An offense that has lost its' top receiver, has serious problems running the ball, and has a foreboding tandem of an old quarterback in a new system and an aging offensive coordinator on his last legs screams one thing to me; they're going to throw it a whole heck of a lot to their tight ends. Yes, Matt Hasselbeck is a cerebral quarterback with a lot to offer between the ears, but even he needs time to develop chemistry with a new group of receivers. Generally this means more targets for a tight end, often considered the "safety valve" of an offense. In actuality, quite the opposite seems to be true.
Although I'm only using a season's worth of data (and not even a full season at that), the sample size will have to suffice due to the lack of time that our subject, Jared Cook, has been considered a legitimate option in the offense. That too may be open to debate, but roll with me here. I went into this exercise expecting to see tight ends of a lot of the younger, more inexperienced quarterbacks. What I saw completely contradicted my preconceived notions on how a tight end is used in the NFL. Of course I understood that tight ends with better quarterbacks generally had better stats, most pass catchers do, but the amount of times these "safety valves" are used by these upper-tier quarterbacks is what makes me rethink the value of the position. Get this; the Saints have tried to get Jimmy Graham the ball 131 times this season. That's a whole lot of action for a safety valve, especially considering that his quarterback is on pace to break Dan Marino's single season record for passing yards. Granted, the Saints' is a very pass-heavy offense, but in comparison, the Cardinals tried to get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald 136 times this year. That's astounding to me. Only five more times? For arguably the best receiver in the game? How about some of the players Graham beat on the targets list? Victor Cruz, Vincent Jackson, A.J. Green, Steve Smith, DeSean Jackson, Dez Bryant, Marques Colston, and Santonio Holmes. Some of the most recognizable names in the game. What's more, Graham isn't a total aberration.
While his lead over the rest of the pack in terms of targets is noticeable, it isn't that significant. Rob Gronkowski and Brandon Pettigrew are tied for second with 115 targets apiece while Kellen Winslow and Jason Witten come in at 112 and 109 respectively. All of these players get the ball more than Dez Bryant and DeSean Jackson, or at least that's how their teams would have it. Now this is far from a perfect stat; there are a lot of variables in there such as simply the number of times a given team throws the ball, but I think the point stands. Hard to argue that these guys are simply "safety valves" anymore, they're extremely valuable commodities in the eyes of both their offensive coordinators and quarterbacks.
Now, we know Jared Cook for what he is. He's an athletic freak and (in theory) a matchup nightmare. He catches the ball fairly well (60% of the time it's thrown his way according to KFFL.com) and is really at his most dangerous after the catch. All that adds up to a pretty versatile weapon, so why is he being utilized less than the likes of Marcedes Lewis and Dustin Keller? Lewis is having an atrocious year. With Blaine Gabbert as his quarterback, I expected a fair number of targets. He was, after all, coming off of a career year that earned him a pretty fat contract extension. To prove his atrocity, I point to his 44% catch rate. That's 81 targets and a paltry 36 catches and fewer touchdowns than Chris Johnson and Kenny Britt.That's an awfully sorry line, especially in the year of the tight end. It really irks me that Ed Dickson is being used drastically more than Cook despite the fact that they're really pretty similar players in terms of skill sets and numbers. Dickson has been targeted 88 times, Cook 74, both are catching basically 60% of their passes, and both average 13-15 yards per catch. It is what it is though, nothing to lose sleep about.
Switching angles for a moment, let's focus on Cook's catch rate. I firmly believe that, should Cook not reach the level we think he's capable of reaching, it will be because of this. 60% just isn't going to cut it when the top guys in the league bring the ball in around 7-10% more than that. Bumping up that percentage by about 5 percent would have Cook in a much better place than he is right now, and because he's only 24 and ready to break into his prime, I don't think that's too much to ask for next year.
This study was imperfect, there are plenty of reasons to tell me I'm full of it about the impact of a tight end, but hear me out, I really believe an elite tight end can really do wonders for an offense's production, the extent of said wonders is yet to be quantified.