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NFC South preview: Jared Cook must prove he can be a game-changer for Saints

Jared Cook lines up during a preseason game against the Vikings.
Jared Cook is looking to revive his career -- and change his reputation -- with the New Orleans Saints this season.
(Getty Images)

Jared Cook is a tight end out of central casting. Perfect for the part.

He’s 6 feet 5 and 254 pounds, with a grip sticky as flypaper. He knows how to get open and wrap his hands around the football, as he did with Oakland last season, where he made 68 receptions and scored six touchdowns — both career highs.

But Cook, who signed in March with New Orleans, has had his share of disappointing seasons as well, bouncing from Tennessee to St. Louis to Green Bay to Oakland.

Not surprisingly, Saints coach Sean Payton is taking a bit of I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it approach to his new tight end, all the while encouraged that his team has successfully addressed its biggest offensive need.

Previewing the 2019 NFL season as the league celebrates its 100th year and the Rams and Chargers look to contend for the Super Bowl LIV title.
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In discussing Cook during a recent radio interview, Payton told a story about his parents, their love of garage sales, and how it helped foster a bit of buyer-beware skepticism in his approach.

“That was their hobby together,” he said on Sirius/XM NFL Radio, conceding that he too was circumspect about Cook’s inconsistency over the course of 10 seasons. “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.’”

There are reasons to believe this could be a big season for Cook. First, he thrived in Jon Gruden’s offense in Oakland, one that’s similar to what Payton runs in New Orleans. They coached together as young assistants in Philadelphia.

Saints tight end Jared Cook carries the ball during a preseason game against the Vikings on Aug. 9.
Saints tight end Jared Cook carries the ball during a preseason game against the Vikings on Aug. 9.
(Getty Images)

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“I cut my teeth a little bit offensively in his system,” Payton told reporters recently. “Jon 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. We’ll watch and study [the Raiders’] film and look for ideas.”

Next, Cook has Drew Brees at quarterback, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer who is at his best throwing intermediate routes, precisely the type Cook will be running.

“It’s all about the preparation,” Cook said. “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.”

And finally, the Saints have receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara, who will attract much of the defensive attention, so Cook can be a bit more inconspicuous than he was in undermanned Oakland.

“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.”

The Saints also have added running back Latavius Murray and rookie center Erik McCoy, a second-round pick from Texas A&M who is penciled in to replace Max Unger.

Elsewhere in the division, Atlanta fortified the interior of its offensive line by adding guards James Carpenter and Jamon Brown, as well as defensive ends Chris Odom and Adrian Clayborn.

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Carolina and Tampa Bay used their top draft pick on defensive stars, with the Panthers taking Florida State edge rusher Brian Burns, and the Buccaneers going with Louisiana State linebacker Devin White.

Carolina further fortified its defensive line with tackle Gerald McCoy and end Bruce Irvin.

Bruce Arians, the new coach at Tampa Bay, brought in safety-linebacker Deone Bucannon from his Arizona days, as well as defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, most recently with the Rams.

Atlanta Falcons

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Matt Ryan: After a down year in 2017, Ryan finished last season with 35 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He’s playing under his third offensive coordinator in four seasons, but at least it’s someone he has played for in Dirk Koetter.

WR Julio Jones: The standards are lofty for one of the league’s top receivers, but he undeniably has suffered a dip the last two years. He had three touchdowns in 2017 and zero in the first seven games last year. Needs a better start.

DE Vic Beasley: After All-Pro honors and leading the league in sacks in 2016, Beasley had only five sacks in each of the last two seasons. Now, he’s in a contract year and is expected to step up, despite skipping the team’s offseason program.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

G Chris Lindstrom: Atlanta selected two offensive linemen in the first round, and No. 14 pick Lindstrom was the first. A dream for the Falcons would be if he pans out as well as Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson (sixth pick) did for the Indianapolis Colts last season.

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WR Calvin Ridley: Showed a lot of promise as a rookie last season, especially early. In Koetter’s system, he’ll frequently line up outside, opposite Jones, with Mohamed Sanu in the slot.

LB Takk McKinley: The former UCLA standout is heading into a season feeling healthy after shoulder injuries led to surgeries in his first and second seasons. As a 3-4 linebacker, he’ll be expected to step up his pass rush and justify the Falcons’ considerable investment in him.

BURNING QUESTION

The Falcons tend to put up solid fantasy football numbers, but can they translate that into a playoff run or do they just have warning-track power?

