From 2006 until 2013, the Saints’ wide receiver corps underwent very little change. Led annually by Marques Colston, the Saints also featured—in no determinable pecking order—Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, and Robert Meachem. Only a quarterback of Drew Brees’ caliber could enjoy the immense success he has with such a lackluster rabble of wideouts.
Of course, the Saints’ passing game has been boosted over the years by the formidable presence of tight ends and tailbacks like Jeremy Shockey, Darren Sproles, and Jimmy Graham, but, either as a result of Brees’ diplomatic approach as a QB (he generally finds every eligible receiver at some point during games), or simply a shortage of talent, New Orleans’ receivers have been decidedly nondescript.
Why the Saints waited until 2014 to finally address their lack of talent at wide receiver is anybody’s guess—it probably had something to do with a shortage of cap space and/or the perennially weak defense requiring more attention—but finally, this past May, the Saints drafted a legitimate weapon on the outside in Brandin Cooks.
Coming out of Oregon State, the undersized Cooks compensates for his 5-foot-10-inch, 189-pound frame with blazing speed. He ran a 4.33 40-yard dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine—the fastest among all wideouts in the 2014 rookie class.
Since being drafted 20th overall by the Saints (who traded up in the first round to select him), Cooks has become an offseason legend of sorts with the constant raves from teammates, coaches, and media emerging from OTA’s and training camp. By June, Cooks had earned the nickname “Lightning” from Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis, as the youngster demonstrated his other-worldly jets to his astonished teammates in practice. Furthermore, Drew Brees and Head Coach Sean Peyton praised the rookie’s intelligence and versatility. Believed to be the primary replacement for free-agency departure Darren Sproles, Cooks has lined up all over the field in training camp, and appears to be learning the playbook rather quickly, despite reporting to the team six days late because of Oregon State’s late graduation. As recently as August 11th, ESPN Saints beat reporter Mike Triplett reported that Cooks “simply makes one or two of the biggest plays on the practice field every day.”
In preseason action, Cooks has caught six balls for 71 yards and a touchdown, but has yet to carry the ball as a rusher. This is probably a case of Sean Payton choosing to conceal the ace in his hand. Cooks will undoubtedly get his share of touches as a rusher, and may factor on special teams, too, once the regular season begins.
The obvious comparisons here are Redskins receiver DeSean Jackson, and the Ravens’ Steve Smith of Panthers stardom. Both guys overcame their lack of size with combinations of quickness maximization, versatility, and good hands. Neither of these excellent players, however, had a future hall-of-famer throwing them the ball; Cooks has this advantage, giving him every opportunity to be all the more great.
Cooks won’t step into a No. 1 role immediately like fellow rookies Sammy Watkins and Kelvin Benjamin will in Buffalo and Carolina, respectively, but after Jimmy Graham, one has to believe that Cooks is the next option for Drew Brees in the Saints’ explosive passing attack. He has already shown a far superior skill set to that of veteran Marques Colston, and a talent like his cannot be ignored. To underuse him would be unforgiveable.
There is much hype to be justified when the Saints begin their regular season against Atlanta in a few weeks, but Cooks’ potential is endless. If the hype is any indication, he could be a serious problem for the defenses of the NFL for years to come.