WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Brandin Cooks has long been assumed to be a star in the making, a potential No. 1 receiver essentially from the moment he stepped onto the field for the New Orleans Saints.
Three days into his second training camp, Cooks has looked every bit the part, providing plenty of confidence that he has put an uneven rookie season, cut short by injury, behind him and prepared to assume the role of bell cow in coach Sean Payton’s prolific passing offense.
The task won’t be easy. Now that Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills are gone, the question swirling around Saints training camp is: “Who can take pressure off Cooks and reliable veteran Marques Colston?” The rest of the New Orleans receiving corps is relatively unknown and untested, tempting defenses to focus all of their attention on the second-year burner.
Cooks thinks the Saints’ receivers would make that strategy a mistake.
“If they do, they’re just going to get hit somewhere else,” he said.
A team that has a history of turning relatively unknown receivers into stars has created a deep, crowded pool of applicants to be next in line.
Everybody seems to have a highlight, from top contenders like Nick Toon and Joe Morgan — both of whom have been on the receiving ends of beautiful deep balls from Drew Brees — to supposed long shots like Willie Snead and Lance Lewis, who have strung together a series of highlight plays while working mostly with Brees’ backups early in camp.
Out of that group, though, one receiver has stood out above the rest, and it only has a little to do with his 6-foot-6 frame.
Brandon Coleman, an undrafted free agent from Rutgers who spent most of last season on the Saints’ practice squad, has been the most prolific receiver on the field not named Cooks, using his 225-pound body to create separation and make catches over the middle.
Always a sizable presence, Coleman appears to have regained the quickness lost after he suffered a torn meniscus his senior season at Rutgers.
“He is definitely in the hunt,” Payton said. “I’ve made comparisons to Marques, maybe his rookie year, but I think Brandon is doing a real good job. He is stronger now. He is healthy. When we got him, he was coming off a rehab from his knee. You can see the strength in his lower body when it comes to the breaks he is making and the cuts he is making.”
Toon, a former fourth-round pick who finally offered some production with 17 catches for 215 yards down the stretch last season, also has been solid, both as a deep threat and a possession receiver. Toon, the most experienced of the players fighting for the No. 3 role, could have rested on that experience, but he knew how tight the competition would be.
“It’s one of those things that, whether you’re an undrafted free agent or the first pick in the draft, you can never get complacent in this field,” he said. “There’s always someone coming in, looking to compete for your job. Complacency will cut your career short.”
Even though there’s plenty of competition and uncertainty surrounding the competition, the Saints still feel like there’s some security for Brees at receiver.
Bringing back Colston helps. The veteran has been strictly limited to position drills since coming back from injury, but the Saints know they can count on him.
“The thing that is understated with him is, each game, you know exactly what you are getting,” Payton said. “There is a value in that — a strong value in that.”
The Saints think they know what they’re getting from Cooks, too. Despite the injury and a few rookie hiccups, Cooks still caught 53 passes for 550 yards and three touchdowns last season, offering glimpses of what he might become.
Cooks wants to reach that potential this season and lead a new crop of receivers to the same success the Saints passing game has always had with Brees and Payton at the helm.
“No doubt about it,” Cooks said. “That’s why I worked so hard throughout the offseason. That’s what I’m focused on: to be able to come on and help my team and be a dominant player.”