Phoenix – The courting ended days ago. The commitment began Tuesday.
New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton broke the news from the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix that the Saints signed free agent tight end Jared Cook, perhaps the top tight end target on the market.
Cook, who will be entering his 11th season, caught 68 passes for 896 yards and six touchdowns last season with Oakland. The former third-round pick (by Tennessee) in 2009 has caught 425 passes for 5,464 yards and 25 touchdowns in 149 regular-season games.
"He's excited," Payton said during his 80-minute media availability. "We're excited to have him.
"It gives us a threat opposite of (receiver) Mike (Thomas). A lot of times where Mike lines up is opposite the tight end. We feel like we've got some good tight ends in the building that we have roles and visions for. But I think Jared's got a unique skill set. We saw a lot of good tape of him."
Cook had his most productive two-year stretch the last two seasons in Oakland, catching 122 passes for 1,584 yards and eight touchdowns. New Orleans was in search of a tight end following the retirement of Benjamin Watson.
"I think (Cook) can run, I think he's a really good receiver in space, I think he does a good job after the catch, his yards after the catch," Payton said. "He's comfortable playing in a lot of different spots. He's not a great in-line blocker and yet he's a guy that challenges you if you're playing a linebacker or safety on him."
The Saints' signing of free agent defensive tackle Malcom Brown might not have attracted similar attention as did the pursuit and signing of Cook, and wasn't as shiny in comparison to several big-name acquisitions across the NFL.
But that didn't diminish its importance for New Orleans.
Brown, in fact, was the player who filled the biggest need for the Saints entering free agency. The four-year veteran (186 tackles, 8.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries and a forced fumble in 60 regular-season games, and 51 starts, with New England) was coveted by the Saints, who were perilously thin at season's end.
"Heading into this offseason, defensive tackle," Payton said of the team's biggest need. "Defensive tackle. We felt like we had to find the right player just based on Sheldon's injury."
Sheldon Rankins, who had career highs in sacks (eight) and tackles (40), ruptured his Achilles on Jan. 13 in the Saints' victory over Philadelphia in the NFC divisional playoffs. That blow, coupled with Tyeler Davison entering unrestricted free agency, left the Saints with two available defensive tackles (David Onyemata and Taylor Stallworth) in their four-man rotation.
"We just had to address the defensive line position," Payton said. "Part of that was, all right, Tyeler is a free agent, and Sheldon is going to be up against the timeline to start the year. It was a 'must' position, we were able to sign a couple of players there (including defensive end Mario Edwards Jr.).
"We just felt like if the season were to start as we came out of last year, Sheldon was unhealthy, Tyeler's a free agent and we really had a young player (Taylor Stallworth) and Onyemata."
Payton said Brown is a strong, physical player who's tough to move out of his gap.
While Cook and Brown are expected to fill two gaps, returner Marcus Sherels is being counted on to plug another. Sherels returned 231 punts for 2,447 yards and five touchdowns in eight seasons for Minnesota. He has the five longest punt returns for touchdowns in Vikings franchise history and is the team's all-time leader in punt return yards, punt return touchdowns and punt return average.
"He's been pretty dangerous, and a guy that I'm anxious to see in a Saints uniform," Payton said. "He's a guy that I think has got good hips. We lost Tommylee (Lewis), I hated to lose a player like that that we've developed since he was a rookie. But I think (Sherels is) a little bit more of a proven returner. He's got good experience."
Running back Latavius Murray is one of two former Sherels teammates (center Nick Easton is the other) to join Sherels with the Saints as a free agent this offseason. Murray will join the backfield that includes Alvin Kamara, and that experienced the departure of free agent Mark Ingram, the Saints' all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (50) and the second-leading rusher in franchise history.
"It happened pretty quickly," Payton said of the Murray signing. "Look, I'm excited for Mark's opportunity. He's been a tremendous player for us and leader for us. It was frustrating because I felt it was little dialogue. Usually, I might be able to visit with the player, and I wasn't able to. So the ins and outs specifically to how that unfolded, (are) still to me a little bit cloudy. Tried texting him, tried calling him, direct message, he texted me back and then the next day we weren't able to speak.
"I'm excited about Latavius joining our team. We've seen him, we've got coaches that have been on teams with him. I think we'll have a clear vision for him."
The same can be said of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, another key free agent signee. Bridgewater was the Saints' No. 2 quarterback behind Drew Brees last season and again will fill that role this season, though he was coveted as a starter on the free agent market.
"We were recruiting hard," Payton said. "He brings a lot to the table. Our quarterback room last year was one of the better rooms that we've had since I've been there. We're excited to have a player of his quality at that position. We think someday, he can be a starter.
"We traded a third-round pick for him a year ago and…one of the reasons we made that trade, a lot of people said, 'Why are you doing that, he's just going to be a free agent in a year?' And my response was I think once he sees our place and how we run our offense and what we do as a team, I think that'll mean something to him. And sure enough, it did."