Rookie Jameel Cook may have touched the ball on only rare occasions this season, but he's earning more playing time with his hard-headed blocking
Some players in the NFL simply enjoy the full-contact moments of the game – picture John Lynch or Lorenzo Neal. Others thrive more on athletic finesse – say, Deion Sanders or Randy Moss.
Though he came into the league known more for the skill of pass-catching than the brute force of blocking, Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie Jameel Cook is quickly discovering that he belongs to the former group. That's good, because head-on impact may be where Cook's future in the league lies.
It might also be the very near future of the Buccaneers' running game.
With the possible exception of Keyshawn Johnson, Cook might be the most talked-about player on the Bucs' offense in recent weeks, despite the fact that he has participated in just 25.2% of the team's offensive snaps this season.
The thing is, that percentage might be on the way up, if the Bucs' running game continues to find a boost when Cook is on the field. The rookie isn't contributing through raw numbers – he has two carries for two yards and is eighth on the team with 10 receptions for 45 yards – but through raw power, delivered by a frame that is considered slightly undersized for an NFL fullback.
"When I go in there, I just want to hit," said Cook, who stands 5-10 and weighs in the neighborhood of 240. "That's what I do now, I'm a blocker. I want to go in there and bust heads, and that's what I'm going to do."
Cook has been doing that well as of late, which explains why he was on the field for roughly a third of the team's offensive snaps against Detroit last Sunday. The pregame plan was to have the sixth-round pick on the field for 12 to 15 snaps during the contest, but the success of the team's running attack while he was on the field upped his final play number to nearly twice that.
Much of that work was blocking for fellow fullback Mike Alstott, who has run well in the tailback role this season, averaging four yards per carry and scoring a team-high eight rushing touchdowns. Alstott, who has about three inches and 10 pounds on the man paving the way for him, picked up 66 yards on 12 carries against the Lions.
"He's doing really well," said Alstott of Cook. "He's coming in there, blocking well, doing some good things and making things happen. We're putting him in situations where he can just go out there and play ball, he doesn't have to think too much. He's a bright kid and he knows to just go out there and be aggressive."
That's exactly the way Cook sees it, as well. Despite the attention paid to the NFL Draft each April, in which Cook was selected 174th overall this year, a great many rookies make little impact on offense or defense. Cook and first-rounder Kenyatta Walker are the only ones doing so for the Bucs this season, and Walker's role as the starting left tackle was assumed from the moment he was drafted. Cook, who caught 60 passes in two seasons as the Illini's fullback, had to prove that he could block on this level. He has done so by simply taking the field and hitting the man in the hole.
"I just want to come in and add a spark to the game, just bring my excitement to the game," he said. "Whether it's Warrick (Dunn) or Mike behind me, it doesn't matter who it is. Steck (Aaron Stecker) or Rabih (Abdullah), I don't care. I just want to go in there and do my job, do what the coaches ask me to do."
Still, as Director of Player Personnel Tim Ruskell conceded last week, the Bucs are getting more out of Cook than they believed they would in April, or even when camp broke in August. Cook made the team but played in just 14 plays over the first two games, occasionally blocking in a 'jumbo package.'
Then, Dunn suffered a foot injury in Minnesota on September 30 and was unable to play against Green Bay on October 7. Cook played 60% of the snaps against the Packers and helped Alstott run for 77 yards on just 15 carries. Three weeks later, that scenario replayed itself against the Vikings and the Bucs racked up 177 rushing yards on 43 carries, with Cook on the field for just under 60% of the offensive action. Though Dunn's gradual return to health then ate into Cook's playing time over the next month, it has begun to pick up again, even with the rest of the backfield healthy.
It seems Cook is forcing coaches to consider giving him extra time in front of both Alstott and Dunn as he continues to provide eye-opening blocks.
"I think, personally, it's just a mindset," said Cook of his early success in that area. "Some guys who are blockers don't like blocking. They just don't like blocking. It's a mindset. You've got to want to go in there every play and hit this guy. For me, personally, being an undersized fullback, like everybody says – I take a lot of junk from a lot of guys out there about that – it's a mind state. Especially for me. I go out there with a mindset that I'm going to knock these people out."
Cook is only in his third year as a true fullback, but he has always run with a physical style and so he is familiar with the joys of contact. He has called his transition to a full-time blocking role 'easy' and certainly seems to be enjoying himself despite limited touches on the football. He has a simple reason for having embraced the art of blocking and learning to relish contact.
"If you don't, you're going to get your head busted," said Cook.
Potentially, a foul-weather game in Chicago could get Cook on the field more this weekend. At the very least, his good game against the Lions has put him into greater consideration during the coaches' game-planning sessions.
"Jameel did a good job and we'll have that package involved in the game plan," said Dungy. "How much it is, we'll kind of have to see as the game unfolds."
That package will include time mowing down linebackers for not just Alstott but also Dunn, who does not appear to have had particularly large holes to exploit in recent weeks.
"We'll have him in with Warrick, yes," said Dungy. "Jameel's playing well and deserves a chance to play. With Mike playing more at halfback, he's got to get a rest sometime, and that will be when Jameel is in."
The only other back beside Alstott and Dunn who gets regular playing time, Cook is following in the footsteps of those two backs in having an impact as a rookie. Alstott caught 65 passes in his first season, 1996, and showed early flashes of his surprisingly nimble running style. The next year, Dunn was the only rookie selected to the NFC Pro Bowl squad after a string of big plays and breakaway touchdowns.
Cook has seen them both in action firsthand, and has helped Alstott, in particular, regain some of the rushing magic he had in 1999. The rookie has also been highly impressed by Dunn, who he says doesn't always need a block to make a big run.
Others, though, have been impressed by Cook's impact as a rookie. It may not show up in the stat sheet at the end of the season, but the former Illini has carved out an important role as a lead blocker. That role may only get bigger before his rookie season is complete.