The Brandin Cooks returning to the Superdome this Sunday sounds familiar.
This Cooks sounds a lot like the one who first showed up in New Orleans three years ago.
Supremely gifted and incredibly driven, Cooks has worked like a farmer in the thick of the harvest, soaked up details like a good piece of bread dipped into a bowl of soup and has already started to convince the legendary quarterback a decade and a half older than him that he has found something of a kindred spirit in his new weapon.
"I don’t think there’s many that I’ve played with that are like him," the 40-year-old Tom Brady said. "His maturity is probably what surprised me the most. For a 23-year-old athlete to be so. ... he’s just on it. Every day he shows up. He works his butt off. He wants to do extra. He wants to know what I’m thinking. He just wants to do the right thing all of the time."
Cooks lit up his first training camp in New England, the same way he starred in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, as a rookie with New Orleans three seasons ago.
Once again playing for a famous head coach who learned the trade under Bill Parcells, Cooks has inspired some of the same praise from Bill Belichick he used to get from Sean Payton.
"Brandin works extremely hard, very detail-oriented kid, practices hard, is here every day, really tries to do things exactly the way you want him to do them," Belichick said. "He’s great to coach."
And like he once did with Drew Brees, Cooks wasted little time trying to get on the same page with Brady. When he was a rookie, Cooks showed up in San Diego to train with Brees during the summer; this time he spent every available minute in training camp trying to build the same kind of rapport with Brady.
"He had a great rhythm with Brady," said wide receiver Austin Carr, who spent training camp with New England before being claimed by the Saints on waivers. "After practices, they'd throw all the time."
Monday’s performance came as a surprise.
Cooks may sound a lot like the version the Saints had for three seasons, but in reality, his circumstances have changed. For starters, he obviously wears a No. 14 jersey in blue, white and red now, rather than the black-and-gold 10 that became so popular in New Orleans.
He spent his first three offseasons in the NFL out in the San Diego area, working out with Brees, trainer Todd Durkin and the tiny band of diehards who have stuck with the Brees regimen for most of their careers.
Darren Sproles kept working out with Durkin after the Saints traded him to Philadelphia for a fifth-round pick. Chase Daniel stuck with Brees during stints in both Kansas City and Philadelphia.
For three years, Cooks seemed like one of those lifers. He even bought a house two doors down from Brees in the coastal California city of Del Mar, on the north side of San Diego.
But Cooks wasn't part of the crew this summer.
"Talked to him a little bit, but I didn't work out with him," Brees said.
Brees told the New England media that the pair are still good friends off the field, and Cooks called the legendary Saints quarterback "family," according to the Patriots' website.
Beyond Brees, Cooks hasn't completely disappeared from the Saints world. Wide receivers Michael Thomas and Brandon Coleman, among others, have heard from Cooks at times since the Saints decided to trade him and a fourth-round pick for the Patriots' first and third-rounders.
"We kept in touch, training-camp wise, checking in on each other," Coleman said.
But the Saints have been preparing for life without Cooks for a long time now, dating to the first day of free agency when New Orleans signed Ted Ginn Jr. Personal relationships aside, New Orleans has spent an entire offseason without Cooks in its plans, and although his contributions the past three seasons remain significant — and some segments of the fan base still consider the trade a mistake by the Saints — Cooks hasn't been a part of the Saints' thinking for a long time now.
“Obviously that all happened in March," Brees said. "We have been moving along with the guys that we have and feel very good about that."
The truth of the matter is, Cooks himself is hoping the Brandin Cooks who returns to the Superdome this Sunday is different from the one who last played here on Christmas Eve against Tampa Bay.
Cooks, who was not made available to Saints beat reporters this week, has repeatedly said there is no "bad blood" stemming from his time in New Orleans, but his frustration was clear at times, particularly last season.
Brimming with confidence, Cooks's ultimate goal is to be known as one of the league's elite wide receivers, joining a pantheon that currently includes Odell Beckham Jr., Julio Jones, Antonio Brown and maybe Mike Evans or A.J. Green, depending on who's doing the evaluating.
If you think you remember reading some of this last year, it's because you have.
That's the reason Cooks cited for his dissatisfaction with his role in the Saints offense after a 49-21 blowout of the Rams last season. That's the reason he told reporters "closed mouths don't get fed." During his introductory teleconference in New England, Cooks told reporters he would have liked to have enjoyed a bigger role in the Saints offense, but he was blocked by the talents of players like Michael Thomas and Willie Snead.
Whether or not Cooks gets what he wants out of this trade to New England remains to be seen. The diminutive burner caught three passes for 88 yards in the Patriots' season-opening loss to Kansas City, including the kind of 54-yard deep ball that has been his calling card in the NFL. Cooks also drew four penalties on seven total targets, making an impact despite the three catches.
His old coach sees at least one change, in alignment if not in assignment, for Cooks this season.
"He’s playing the X position (the weak side) a little bit more, and we played him at the Z (strong side)," Payton said. "I think they’re getting the ball down the field to him. He’s drawing some interference calls. I see, I don’t know the terminology, but you see him. You see his speed, and you see him working the deep post."
At times, Cooks bristled in New Orleans at the suggestion he was best utilized as a deep threat, but the Patriots appear to be tapping into the former Oregon State star's blazing speed in much the same way the Saints did, at least at first glance.
With slot receivers Julian Edelman (torn ACL) and Danny Amendola (concussion, knee) out of action, Cooks might have to do a little more, but the video Saints defenders saw of Cooks against Kansas City looked an awful lot like the highlights he piled up in New Orleans.
“He’s still running deep,” Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “I know he wanted to run a lot of routes. That’s why he was kind of mad about being here; he didn’t get the whole route tree. But now I still see him running the same routes he did when he was here."
Cooks, like a lot of other NFL stars playing in new cities, downplayed the homecoming aspect of New England's trip to New Orleans this Sunday, reiterating that there's no bad blood between him and the Saints and touting some of the friendships he built in New Orleans.
"I feel like when you get hyped up too much, you psyche yourself out," Cooks said. "I'm just looking forward to Week Two and playing some football."
If Cooks is still the same player he was in New Orleans, the Saints defense will have its hands full simply trying to keep him from blowing the game wide open like he did so many times in three years in the Superdome.
"The primary thing you have to do is, you have to be able to stay on top of him, because he is extremely fast downfield, you guys have all seen it," defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. "We have to make sure we stay on top of him in coverage, and we need to be able to disrupt him on the line of scrimmage and try to have to make him restart his feet off the line of scrimmage and throw the timing off of the route."
Only time will tell if the New England version of Cooks is different enough to make teams pay dearly even when they take his trademark away.
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