WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Brandin Cooks looks out at the defense. He spots a weakness. His mind starts racing.
The way the defense is lined up, where the safeties are positioned — there are advantages to exploit. His route isn’t designed to take advantage of what he sees. He wants to tweak things. He looks at Drew Brees. Brees is looking back. The quarterback shifts his eyes and gives a signal. He sees it too. It’s time to take advantage.
“It’s good to have that,” Cooks said.
Cooks might be understating things. Developing such chemistry with Brees was one of Cooks’ primary concern this offseason. He didn’t spend a chunk of his offseason in San Diego just to enjoy the weather, though it was a benefit. That’s where Brees spent his offseason, and the sophomore receiver wanted to make sure he was around whenever Brees wanted to toss the ball around.
Getting to this point, where the two see the same things, is something Cooks felt was imperative to his development. There were times when Brees had to tell Cooks to slow down and take it easy. Cooks doesn’t want to be patient. He was forced to sit and watch last season after suffering a thumb injury that sidelined him after 10 games and 53 receptions for 550 yards. Now he’s ready to get back on the field and set a new bar for himself.
Make no mistake: Cooks isn’t looking to be a good player. He’s too hungry for that. He wants to become the kind dominant receiver that opposing defenses are forced to focus on and spend sleepless nights trying to scheme against.
“That’s why I worked so hard throughout the offseason,” Cooks said. “That’s what I’m focused on, to be able to come in and help my team and ultimately be a dominant player like that.”
There’s already one defensive mind that has gotten a look at Cooks this offseason who is thankful he won’t have to worry about the receiver when it counts.
“He’s one of those guys that if you’re not able to do anything to him on the line of scrimmage — if you can’t get your hands on him on the line of scrimmage — he’s going to create some real issues,” senior defensive assistant Dennis Allen said. “I’ve been thoroughly impressed by what I’ve seen out of Brandin Cooks. I think he’s primed to have a really good year.”
It’s not hard to peel back the layers and figure out the areas where Cooks focused on improving this offseason. Along with developing better chemistry with Brees, the wide receiver worked on getting stronger and finding ways to erase being labeled a “small receiver.” In fact, he bristled at that label earlier this week.
In an effort to do so, he spent his time studying and working with receivers who might lack some height but know how to play big. Antonio Brown, the 5-foot-10 receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, has become a mentor of sorts. And Steve Smith, a 5-foot-9 receiver for the Baltimore Ravens, is another guy Cooks has looked to for advice.
Cooks, who stands 5-foot-10, didn’t get a chance to work with Brown this offseason, but he did spend time with Smith. The two spent time watching film together, and Smith pointed out all the ways he was able to turn his height into an advantage instead of a liability.
“I picked up on the way he thought about the game and the way he used his leverage and things like that,” Cooks said.
Those are the prototypes the Saints envisioned when they traded up to draft Cooks with the 20th overall pick in the 2014 draft. There were glimmers of it last season, and Cooks seemed to be finding his groove before he broke his thumb. Now the question is if he can take the next step.
Cooks was already a well-rounded receiver last season. While he did the majority of his damage on hitches (10 receptions, 108 yards) and out-routes (six receptions for 73 yards), he was also proficient at running slants (nine receptions, 64 yards), in-routes (four receptions, 50 yards), and crossing-routes (five receptions, 60 yards).
The only area where he didn’t do a lot of damage was deep down the field (two go-routes for 71 yards, one post-route for 50 yards), which, coincidentally, Cooks said are his favorite routes to run and could be an area where his role could grow this season.
Where Cooks knows he has to get better is in his physicality, an area where Smith shines, and after the catch.
Cooks averaged only 3.2 yards after the catch per reception last season, according to Pro Football Focus, which placed him 65th in the NFL. He’s keyed in on that area by strengthening the lower half of his body and working to improve his vision on the field. If he had averaged 5.3 yards after the catch like the New York Giants’ Odell Beckham, it would have equated to more than 100 additional yards last season.
If Cooks does nothing else but improve in this area and gets his yards after catch up around that average, using his production rates from last season, he’d finish the year with 85 catches for 1,070 yards.
No one would bristle at such production, but that probably wouldn’t appease Cooks. He wants so much more. Even though he’s not afraid to say it, he doesn’t need to. It can be communicated through his actions and glances.