METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints should have only three or four new starters this year. But newcomers such as receiver Emmanuel Sanders, safety Malcolm Jenkins, center Cesar Ruiz and linebacker Zack Baun aren’t the only potential “upgrades."
Cook flashed his potential throughout the second half of last season once he and quarterback Drew Brees were finally both healthy and in sync.
Jenkins, meanwhile, didn’t arrive in New Orleans until he was claimed off waivers in December -- but the Saints saw enough to sign him to a two-year extension while letting former starter Eli Apple leave in free agency.
Tight ends coach Dan Campbell was effusive in his praise for the 33-year-old Cook, calling him a "matchup nightmare for a defense."
“If you want to try to take away [wide receiver] Mike Thomas and you’re gonna leave somebody one-on-one with Jared Cook, then you’ve got a problem," Campbell said. "We’re gonna hurt you if that’s what you want to do. If you want to single Jared Cook, there’s nobody in this league that can cover him.
"Like, that’s the point, that’s the idea, and that’s the plan."
Campbell acknowledged that it took Cook "a little bit to get going” last year -- in part because of an unspecified injury that sidelined Cook toward the end of training camp, followed by a thumb injury that sidelined Brees in Weeks 3-7 and then an ankle injury that sidelined Cook in Weeks 7-8.
But over the final eight weeks, Cook ranked fourth among all NFL tight ends with 547 yards and tied for first with seven touchdowns on 28 catches, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
“Listen, that talent level has been there. It was just a matter of [Raiders coach Jon] Gruden was able to pull it out and knew exactly what to do with the guy, and we’re trying to do the same thing,” Campbell said of Cook, who had the best season of his career in 2018 with the Raiders before signing a two-year, $15 million deal with the Saints last offseason.
“I think that the back half of the season was certainly closer to what our vision was -- and then to see [Cook and Brees] gather a rapport and see the confidence level with both of them," Campbell said. "All the little nuances of the game between those two are important, and I think you saw it was a little shaky at first. But just them being together, man, you look at the back half of the season and that’s what we’re capable of doing."
Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. agreed, saying the team gave Cook more opportunities as the season went on -- and learned more about what the 6-foot-5, 254-pounder is capable of doing.
“It took us a while. But all of a sudden, middle of the season, we're splitting him out by himself and he's kind of running some option-type routes, and he really had success,” Carmichael said. “The other thing is getting the ball in his hands, and he's explosive when he catches the ball. Man, he goes, and he's physical. So it's just building on those things.”
As for the 31-year-old Jenkins, he arrived with an obvious track record of success. He had started 111 games with the Rams and Giants before coming to New Orleans, earning second-team All-Pro honors in 2016.
But the Saints needed to find out if he was a good fit both on and off the field.
The Giants waived Jenkins after he called a fan a “retard” on Twitter. Jenkins said his use of the word was “slang” and “just part of my culture,” but Giants coach Pat Shurmur said Jenkins’ refusal to admit what he did was wrong led to his release.
Jenkins’ release was also part of a wider overhaul and youth movement over the past two years in New York.
The Saints, however, were banking that they would get a motivated and dedicated Jenkins once he joined a contender. And that seemed to be the case.
The 5-10, 190-pounder appeared in their final three games, including the playoffs, and wound up starting the last two because of Apple's ankle injury. Jenkins had an interception and two passes defensed in New Orleans’ Week 17 win over the Carolina Panthers.
“Certainly there’s an overall body of work that you utilize to try to form opinions about what a guy can or can’t do. But there’s nothing like the experience of having a guy in your building,” Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “I can tell you just from my experience with him in that brief period of time, I felt like he was a real pro. I felt like he came to work every day with the intention of getting better, and I think he was a great addition to our football team. I’m certainly excited about working with him again this season.”
Both Allen and defensive backs coach Aaron Glenn said Jenkins’ man-coverage ability could lead to more man-to-man defense from their cornerbacks this season.
Glenn said the Saints probably still will use bigger cornerback Marshon Lattimore to shadow certain No. 1 receivers. But Jenkins’ talent will allow them to just keep each cornerback on his own side of the field in other matchups.
“I did a high-level study of Janoris just over his career,” Glenn said. “And when you think about when he first got into this league, he came in as one of the better corners in this league and a really good press corner who made a lot of plays on the ball. As his career started to develop, he started to have this knack for being an off corner and being able to anticipate and see the quarterback and be able to make plays on the ball. But that didn’t take away his ability to play press coverage. That’s one of the things that we really need to tap into.
“I’m excited to have him in training camp and going through a whole season.”