2018: 7-9, second in division

Last year in playoffs: 2017

Carolina Panthers

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Cam Newton: He had arthroscopic shoulder surgery in January but was throwing ahead of schedule in the spring. He has been working on a more compact delivery and on looking for safer check-down throws and underneath routes.

LB Luke Kuechly: The Panthers are switching to a 3-4 defense, a first for Kuechly. He’s likely to excel in that scheme, but the All-Pro has a history of concussions and the coaches have been cautious with him in training camp. They need his veteran presence.

RB Christian McCaffrey: Not only was he the team’s most-targeted pass catcher last season, but also McCaffrey’s per-game carry total nearly doubled his per-game carry total from his rookie year — 7.3 to 13.7 carries. He’s aiming for 1,000 yards on the ground and in the air this season.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

WR DJ Moore: A first-round pick last season, Moore was inserted into the starting lineup in Week 8 and proved to be outstanding after the catch. Newton might not throw deep as much, but a short catch and long run by Moore is just as good.

OLB Brian Burns: The Panthers’ top selection in this year’s draft figures to be a situational starter who can get after the quarterback. In a division with quarterbacks Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Jameis Winston, that’s especially important.

WR Curtis Samuel: He had leg injuries as a rookie in 2017 and an irregular heartbeat that required a surgical procedure last season, but the team likes the boundless potential it sees in him.

BURNING QUESTION

With all their one-year deals, the Panthers clearly feel they are in win-now mode. Can they do that, and what’s the shakeup if they don’t?

2018: 7-9, third in division

Last year in playoffs: 2017

New Orleans Saints

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

DE Marcus Davenport: The Saints traded up to grab Davenport a year ago, and now they’re expecting to reap the rewards. He’ll need to take more of a commanding role as a pass rusher opposite Cam Jordan because Sheldon Rankins (torn Achilles tendon) is expected to sit out half the season.

RB Alvin Kamara: The team let Mark Ingram go, so there’s no more Boom (Ingram) and Zoom (Kamara) duo. Kamara has bulked up a bit in the offseason in preparation for a heavier workload in theoffense.

TE Jared Cook: All expectations are that this veteran will be the third cog in a Drew Brees offense featuring Kamara and receiver Mike Thomas. Watch for the Saints to put Cook on one side, and Kamara and Thomas on the other, and make defenses choose.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

C Erik McCoy: The second-round pick from Texas A&M will be the first rookie center to start the opener in Saints history. He’s got big cleats to fill, those of Max Unger, but he’s got veteran help all around him.

WR Emmanuel Butler: This 6-foot-4 rookie is the carbon copy of Marques Colston, the all-time franchise leader in virtually every receiving category. Butler isn’t super-fast, but he’s a big target and could round into an ideal receiving complement for Thomas.

DT David Onyemata: The fourth-year player from Canada will see his responsibilities increase with Rankins out. It won’t happen right away, however, because Onyemata is suspended for the opener for violating the league’s drug policy.

BURNING QUESTION

Can the Saints recover from the hangover of consecutive heartbreaking playoff losses to Minnesota and the Rams? The clock is ticking, with future Hall of Fame quarterback Brees at 40.

2018: 13-3, first in division

Last year in playoffs: 2018

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Jameis Winston: New coach Bruce Arians has deemed this “Winston’s team,” so there’s no doubt about who’s at the helm. There should be more balance between the passing and running games this season, which will take some weight off the shoulders of the former No. 1 pick.

TE O.J. Howard: Ankle injuries cut short Howard’s first two seasons in the league, but he also showed a lot of potential, averaging 16.6 yards per catch in his 24 games. He should be a big factor in the Arians offense, and a set of sure hands for Winston.

LB Lavonte David: A defensive stalwart, David had a knee procedure for torn meniscus this summer but sat out only three days of practice. He forced five fumbles and recovered five in 2017, and last season had a career-high 120 tackles in 14 games.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

LB Devin White: If his NFL career is anything like the one he had in college, White will become a star. In his final two seasons at Louisiana State, the linebacker had 256 tackles (251/2 for a loss), 71/2 sacks and nine pass deflections.

WR Chris Godwin: Arians, who last coached the Arizona Cardinals, has compared Godwin’s role to that of future Hall of Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Godwin was targeted in the red zone more than anyone on the Buccaneers last season.

RB Ronald Jones: The former USC standout was selected in the second round last year, but his performance didn’t justify that draft status. He’s competing with Peyton Barber, who got 60% of the carries last season.

BURNING QUESTION

Can quarterback guru Arians do what he did with Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer and many others, and finally get the most out of Winston?

2018: 5-11, fourth in division

Last year in playoffs: 2007


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