payton said. "John is extremely talented in putting together a plan. Just the installation, the consistency with how you teach and what you do with your players.
"We're different, but yet there's some similarities," Payton continued. "We'll watch and study their film and look for ideas."
Or in Cook's case, a player who was about to enter free agency in the same year he'd found a role in which he could thrive.
"There's a little bit of: Is it the right script for success?" Payton said, making a comparison to the film industry. "There's been a lot of real good actors in poor movies and there've been a lot of poor actors in poor movies. I think it is up to us to really look closely at the things that he does well and feature those things."
Brees-to-Cook connections, often 15 to 20 yards down field, have become commonplace during the first few weeks of training camp.
"One thing you see with Cook is his stature," Payton said. "A lot of times you'll talk about a big target and there is a confidence level when you throw it to someone who's that tall and who's got really good hands. So they've been able to make some good plays."
The Saints hope Cook will make opponents pay for blanketing leading receiver Michael Thomas with double teams and shadowing running back Alvin Kamara, who also has been a prime target in the short passing game.
"At the end of the day, you can't double all those guys," Brees said. "Defenses are going to try to mix it up and at times are going to take some chances. And when they do, you're ready for it and you try to take advantage."
Cook, meanwhile, has been gratified by the respect Brees and Payton have shown in the way they discuss the offense with him, saying the QB and coach have "done a great job just being open with me about certain routes and how I like certain things and just kind of picking my brain a little bit."
That approach only elevates Cook's optimism about playing in an offense that has ranked in the top four in the NFL in 11 of the previous 13 seasons — including first six times — and never worse than eighth in that span.
"They already have the scheme in place," Cook said. "It's just the fact of: How do I fit, and where do I fit and how can I make this scheme better with what I do?"