Drew Brees scoffed at the notion.
Those outside of the locker room and team meetings expect the Saints offense to change now that Brandin Cooks will miss the rest the season. He’s a unique talent who can do unique things. But those in practices and the meeting rooms do not see it as an issue.
It’s a next-man-up world, and they fully expect the next man or men to be able to fill the gaps that were created when Cooks was placed on injured reserve earlier this week with a broken thumb.
“No, I think everything pretty much stays the same. Seriously,” Brees said. “Guys just maybe switch around maybe in some places. Each guy has a pretty unique skill set, and obviously you try to game-plan for what those skill sets are and put them in the best position to succeed. If Cooks isn’t doing it, someone is getting that opportunity.”
There will be opportunities. Cooks ranked second on the team in receptions (53) and yards (550) behind tight end Jimmy Graham, and he provided a unique element to the offense in that he also took seven handoffs. The next man on that list is receiver Marques Colston, who ranks third in receptions (34) and yards (536).
That leaves a void in this offense, and Cooks’ injury was a disappointing development because he was beginning to emerge as a deep threat.
“Are we going miss him? Yeah,” Brees said. Is he a great player? Was he really kind of coming into his own? Yes. It’s unfortunate that he had the injury he had and is going to be out for a while. I’m excited about the opportunity this now poses for these young guys, and I feel like they’re going to do a good job.”
Replacing Cooks is going to take a concerted effort. Colston and Kenny Stills likely will see an uptick in production, and some of those “younger guys” — such as Joe Morgan and Nick Toon — could be given an opportunity to slide into larger roles after spending most of the first half of the season on the shelf.
One of the concerns that was posed to the Saints on Thursday was whether taking Cooks out of the offense will make them more predictable and allow defenses to further focus on players like Graham because a weapon was being removed from the offense.
The Saints are not concerned about defenses paying more attention to their tight end. Teams already do that.
“I think some of that might be more third down specific than it would be in the base defense,” coach Sean Payton said. “When you get teams playing man, maybe a double (team) somewhere, I think to (Graham’s) credit he’s been seeing that already. We’ll keep looking at the matchups and how do we get him open regardless of coverage.”
As far as being more predictable without Cooks, Brees said the offense is designed to never appear vanilla.
“We mix it up so much. We mix up personnel groupings and formations and guys inside, guys outside,” Brees said. “Guys are aligned everywhere, so it’s not like in some offense when some guys are always left and always right — you just know where they’re going to be at all times. I feel like we change it up for that reason — so that people can’t game-plan us like that.”
That’s only one aspect of replacing Cooks that the Saints are dealing with. The other is finding a player who is capable of returning punts.
Cooks returned 10 punts for only 35 yards. From a pure numbers standpoint, he will not be difficult to replace, but the Saints have maintained the issue in this phase of the game has been with the blocking more than the returner.
Payton said Thursday that running back Travaris Cadet, Stills and newly signed wide receiver Jalen Saunders, who returned 20 punts for 308 yards as a senior at Oklahoma last season and was signed earlier this week, will be given the opportunity to audition for the job.
Payton said he evaluated Saunders, who was selected in the fourth round by the Jets and also spent time with Arizona before being signed by the Saints off Seattle’s practice squad, before the draft and that his ability to return punts was once of the first things to catch his eye. The coach believes Saunders should be able to quickly get up to speed in that regard.
“The key is making sure that he’s got an idea of what we’re doing with each return and how he’s fielding the punts,” Payton said. “We’ll probably take those guys to the dome one time this week to make sure they’re good with catching it inside.”
Inside or outside, the Saints have some jostling to do this week if they hope to fill all the holes.
“It falls on — and this has happened to us before with regards to a number of different players — it falls on the rest of the group in picking up his touches,” Payton said. “It’s the receivers, the running backs — the candidates that would be doing the same thing.”