There was a play in practice last week that served as a learning moment for Brandin Cooks.
The second-year wide receiver ran a route down the field, only to see the ball delivered behind him as he cut into the middle. The initial view was that Drew Brees threw a bad pass. But when the play finished, Brees ran down the field and offered some instruction to his young receiver.
Cooks didn’t adjust properly. With the way the defense was covering him, Cooks was supposed to know to adjust for a throw to his back shoulder. Had Brees thrown the ball to where Cooks was expecting it, he would have either been led right into the defense or the ball would have arrived in an area where a defensive back could have made a play.
“Him throwing that ball like that was telling me, ‘Hey, if something is going on the inside, I’m putting it behind you,’ ” Cooks said.
Cooks has been tabbed as a potential star in this offense, given how he performed during the offseason and the offseason moves that led tight end Jimmy Graham and wide receiver Kenny Stills out of town. However, even after spending a year in the offense, he’s still learning some of the finer nuances of the offense and figuring out how to best operate with Brees.
One thing he’s been working to improve is how quickly he runs his routes. Many offenses and plays aren’t designed for players who timed out at 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash. So, when he runs full speed, Cooks is sometimes well into his break and sprinting into coverage before Brees reaches him in his progressions.
What Cooks has discovered is that he needs to slow down at times to speed up his production.
“That’s an area I have to understand,” Cooks said. “Everything can’t be 100 mph. I’m learning that. We have a coach that is helping me with that.”
The other development that will help take the Brees-Cooks connection to the next level is when they start consistently hitting on back-shoulder passes. The throw has long been a strength of the offense, and is one of the chief reasons why it is often said Brees can throw his receivers open.
Three of New Orleans’ touchdowns in the red zone last season came on back-shoulder throws. Graham caught two on out routes against Carolina and Atlanta, and Marques Colston caught one against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Brees did not throw many to Cooks last season in any area of the field on anything other than go routes.
The level of difficulty associated with completing those passes depends on who you ask. For a quarterback, coach Sean Payton does not believe it is difficult for a quarterback to throw and often grades out well for the signal-caller.
“I think the more difficult throw is the ball traveling down the field, hitting the receiver in stride, behind the coverage,” Payton said.
From a receiver’s standpoint, it seems like one of the hardest passes to throw.
“That’s one of the hardest balls to throw,” Cooks said. “When you got someone throwing full speed and then he has to hit you on that back shoulder, you have to slow down. “(Brees) is great at it, though.”
From the quarterback’s perspective, it’s all about chemistry. The throw isn’t hard to make. It’s essentially aimed at the back of the helmet or the shoulder.
The receiver has to be on the same page as the quarterback for it to work. He has to understand how to adjust based on the leverage the defensive back is playing with or how he’s being covered. If he doesn’t read things the same way as the quarterback, the result is typically an incompletion.
“All of those things you have to work on,” Brees said. “All of those things you need time on task so you understand timing and feel.”
Defensive backs simply view it as one of the hardest aspects of their job.
“If it’s thrown right, and the receiver’s good, it’s unguardable,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “You can’t beat it. It’s one of the tougher ones. It’s also tough for the quarterbacks. Some quarterbacks can’t bead it.”
So how is it stopped?
“You have to be dialed in on that specific play,” cornerback Brandon Browner said. “There’s telltale signs on that play. The receiver’s eyes, body language, things like that. You got to be dialed in.”
The good news for the Saints offense is that their players check all the boxes. Brees is one of the quarterbacks who can throw the pass. Cooks is a quality receiver. And, after spending time together in San Diego this offseason, as well as playing together throughout the summer, Brees and Cooks should have plenty of time together.
Once they get the last of the wrinkles ironed out in practice, these two will have another way to make sure cornerbacks are constantly dialed in. If not, they’ll burn defenses while they’re trying to work through busy signals.