Once the land of opportunity for receivers around the league, those who split out wide in New Orleans haven’t exactly been prospering this season.
Last week’s 24-23 loss to the Lions was the second time a wide receiver has reached 100 yards, with Kenny Stills and Marques Colston both eclipsing the mark, but the first five weeks of the season saw the tight ends and running backs pick up a good portion of the receiving yards.
But with tight end Jimmy Graham limited with a shoulder injury last week that could linger and create opportunities for others, and running back Pierre Thomas expected to miss time with his own set of ailments, the wide receivers could come back in en vogue and be asked to carry the passing offense for the next few weeks.
That means there’s an opportunity for players to become further established, prove their worth to Brees and coach Sean Payton, and be firmly in the circle of trust when Graham is ready to reclaim his spot as the focal point of the passing offense.
And the person many would like to see take advantage of this possible opportunity is rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks, a first-round pick out of Oregon State.
“Yes, he is a rookie and yes, we had limited time together,” Brees said. “Yet he is so sharp in being able to pick things up and we use him in a lot of different ways.”
It’s been difficult to gauge Cooks through the first six weeks of the season. There have been moments when he has shined, but there have also been weeks where he has become a somewhat forgotten component of the offense.
Operating through various roles, through six weeks he has caught 34 passes for 278 yards and logged five carries for another 64 yards. His current rate puts him on pace to finish with 912 yards, not counting his contributions on special teams.
But given the hype Cooks generated in training camp by standing out on a daily basis and the fact that he’s only generated 110 receiving yards in the past three contests, some feel his numbers are underwhelming. It likely doesn’t help that it seems Cooks and the Saints are trying to figure out how he best fits within the offense.
Is he better served operating out of a package of plays where he essentially becomes a scat back, running reverses and catching screen passes, or should he be used as a more standard receiver? It would be best if he can excel at both roles, but there’s no question the various jobs put a lot on Cooks’ plate.
He isn’t simply learning the route tree and running the same routes as the other receivers. He also has to know the set of plays that, at least to this point, have only featured him, such as the fake reverse the Saints that turned into a screen pass against Tampa Bay in Week 5. But Cooks said his multifaceted role isn’t as arduous as it might appear to an outside observer.
“You just have to learn the playbook and study everything that pertains to you and have a good grasp of it so when it’s called up you know what you’re doing,” Cooks said. “I feel like we all study a whole lot and study different positions because you never know (what’s going to happen).”
While Cooks might be unimpressed with his ability to digest so much information, his ability to quickly conquer so many things is far more impressive to others.
“He continues to amaze me with his ability to compartmentalize those things and go out and execute it,” Brees said. “If he makes a mistake, it only happens once. He corrects it very quickly. I’ve been impressed with that.”
This has helped Cooks develop a quick bond with Brees that might take others more time to develop.
It was clear during training camp, when the two could often be spotted chatting to one another on the field, that the rookie was already pushing his way into Brees’ circle of trust, and it’s not uncommon to see the quarterback giving the rookie pointers during practices.
The conversations always appear patient and Brees’ approach has helped Cooks feel comfortable within the offense. Cooks has no doubt earned at least some of Brees’ trust and says he’s done so by always “doing the right thing making the right decisions” on the field, both in practices and games.
The relationship between the two players has already developed to the point where Cooks can go back to the huddle, tell Brees what he’s seeing, and come up with a plan to best exploit the coverage.
“I’ll go back to Drew and ask him, ‘Hey, they’re playing me like this. How would you like me to run this particular route?’ ” Cooks said. “That’s what it’s all about. ‘Where do you want me to be, where are you thinking I’m going to be when I see a look I haven’t seen before or it’s unusual?’”
But has Cooks reached a point where he can tell Brees how he wants to attack a defense?
“I keep my distance right now,” Cooks said. “I’m still a rookie. I trust them on what they want from me.”
That’s probably the smart move. And if Cooks continues to be smart, it shouldn’t be long before his production matches the training-camp hype.