Brandin Cooks has been saddled with a heavy weight of expectation this offseason, by media and fans alike.
In the wake of trades that sent Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills away, Cooks, coming off of a promising rookie year cut short by injury, has become the assumed heir to the role of the New Orleans Saints’ No. 1 receiver.
Two preseason games into his second season, Cooks has looked every bit the part of a bona fide No. 1 target. Working with Drew Brees for the first time Saturday night, Cooks caught four passes for 117 yards and a touchdown against the New England Patriots, showcasing the brilliant potential that has led to so many bold predictions.
“That injury — like I’ve said multiple times, that made me more hungry,” Cooks said. “This offseason was a hard offseason. I worked my tail off to get back and be able to shock the world. That’s the ultimate plan.”
The broken thumb that ended Cooks’ rookie season left him champing at the bit to get back to work.
Almost as soon as the regular season ended, Cooks started calling Brees, begging him to start throwing. Both players spend portions of their offseason in San Diego.
“It was frustrating, because I didn’t finish the season, so I was ready to work out, and he’d just finished it,” Cooks said. “I was trying to be patient, but I was ready to get back out there.”
Once Brees took a little time to recuperate from the grind of the regular season, the quarterback and his budding target started working on a throw the two didn’t hit often enough last year.
The deep ball.
Cooks is arguably the fastest player on the New Orleans roster. The 4.33 seconds he posted in the 40 at the 2014 NFL Combine instantly conjures visions of high, arcing deep balls, hapless defenders left chasing in the wake.
But Brees and Cooks had a little trouble developing their deep-ball chemistry during the 10 games Cooks played as a rookie. Despite all that speed, Cooks averaged just 10.4 yards per catch.
“Just cause you’re fast doesn’t mean you’re a great deep-ball runner,” Brees said. “As a player, there’s ways that you set it up, ways that you can get it going for later in the game.”
From the looks of the preseason, Cooks is ready to start using his speed as an advantage in the deep game. Against Baltimore last week, Cooks blew past two Ravens defensive backs for what would have been a 45-yard touchdown from Luke McCown if Cooks hadn’t stepped out of bounds during the fight.
Cooks made no such mistake Saturday night. Late in the first quarter, he blew past veteran New England cornerback Devin McCourty and turned on the jets, beating the angle of Patriots safety Duron Harmon for a 45-yard touchdown strike from Brees.
Given another opportunity against experienced corner Logan Ryan in the second quarter, Cooks once again got free, outrunning Ryan for a 36-yard gain off of the arm of McCown.
“You might think the deep ball is an easy ball to catch, but there’s a real technique, especially him feeling my speed, feeling where to put the ball,” Brees said. “So him putting it where it needs to be and me tracking it.”
Cooks has also been dangerous on short routes, taking a screen from McCown to the house for a 28-yard touchdown against Baltimore, and following that up by picking up two 18-yard gains from Brees for first downs Saturday night.
Obviously, it’s still early. Cooks’ second season is in its infancy, two preseason games into a long march.
“That’s my game,” Cooks said. “I have to prove to the team I can do that, and by doing that, you prove it. ... I have to work at it and continue to build, because it’s just a start right now.”
But Cooks looks like he’s ready to live up to the lofty expectations everybody handed him this offseason.