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Why Jared Cook Will Be Overdrafted Everywhere in 2019


Imagine yourself back in Week 7 of the 2017 NFL regular season. In what would turn out to be an offensive battle that had many fantasy owners jumping out of their seats, the Kansas City Chiefs made their way to Oakland Coliseum for a bout with the Raiders on Thursday Night Football to kick off the week.

I'm not going to draw your attention to the fact that both starting quarterbacks averaged over eight yards per pass attempt and threw for three touchdowns each, nor will I highlight the stellar receiving performances of wideouts Tyreek Hill and Amari Cooper. This article is all about number 87, the athletic tight end whose statistics in this game sparked a hype train that is currently chugging along for 2019 fantasy drafts.

That's right. We are talking about former Titans, Rams, Packers, Raiders, and current Saints tight end Jared Cook and why he will be overdrafted everywhere this upcoming fantasy season.

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The Breakout Game and Incredible 2018 Season

Prior to the 2017 season, Jared Cook had been somewhat of an anomalous tight end in fantasy football circles. Coming out of South Carolina, Cook fit the mold for a tight end who could achieve fantasy production through the air with a SPARQ score ranked in the 91st percentile. There is no denying Cook's athleticism as an explosive cutter in the open field with exceptional speed and agility. However, the notable criticism that threatened to keep Cook from the large snap share associated with top fantasy tight ends was his lack of bulk and ability as a blocker.

For a player with the requisite skill set to be a mismatch for defenses, Cook only managed to crack the top ten for fantasy tight ends in standard scoring formats once across his first eight seasons in the league. Joining an Oakland Raiders team with a desperate need for big-play threats in the 2017 offseason was a chance to finally show off the promise that fantasy owners had been craving since he entered the league, and Cook made sure to do it on a big stage to get the message across. In a Thursday Night Football game in Week 7 of the 2017 NFL season with the fantasy community watching, Cook hauled in eight receptions for 126 yards to help the Raiders come away with a win and likely propelled many fantasy owners to that same outcome in their matchups.

Although the remainder of the year was fairly pedestrian, the same could not be said for the following season. Cook saw the most targets of any Raiders pass catcher in 2018 and caught 68 of the 99 balls thrown in his direction. The hyper-athletic tight end who didn't look like he would ever live up to his potential finished the year with career-highs in receiving yards (896) and receiving touchdowns (6) and ended up as the sixth-best tight end in standard formats.

 

Pumping the Brakes on a Guaranteed Top-Eight Fantasy Finish

Fantasy owners have been riding the highs of a season of personal bests for Cook and the potential of being the feature tight end for the New Orleans Saints, with his average draft position ("ADP") in 12-team standard formats skyrocketing from the 12.05 to the 7.06 pick in a matter of months. Let's pump the brakes a bit and think about why Cook could easily finish below his TE-8 ranking.

Be Wary of Buying in on Cook Because of his 2018 Success

The fact that Cook led the Raiders in receiving yards and touchdowns in 2018 is less a testament to his ability and more to opportunity. As easily the most prolific athlete in a putrid group of pass-catchers that included a past-his-prime Jordy Nelson as its No. 1 wideout and a backup running back as the team's second-leading receiver, it made complete sense to feature Cook all over the field.

As I reviewed Cook's statistics from his top-five fantasy finish, I couldn't help but compare his production to former Cleveland Browns tight end Gary Barnidge's "breakout" 2015 season when he led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns. While the two boast radically different athletic profiles (i.e. Cook is much better equipped as a receiver), there are a number of similarities that are hard to ignore.

The 2018 Oakland Raiders offense and 2015 Cleveland Browns offense threw for roughly the same number of passing yards (4,057 and 4,156, respectively) and featured very few offensive weapons. A quick gloss of that Browns squad shows a fourth-year Travis Benjamin as its No. 1 wideout and a backup running back being the team's third-leading receiver. In addition, Cook and Barnidge had nearly identical target shares (19.1% and 20.2%, respectively), with a particularly noteworthy comparison coming in their red zone target percentages (29.6% and 27.0%). These workhorse-level target shares contributed to a TE-6 finish for Cook and a TE-2 finish for Barnidge. Finally, Barnidge's ADP for fantasy drafts in the following season shot up to pick 7.09 from being undrafted the previous season.

Barnidge would end up struggling in 2016 and finishing as the TE-20. While Barnidge's situation deteriorated to an extent that isn't readily comparable to Cook's offseason move, his story is a good lesson to not gush over a tight end simply because of one prolific season where the pieces fell in place for a perfect year.

Are the Saints Truly a Dream Destination?

Fantasy owners reflect back on the historically great connection between quarterback Drew Brees and tight end Jimmy Graham when touting the argument that a Saints tight end could have an outstanding year. However, since Graham's departure, the only Saints tight end to finish in the top-12 in standard formats was Benjamin Watson in 2015. Across all pass catchers on the Saints roster over the years, tight ends subsequently ranked fourth, sixth, and third in total targets leading up to 2019.

The vertical element that Cook adds to the receiving game could help him buck the trend, but I don't completely buy into that. Cook is 32 years of age and coming into a Saints offense that has become more balanced over the years, with Drew Brees's passing yards declining over his last three seasons. Furthermore, wide receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara dominated the team's targets in 2018 with a combined 252 targets. The best-case scenario for Cook is to take over the 46 vacated looks from Benjamin Watson with the potential to take over a few from Thomas and Kamara, but it will still be a far cry from the situation that helped him finish as the TE-6 with Oakland.

A Rough Start Could Disappoint

According to Pro Football Focus, Oakland has one of the toughest opening schedules for the tight end position in fantasy football. The four teams they play are particularly strong on the defensive side of the football (Texans, Rams, Seahawks, and Cowboys), meaning fantasy owners will likely have to wait for their seventh-round draft capital to flourish.

 

How to Approach Jared Cook on Draft Day

Everyone knows that the big three of Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Zach Ertz are flying off the shelf early. If you are left to wait on a tight end, drafting Cook could be an enticing option. There are certainly a number of red flags to compare against the potential for success when drafting him, but perhaps the largest knock against taking Cook at his seventh-round ADP is the players you will have to forgo to get him. Players like Jarvis Landry (6.08), Tarik Cohen (6.09), James White (7.01), Will Fuller (7.06), and Allen Robinson (7.08) could all be on the board by the time Cook comes on to your radar. Although you are not missing out on a top-tier talent with any of those players, the risk of losing guaranteed touches to draft a tight end whose potential is anything but guaranteed weighs heavy.

Pay careful attention to how Cook's stock moves around through the month of August. Fantasy owners should avoid overpaying for a player whose hype train is built on the fruits of a perfect situation and prospective success with a new team.

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