WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Five days into Saints training camp, first-round draft pick Brandin Cooks is starting to earn NFL respect.
It’s what occurs after making receptions like Cooks did Tuesday morning at The Greenbrier Resort, where he used speed, quickness and the ability to transition from one to the other to catch a Drew Brees pass near the sideline.
Cornerback Champ Bailey was in bump-and-run coverage, the future Hall of Famer doing all there was to be done to defend Cooks, a rookie receiver from Oregon State.
Still, it wasn’t enough.
“Man, watching his explosive ability, kind of navigating those blocks then hit a seam — if he hits a seem, he’s gone,” Brees said later.
“I think that just gives you a taste of what we have in him.”
Later, Cooks caught a bubble screen pass on the left side of the field. He then made a narrow opening in the defense look huge, the way he burst through it faster than you can say NFL Rookie of the Year candidate en route to a clear path to the end zone.
Cooks’ play, coupled with early contributions from third-year pro Nick Toon, have smoothed the offensive transition with receiver Lance Moore (released) and running back Darren Sproles (traded) off the roster. With them, the 2013 Saints enjoyed the NFL’s second-ranked passing offense (307.4 yards per game). Only Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos (340.2) were better.
Now, add Cooks.
“We’ve lined him up at X a few times, he has come inside, based on the way the formation has been called,”coach Sean Payton said. “He’s handled the install, especially for not having been here for some of the spring work.”
Brees stopped short of declaring the current offense worthy of exceeding the 2011 Saints offensive output that set a league record for total offense with 7,474 yards — Brees threw for a then-record 5,476 yards.
He did, though, allude to an expectation of plenty of scoring this fall.
“If you can score 30-plus points a game, you’re going to win a lot of football games,” Brees said.
Plugging up the middle
Middle linebackers Curtis Lofton (Atlanta) and David Hawthorne (Seattle), both 2012 free-agent acquisitions, are enjoying success in the middle of the Saints defense.
They compete against each other, often to see who will collect the most tackles. Lofton won last season with a team-high 125 tackles. Hawthorne was second with 91.
“We’re all kind of pushing each other for packages, for playing time,” Hawthorne said.
Ramon Huber are Kevin Reddick are also competing for snaps.
Their combined play helped the Saints improve against the run in 2013 and have made them one of the better tandems in the league, Payton said.
“You’ve got two fearless, smart middle linebackers,” Payton said. “To me, one of the best tandems in the league as far as athleticism and speed and just knowledge of the game.”
This offseason, the Saints drafted fourth-round pick Khairi Fortt (Penn State and Southern California), who will push Hawthorne for playing time at weakside linebacker.
“We know (defensive coordinator) Rob Ryan is real creative, and good players will play,” said Hawthorne, a seven-year pro. “No matter what you do, he’s going to find a spot for you.”
Stretching to reach roster
Undrafted free agent Seantavius Jones may not find a home this regular season on the Saints roster. There’s an influx of receivers at training camp, making the challenge of earning a job daunting.
Yet if Jones keeps making plays, like the difficult, stretched-out catch he made Tuesday morning, Jones could become the latest unheralded rookie to force the Saints to take a closer look at their depth chart.
“He’s a player that might have been drafted had he not had the injury that set him back a little bit in his final year (at Valdosta State),” Payton said.
“I like his size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds). We have a couple of those young receivers that are long and they give you a good throwing radius.”
Based on practice performances, Jones is believed to be ahead of another rookie free agent, Brandon Coleman of Rutgers (6-6, 225) But Coleman isn’t his only competition.
Jones must beat out former Southern University receiver Charles Hawkins, former Saints practice squad standout Andy Tanner and either third-year pro Nick Toon or fourth-year pro Joseph Morgan — perhaps both.
Eye on 45
Brees said he was serious last week when he said he wanted to play until age 45. As long as he can continue to take care of his body.
“I’m not delusional,” Brees said Tuesday. “I know that that’s something that would be extremely difficult to do. Not many have done that. George Blanda (age 48), but he was punting.”
Brees added that his weekend tweet that followed his “age 45” comments was all about comedy.
Two days ago, Brees wrote on Twitter about the timing of his NFL drug test.
“On Friday I said I thought I could play til age 45. I have been “randomly” selected for drug tests the last 2 days. What’s up with that! Lol”
“I was having a little bit of fun with that one,” he said. “We always joke around that it’s always after a really good game that you get drug tested. ... I was completely joking.”