Despite a close relationship with the Saints that dates back more than a decade, Oregon State coach Mike Riley was nothing more than an interested spectator Thursday night when the first round of the NFL draft unfolded.
Most mock drafts had OSU wide receiver Brandin Cooks, the second-fastest player at the combine workouts in February, going to the New York Jets or Philadelphia Eagles.
After the Jets passed on Cooks at No. 18, the Saints executed a trade with the Arizona Cardinals to move up seven spots and grab him with the 20th selection — just two spots before the Eagles picked.
Cooks will join former Oregon State stars Keenan Lewis and Victor Butler on the roster in New Orleans, where Riley served as assistant head coach and secondary coach in 2002 under Jim Haslett. He remains friends with General Manager Mickey Loomis and current coach Sean Payton.
Almost 24 hours later, despite the perception he might have had a hand in it, Riley downplayed his ties to the Saints in choosing Cooks. But he wasn’t exactly hiding the fact that he was overjoyed with the selection, simply because Cooks will soon be catching passes from Drew Brees on plays called in to him by Payton.
“I’ve studied a bunch of Sean’s offense on film,” Riley said by phone Friday afternoon. “I’ve loved studying the Saints and what they do (on offense). I’ve watched what they’ve done with different players.
“Sean is great at using the personnel he has,” he added. “We have downright copied some of their stuff off film, and I’m sure Sean will find good ways to get Brandin the ball.”
That’s exactly what the Saints had in mind when they sent their third-round pick to the Cardinals to get ahead of the Eagles and nab Cooks, the Biletnikoff Award last fall as the nation’s top receiver when he had 128 receptions for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns.
After deciding to turn pro even though he won’t turn 21 until three games into the regular season, Cooks’ 4.33-second speed in the 40 at the combine turned a lot of heads.
Which is one of the reasons why, Riley explained, he didn’t have to give Saints brass a glowing report on Cooks although it was obvious he was prepared to do so.
The Saints identified Cooks as a player they liked and did what they normally do, he said.
“Frankly, on this one in particular, they know our program and they kind of know what we do and know us as people — which is kind of neat,” said Riley, who drafted Brees as the San Diego Chargers’ head coach from 1999 to 2001. “Like Mickey and Sean always do, they did their homework. I really can’t take any more credit than supplying some information and having the great fortune of coaching the young man.”
That, he noted, tells you what kind of player the Saints are getting.
“I think Brandin Cooks is an easy read,” Riley said. “You watch the film, and I know they interviewed him and did their due diligence in studying him. They did their homework and got a really good player and a very, very good person to go with it.”
Riley said he got word from several teams that the personable Cooks was the top interview among the more than 300 players invited to the combine, where they’re thoroughly grilled by front office personnel, coaches and scouts.
“That didn’t surprise me at all. … He’s a very impressive young man, he’s a good guy, he’s bright and articulate, a good teammate,” he said. “I think he’ll immediately be a very good pro, and I mean that in every sense of the word. Brandin will be a guy they never have to worry about. He’ll always be on time for work and always do the right thing. He’ll be an extra hard worker, and I know he’ll be in Drew’s hip pocket learning everything he can.”
Riley said Saints fans will be excited about what Cooks, who can return kicks, will do for Payton’s offense in trying to replicate the speed Darren Sproles brought to the team the past three seasons.
“This will sound oversimplistic, but we just wanted to get him the ball — whether it was on a hitch, a screen pass or a reverse,” he said. “He can run and he can stretch the defense.
“When he has the ball in his hands, that’s when he’s fun. He’s a competitor and, when he gets on that field, he’ll fight for you. Sean will love that about him.”