The Tennessee Titans already have signed their first free agent, taking advantage of a salary cap move to add safety George Wilson to their defense.
Before they dive into free agency in March, they face one of their biggest challenges in keeping tight end Jared Cook off the market. Doing that means signing him to a new deal by Friday or tagging him as a franchise player.
“We feel he’s a big part of us having success next year is having him in the offense and using him in different ways … with the changes we made on the offensive side of the ball,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said. “We feel can give him an opportunity to catch more balls and be more productive and maybe have him be more efficient with the plays he’s in there.”
The Titans have a handful of players heading for free agency including kicker Rob Bironas and defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks. But Munchak, speaking at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, described the 6-foot-5, 248-pound Cook as someone the Titans feel very strongly about keeping.
Munchak is in a must-win mode in his third season after going 6-10 in 2012. He has swapped up his coaching staff, including bringing in Gregg Williams as a senior assistant for defense.
Tennessee started adding players Friday by agreeing to a reported two-year deal Friday with Wilson, released Feb. 11 by Buffalo to avoid his $2.9 million salary. That’s the first step in adding more talent and experience to a defense that had too many injuries and too much youth as the Titans allowed a franchise-record 471 points.
Cook is key for an offense where quarterback Jake Locker got hurt in the first game and showed little development in his first season as a starter.
“Jake’s done a good job,” general manager Ruston Webster said. “He has all the talent to be a fine player. One of the things we have to do is have more consistency around him.”
Team officials wanted to talk with Cook’s agent during the NFL combine in Indianapolis. Cook’s agent, Christina Phillips, didn’t immediately return a message from The Associated Press on Saturday.
Signing Cook to a long-term deal could be challenging before Friday’s deadline to use the franchise tag. Cook caught 44 passes for 523 yards and four touchdowns in 2012, ranking him fourth on the team in both catches and yards despite missing three games after tearing his right rotator cuff Dec. 9 in a loss at Indianapolis.
The Titans want to use Cook even more as a receiving threat under new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, who took over after Munchak fired Chris Palmer on Nov. 26. Cook had not been happy under Palmer, though he carefully watched what he said about the offense.
Even so, Tennessee lined Cook up in the slot and outside preferring to use Craig Stevens or Taylor Thompson more as blocking tight ends. So if the Titans tag him as a tight end, Cook could argue he deserves the higher paying tag of a wide receiver.
Webster said they always have wanted to keep Cook and nothing has changed. Asked if he thought the Titans could sign Cook to a long-term contract or use the franchise tag, Webster said he thinks Cook will be with the Titans this season.
“He’s a big part of our offense so how it gets done we’ll just have to see,” Webster said.
If the Titans can reach a deal with Cook by Friday, that might allow them to tag Bironas, whose four-year, $12 million deal signed in 2009 is expiring. Bironas could be cheaper without the tag after missing six of his 31 field goal attempts last season.
Munchak said what they can’t control is when players are ready to talk and work out a deal.
“Most players when they get this close to free agency want to test the market,” Munchak said. “That’s why we fought for it. I was a part of two strikes to get free agency available for these guys. So a lot of times guys want to wait it out and see. It doesn’t mean they don’t want to be here, and it doesn’t mean we don’t want them.”