WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Opposing cornerbacks can find themselves trapped in a quandary when they step to the line and find Brandin Cooks lined up across from them.
You can try to press Cooks, but if he beats you off the line or dodges a jam, he has the speed to turn a whiff into a big play. You can try to play off of him, providing a cushion at the line to account for his speed, but he’s shifty enough to change directions and leave a cornerback exposed.
“You just got to play him the best way you can,” New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler said, noting that Cooks might the fastest guy he’s covered. “You got to mix it up. He’s a quick guy, fast. He can do it all.”
Butler wasn’t tasked with being the primary man in coverage on Cooks this week. The two only matched up a few times and on Thursday it was a split decision. On one play, Cooks smoked Butler off the line and got open down the field, but quarterback Drew Brees never saw him. On another play, Brees was looking to go to Cooks, but the receiver was unable to shake open as Butler blanketed him near the goal line.
It was strong battle between the two, but it was Devin McCourty, a listed safety who spent the last two days playing cornerback, who matched up with Cooks. He quickly found out what Cooks was made of as he beat McCourty several times. All told, the receiver worked his way open five times and made four catches in team drills over a pair of practices.
The strong performances brought a close to the first portion of training camp, which was held in West Virginia. Despite missing some time with an injury, Cooks caught 16 passes on 21 targets during his time here. Willie Snead, who did not miss any time, leads the Saints with 22 catches during team drills. Marques Colston and Brandon Coleman also have 16 receptions.
For Cooks, who is trying to build upon a strong rookie season that was cut short by a thumb injury, practicing against the Patriots in advance of Saturday’s game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome was a good way to measure where he is with the start of the season looming. It was also valuable for him to get a look against corners who were not playing press coverage, which was a change of pace from what he’s been seeing in practices.
“It was such a great thing to get a team to come in here and practice,” Cooks said. “When you’re going against the same guy every day, if you’re a smart player, you should pick up on their tendencies, you should pick up on what they do.”
Cooks caught the attention of someone who was already familiar with what he could do during Thursday’s practice. Former Patriots great Randy Moss, who was in attendance during the session, worked with Cooks this offseason in Charlotte, North Carolina, and walked away from the practice impressed with how the second-year receiver performed.
Cooks has created a network of mentors of sorts for himself. He often talks with Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown and also worked with Baltimore’s Steve Smith this offseason.
Moss said he believes the level of dedication and the opportunity that now exists without Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills in the offense have Cooks primed for a big season.
“He’s a good receiver,” Moss said. “I’m not going to call him great. But the sky’s the limit.
“He’s in a great offense. He’s got a great quarterback in Drew Brees. The sky’s the limit for whatever he wants to do in this offense, and I think Sean Payton’s going to put him in a position to make plays.”
That was true during the first preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens. Cooks flashed some game-breaking ability when he caught a caught a screen pass and followed blocks from Terron Armstead, Max Unger and Josh Morgan on his way to a 28-yard touchdown. Earlier in the game, he would have had another big reception but he stepped out of bounds on his way to making a 36-yard reception.
But it’s not just Moss expecting big things from Cooks. His teammates are expecting the same.
“He came in here pretty polished,” Colston said. “He’s just a guy that wants to do everything perfectly, every route. I think it’s just going to pay dividends down the road.”
As the Patriots can attest, it also helps that Cooks is really fast and knows how to control his body. Butler couldn’t see all the work and dedication Cooks put into honing his craft during the offseason. He just saw the results this week. And there times he was blown away.
“He just runs past you and stops on a dime,” Butler said, noting in another interview that he’s never seen someone change direction as fast as Cooks.
If things go to plan, there will be no stopping this season for Cooks. He’s worked too hard to let that happen.