WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — At first glance, it seems Saints rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks won’t touch the ball as much as he did in his final year at Oregon State.
He caught 128 passes and took 32 handoffs for a combined 1,947 yards and 18 touchdowns in 13 games, numbers that plainly explain why the Saints moved up seven spots to nab him in the first round of the draft in May.
Surely he can’t rival those statistics on a team whose primary pass-catcher is All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham (leader of the Saints with 1,215 receiving yards and the NFL with 16 touchdown catches last year) — can he?
One: That doesn’t matter, Cooks and his offensive coordinator said after training camp practice Tuesday at The Greenbrier resort.
Two: History shows Graham and a player with qualities similar to Cooks’ can co-exist and yield yards at mind-boggling paces.
That’s why it rang true when Cooks on Tuesday said, “It’s not going to be difficult to adjust” to splitting touches with a player like Graham in New Orleans.
Cooks alluded to the fact that he had only 98 catches and 29 rushes for eight touchdowns and 1,665 yards from scrimmage in his first two years at Corvallis, Oregon.
That was the result of an offensive philosophy that’s been a staple with the Saints ever since coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in New Orleans in 2006.
“The concepts at Oregon State were pretty similar to this offense: Spread the ball around to different receivers,” said Cooks, who’s virtually a lock to join veteran Marques Colston and second-year man Kenny Stills as one of the Saints’ top three receivers in 2014. “I am just here to help win — doesn’t matter how many balls I get.”
Had he heard those words, Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael would’ve smiled.
“The number that matters are wins and losses,” Carmichael said when asked whether Graham’s status as Brees’ favorite target might limit the production Cooks might be used to having.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re getting production through the air, production through the ground — whatever it takes to win a game.”
However, if anyone can figure a way for Cooks and Graham to endanger records simultaneously, it’s the Saints, who play their preseason opener at St. Louis on Friday. Remember 2011.
That year, Graham set a franchise record with 99 catches and a career high with 1,310 yards (also a club mark for tight ends). Meanwhile, former Saints running back Darren Sproles established an NFL record for all-purpose yards with 2,696 — 603 of which were from rushing, 710 of which were receiving, 294 of which were after fielding punts and 1,089 of which were from kickoff returns.
As they said they would upon drafting him, the Saints have gotten a good look at Cooks in various phases. And he’s responded early to the expectation that he could manufacture yardage in a manner that was at least similar to how Sproles did.
Cooks has looked smooth fielding punts. Decked out in his No. 10 jersey, he’s looked confident returning kickoffs in drills.
And he’s shown an ability to turn short plays into kilometric ones, already flashing the potential to surpass Sproles in this respect.
There was the bubble screen he turned up field for a score of about 50 yards, a play in which not one defender laid a finger on him. Then, Cooks sent the 4,200 spectators at Saturday’s intrasquad scrimmage into hysterics when he caught a pass on the right sideline, cut inside and around diving cornerback Rod Sweeting, and again sprinted in untouched for a score.
“It’s awesome — a five-yard out he’s able to take to the house,” said backup quarterback Ryan Griffin, who’s been intermittently under center on the first string with Brees sidelined by an oblique injury suffered Friday.
Also at the scrimmage, displaying another facet of his talent, Cooks slipped behind veteran cornerback Patrick Robinson and made a twisting catch off a 40-yard pass to set up a score from the 2. The distance approached Sproles’ longest reception in New Orleans: 48 yards.
All of which is to say Cooks is apparently well-equipped to be devastating, even if Graham maintains the form that’s allowed him to lead the NFL in touchdown grabs (36) and league tight ends in catches (270) as well as receiving yards (3,507) since 2011.
That much was immediately obvious to Graham himself, who was separated from the Saints until training camp while negotiating a four-year, $40 million contract extension this offseason.
“I saw No. 10 over there jump up and snatch the ball over somebody’s head, (and) I said, ‘Who is that?’” Graham said. “And everybody said, ‘That’s our first-round draft pick.’ There’s a reason (he was taken No. 1).”