It would be safe to say Jared Cook never quite lived up to his potential in Tennessee. The 6'5", 250lb tight end has all the physical tools to dominate on the field. He has the speed to blow by linebackers and safties and the size and leaping ability to snatch jump balls over any crafty corner. He was drafted in 2009 because he was seen as a true matchup nightmare. He's shown flashes of being a true vertical threat, but he hasn't shown the consistency to give the Titans and Ruston Webster the confidence to sign the young athlete to a big payday. At the 11th hour before free agency is set to begin, it's looking like the two parties aren't even close to agreeing to dollars and cents on a new contract.
It appears Cook will enter the free agent market along with a few other tight ends who also haven't quite lived up to their own lofty expectations, including the talented Fred Davis and the gigantic Martellus Bennett. Like Cook, both are athletic marvels who seem to fit the mold of the NFL's new-era of tight-end-centric offenses.
What caused the modern offense to move in this direction? In 2011, Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham finished in the top ten in receiving yards; moreover, both were the top receivers on the top two teams in total offense that same year. Both Graham and Gronk's 2011 campaign have inspired many other teams to unquestionably clamor for the next dominant tight end. The NFL is truly a copycat league, and there should be little doubt that the physical traits Cook possesses will likely tempt teams (Chicago Bears?) to pay top dollar for the young South Carolina Alum.
If the alpha-end is truly the next step in the NFL's offensive evolution, then what in the world is Tennessee thinking letting a commodity like Cook go? Pay the man! Right?
Not so fast...
Looking at the statistics from last year, it appears the league's inflated tight end numbers have come back down to earth. Only one tight end from the 2012 season finished in the top 20 in total yards receiving, and that was the ageless Jason Witten (who finished 20th.) Gronk couldn't stay healthy, and as unstoppable as Jimmy Graham has looked at times, he performed as a man all too mortal the majority of last season (trust me, I know... I drafted him in the second round in my fantasy league.)
With this in mind, is it possible that "The Year of the Tight End" was more of a statistical anomaly than the beginning of a trend with any true substance? To be sure, for every success story like Gonzalez, Gates, and Witten, there are 10 other guys who have entered the league with the promise of being the next primary option tight end and have failed to meet expectations.
A perfect example would be a player like Kellen Winslow II. Winslow was a beast who possessed a skillset that made scouts drool and gave opponents nightmares during his college career at Miami. He was so impressive, in fact, he was drafted 6th overall in the 2004 draft (by the Browns.) Granted, he produced a few good professional seasons, but, like Cook, he hasn't been able to live up to expectations at the highest level. During his career, he's never been able find a permanent franchise to call home. He was cut by the Seattle Seahawks before the beginning of last season and he will be lucky to find a job next season.
Another example would be our very own Ben Troupe. Troupe is just one player in a long list of recent Titans draft picks with flashy combine numbers who were much less impressive in pads (another topic for another time.) Though Winslow and Troupe are inarguable busts, it could also be argued the jury is still out on today's flashiest and tightest of ends. As stated previously, there are certainly still question marks surrounding the consistency and health of guys like Gronk, Hernandez, and Graham.
Jared Cook is entering his fifth year in the league, so with all the information presented, I ask you, fellow Titans fans: Is Cookie going to be the next Tony Gonzalez or the next Kellen Winslow II?
When making an argument for what would be best for our beloved Titans, let's not limit the point made to just Cook, are any of these big tight end free agents worth the money we'd have to pay them? Don't you think there's a reason guys like Bennett, Keller, Davis, Meyers, and Pitta were all seen as expendable by there respective teams? Maybe GMs and coordinators are beginning to realize that the future of the league's offenses don't lie in depending on this style of tight end for success. Personally, I hope we don't reach and overpay for any of these cats.
If Cook ends up not getting re-signed, have no doubt that some team out there is going to give him the money he desires, and the next team that signs him will likely believe they are striking gold, but I have a feeling they'll find nothing more than pyrite.